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Replacing exotic ingredients–or doing without | New World Seeds & Tubers

Last Saturday’s breakfast was pineapple-pecan pancakes.

That’s not typical of weekend breakfasts at our house; that’s more like weekday fare. Unfortunately I was up late last night doing chores and was too tired to get up early enough to make something better.

Unfortunately, pecans are hard to ripen here, though I’m giving it a shot. Walnuts, chestnuts, and hazelnuts are better suited for the climate, and I’m growing those too. I’ve got both black and “English” walnuts, a few hybrid hazelnuts, and a variety of hybrid chestnuts, thanks in part to the generosity of a correspondent near Sacramento who just happens to be an expert on chestnut trees!

Yes, I know the nut trees aren’t going to be bearing any time soon. “The best time to plant fruit and nut trees is 20 years ago. The next best time is NOW” (old saying).

Pineapple is more of a longshot. I’m aware the gardeners for European aristocrats grew first oranges then eventually pineapple in hothouses for their bosses, but I can’t afford a heated greenhouse.

It’s not that the other ingredients were home-grown; in fact there are reasons for division-of-labor. It’s more a matter that they could have been.

Virtually all cookbooks I have ever seen ostensibly about using home-grown produce include mostly store-bought and exotic ingredients, with just a few nods to the back-yard tomatoes and basil!

There are quite a few exotic ingredients in our pantry. Here’s a short list of ones we use in large amounts:

  • Bananas
  • Black pepper
  • Chocolate
  • Cinnamon
  • Ginger
  • Lemons
  • Mangoes
  • Nutmeg
  • Oranges
  • Pineapple
  • Sugar
  • Vanilla

Black pepper is tricky. It can actually be grown as a freeze-back in the sunbelt states but not as far north as I am. I am aware of substitutes but they tend to be just as tropical. Capsicum (“red peppers”–not to be confused with red peppercorns) can be grown as annuals, though there is some cutoff as to just how far north. They’re pretty marginal here though I can grow some of the small-fruited, half-wild types that are fairly vigorous despite the latitude.

We’ve cut down on chocolate quite a bit since the price started rising steeply a few years back. Now the situation is worse with production having plunged due to civil war in Côte d’Ivoire.

I’m currently investigating a substitute for Cinnamon. I’ll write a dedicated post about it if it turns out to be viable.

Vanilla is a hard one because there is such a strong association between baked goods and the smell of vanilla. I’ve found several references suggesting using maple syrup or almond extract. The latter comes from bitter almonds which most people are unlikely to grow.

Ginger is tantalizing for being only marginally tropical. You can grow it and dig it before winter hits if you have a long and warm enough growing season to work with. One of my ideas is to cross it to Zingiber myoga which grows at cooler temps and is cold-hardy to about USDA z7; it’s vigorous to the point of being almost weedy in my climate. As far as I am aware, the only part of Zingiber myoga that is eaten are the blossoms (I think the Japanese make tempura out of them). I’ve never taken a good look at the rhizomes, mostly because like other Gingers they resent being disturbed unless actively growing (the rhizomes sometimes rot if damaged while dormant).

Citrus is a challenge. I actually have a cold-hardy (well, sort of) Citrus in my back-yard, a hybrid between an Ichang and a Taiwania “Lemon”, but it might be a challenge getting the fruit to ripen. A better bet would be to grow lemon-scented herbs like Lemon Verbena and Lemon Balm. Some Thymes are also vaguely citrusy, as are many “Geraniums” (Pelargoniums), but Pelargoniums are no hardier than Citrus.

I think we can pretty much forget about Mangoes, Nutmeg, and Pineapple.

Sugar is an interesting item on several counts. On the one hand, it CAN be produced outside of the tropics, for example using sugar beets. Sugar beets are not the easiest crop to grow: they make a small rosette of leaves that does not deal well with weed pressure, AND they are deer magnets. They also work best if you have a long, coolish growing season so that they can build up sugar as long as possible.

Crystalline sugar is tricky to make, but I’m not sure why you’d want to; it’s too refined. I’d rather have the vitamins and minerals. The question in my mind is how hard it would be to simply make beet syrup such as is made in Germany and Scandinavia.

Tim Peters suggests syrup sorghum if your climate is warm enough, and Tom Kleffman suggests tapping Maples including species other than the Sugar Maple. Our ubiquitous Bigleaf Maple produces sap with 1/3 the sugar content of that of Sugar Maple, so it can be done if you have more fuel to evaporate off more water.

On the other hand, I’ve been interested in cutting down on sugar consumption anyway. One trick I know, that my Scandinavian ancestors used, is to stud sweet bread-rolls with Fennel seed and raisins. Fennel seed and Anise are naturally sweet. Angelica seed might work too (not sure–but I have some to try).

I don’t particularly care for foods that are sweet through-and-through anyway. I typically cut the sugar from American recipes, finding them too sweet anyway. For pumpkin pie, I typically use only 1/4 cup sugar and 1TBSP molasses. Fruit pies I think should balance to be noticeably on the tart side.

You can also add 1/4 part Angelica to Rhubarb pie, to cut the amount of sugar required to sweeten it. Another herb used as a non-sugar sweetener is Sweet Cicely.

I’ve grown Stevia a few times, but in my cold, wet winters (well, compared to those in its native Paraguay) it is prone to rotting especially in La Niña years. It’s not long-lived anyway. Hard to reproduce by seed because it often doesn’t produce any, but seed is available and I would guess seed-grown plants probably more fertile.

I have, however, made a pretty good “herbal lemonade” using back-yard grown Stevia and Lemon Verbena. It’s not tangy like real lemonade but smells quite good. And…it’s GREEN. Makes a good herbal smoothy for backyard parties. One of these days I’ll try to remember to make a post about herbal smoothies.

Yet another non-sugar sweet crop is Yacon, which is why I’m interested in it despite several challenges it poses.

What do you think? Do you have ideas for home-grown substitutes for exotic ingredients? How about the “eat local” crowd? Ideas? Comments?


16 Responses to “Replacing exotic ingredients–or doing without”

  1. There’s an interesting note in the PFAF database that the dried leaves of clover (red and white, perhaps others) can be used to add a note of vanilla to baked goods. I will be very interested to hear about your success with the cinnamon substitute.

    • That’s very interesting about clover. I always thought clovers could be useful as food.

      If the cinnamon substitute works out, I’ll dedicate a post to it. Spice plants that tolerate temperate climates are rare though there are a few. Some used to be more commonly used before being supplanted by tropical imports…but now that food prices are rising and supplies are tight on some items it’s worth gleaning old references for ideas.

      “Replacing” was probably not quite the right word. There could be whole new–or old!–flavors we’re neglecting in favor of tropical imports.

      Hey, I just visited your website. You must be a natural at this sort of thing!

  2. The easiest sugar substitute is honey! It’s much better for you than sugar – and helps your garden too. We forget that everyone used to have a hive in their backyard.
    I completely agree with less sweet being better. Super sweet from hfcs is almost nauseating.
    I grow ginger and turmeric from grocery store rhizomes. Fresh of both is considered a delicacy and tastes unbelievably better. Very easy, just bring them in for the winter. More attractive plants than most houseplants. I’ve been wondering about cardamom since it’s also a ginger. Getting fresh seeds seems to be the tricky part.
    I also grow my own lemons and limes in pots. Look at photos of Italy – those century old potted citrus produce tons of fruit per plant. And they bring them inside in the winter too (at least in the north.)
    Also, little pepper plants like fish peppers and Thai chilies will keep producing inside all winter. Fresh peppers in January!

  3. The Avens family, Geum, could be worth looking at as the roots are aromatic and the two commonest wild members of the family here, Water Avens (G. rivale) and Herb Bennett (G. urbanum) have been used as cinnamon and chocolate substitutes (perhaps the other way round as they were apparently used before Europe “discovered” these exotics… I have been meaning to seriously try both and a few other Geums I’m growing, but have only got as far as the roots. I’m also growing garden cultivars of both including white flowered Water Avens and variegated Herb Bennett (if you’re in to edimentals…). Cinnamon is in itself a good sugar subsitute often used by diabetics, once one has been weened off the extreme doses of sugar we are used to…

    • Ah, you’re another good one for this kind of information. Do you have this all documented somewhere? I don’t want to duplicate PFAF, but I do want some organized documentation of my own.

      The only Geum I’m familiar with is G. chilensis, which is a common garden flower here. But in looking it up I find Chilean websites claiming that it is medicinal.

      I’ll look up those other two and see if I can find sources of them.

      I’ve always appreciated edible plants that are also attractive, but now you and others have me thinking the other way too: what ornamental plants have uses I never realized?

      For example the bark of the lovely Calycanthus is one possible source of a cinnamon-allspice substitute. Who would have thought?

      Now I’m wondering about ornamental Hibiscus as a potential source of leafy vegetable. One of the more tender-leaved, and hairless, types. How about the blossoms too as a source of color and texture for smoothies–as is done with other species to make “liquados”?

      BTW, I have several species of Tropaeolum now above and beyond T. tuberosum. They are smaller-bulbed (but also cold-hardier) than their domesticated cousin, and to be honest I’m not too keen on ingesting something that probably contains testosterone antagonists, but someone else pointed out the seeds could be pepper substitutes.

  4. black pepper – nasturtium (roast the seeds) – peppery-ish
    black pepper – Vitex agnus-castus – This one is virtually indistinguishable from pepper.
    Lemons – Meyer lemon
    Sugar – honey although this takes a bit of testing. Because of it’s distinct and strong taste, it doesn’t always work. In preserves, it definitely takes some finesse since the water content and taste of the honey can vary if you keep your own bees. I’ve recently tried a tsp of honey with a tsp of our own apple cider vinegar in 8 oz of water. It has a subtle, lemonade-ish taste that is definitely refreshing, not to mention healthful. If you can’t make your own ACV, opt for an organic ACV. The taste is far better than the pasteurized supermarket stuff.

    • Thank you for the comments. We appreciate hearing from you.

      I’ve heard of Vitex agnus-castus. I’d like someone else to find out, first, if it really is anaphrodesiac.

      I’ll try the Nasturtium seeds. Those grow like weeds here.

      One more–perhaps a bit TOO aromatic–would be Zanthoxylum, Szechuan Pepper or Japan Pepper, depending on species. That’s what hot-and-sour-soup used to be flavored with, and to an extent still is in Szechuan, before red peppers became ubiquitous.

      Anyway those are fairly coldhardy, and have been used for at least centuries, so probably pretty safe.

      I’m used to working with syrupy sugars so honey’s modest water content would not be a big deal.

  5. Rob, regarding Cirtrus look at Trifoliate Orange. It’s hardy here in Indiana and to my knowledge is the hardiest of the citrus family. Sure it’s small fruited and seedy as can be but makes a fantastic “lemonade” plus it is often used to make living livestock fences. Seeds for “Flying Dragon” are fairly easy to find and germinate.

    • Good to hear from you Alan. You’re right, I think it is the hardiest member of the family. Although it’s in another genus, Poncirus, it crosses easily to Citrus.

      We can grow Trifoliate Oranges here though they’re not terribly fond of our humidity. They do better inland. They tolerate semi-arid conditions well though not outright desert. No idea if the fruit ripens here, which is another limitation. We’re pretty far north.

      Citrus is quite interesting: most of the domesticated ones are complex hybrids. When you cross them to a species like Poncirus trifoliata, the species tends to dominate.

      1st generation hybrids between P. trifoliata and Sweet Oranges are called “Citranges”. Unfortunately the fruit retains the slight bitterness of the Trifoliate Orange, though some are said to be not too bad. There are also hybrids between those and Kumquats, called “Citrangequats”. Thomasville is a Citrangequat. Kumquats have surprising absolute hardiness but only if the cold hits gradually. They also have a fragrant peel and tart (!) pulp.

      My Citrus is a hybrid between an Ichang Papeda (C. ichangensis) and a Taiwania Lemon. Taiwania Lemons are feral Citrus growing on Taiwan derived partially from C. maxima–the Grapefruit–and something else, maybe Citrus x juno (the Yuzu). They’re fairly closely related to similar types grown in Japan.

      Both are fairly hardy as Citrus go, but the Ichang Papeda is the hardier one; it is cold hardy enough to grow in Seattle or London without protection! It’s a beautiful tree, with “double jointed” evergreen leaves like its surprisingly close cousin, the Keffir Lime. Unfortunately some forms of this species have little or no pulp; they’re all rind, although there are other types that do have palatable fruit. Mostly they are grown for the aromatic oils they contain.

      Mine inherits the double-jointed leaves and somewhere picked up a semi weeping habit. It’s hardy to somewhere in the vicinity of 10F. The fruit is roughly the size and shape of a mandarin orange, yellow in color, and reputedly flavored like a lemon (some say a lime) but noticeably a bit sweeter.

      Anyway what all these interesting species need is more breeding work. These hybrids have been around for a while but like the perennial wheat projects they eventually run out of funds and are never further developed.

      Theoretically you could eventually breed something that is deciduous and about as hardy as a Trifoliate orange, that loses the bitterness of the fruit. Or, work on the Ichang Papeda to get something coldhardy to around zero F, with beautiful foliage and flowers, and palatable fruit.

      One problem still remaining that Citrus seem to be relatively inefficient at converting heat and light to sugar. If you try to grow, say, sweet oranges somewhere like the Crimean Penninsula of Russia or around the Swiss Alpine Lakes, or even northern California, you tend to get fruit that isn’t sweet enough–which is why they grow lemons in the south of Russia but not oranges. So, I think a lemon–or amazingly even an aromatic fruit like a lime–are possible in northern latitudes with enough breeding work, but sweet citrus is more of a challenge.

      One more species that would be interesting to use would be the Australian Desert Lime. Bad news is that it’s not really hardy to -10F as was mistakenly reported in a reference and then ubiquitously repeated. Instead, someone wrote that it was hardy to “ten degrees of frost” and someone else accidentally repeated that as -10F. But it’s really and truly xeric, the only xeric citrus, and tolerates some frost. Could be one of the few juicy fruits for true desert areas, WITHOUT irrigation. It’s also not quite a full-blown tree, but a shrub, making the fruit easier to pick.

      PS, here’s a place that grows relatively hardy types:

      McKenzie Farms

  6. Ginger myoga: young shoots can be eaten, pick them very young, otherwise they are a bit on the tough side. Have a look at some asarum species as well for ginger substitution.
    Nutmeg, sinon ammonum does have small seeds with a nutmeg taste, though more aromatic, and it’s completely winter-hardy, and gives some nice greens during winter time
    Sugar: there are some alternatives, already mentioned is honey, but also stevia, rubus suavissimus, gynostemma pentaphyllum (but other tastes dominate usually in this one, though some varieties are sweeter than others), yacon syrup is another way to go (I don’t see the challenges…?), and if you leave ocas in the sun for weeks they sweeten up as well.
    Solanum quitoense has a bit of an orange taste, but needs to be grown frost-free (plants don’t become really bit though).
    Black pepper: szechuan pepper as already mentioned, or water pepper, which is used more in Japan (has a red and a green version)

    • Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge and experience.

      Wow, I had never heard of Sison amomum before. Surprisingly few hits on the internet. But it is a wild plant in Europe. Seems as if it should be better documented. It is probably unobtainable here.

      One challenge with Yacon is that continental and monsoonal climates are too hot and/or too cold for it. It requires a more equable climate; not a problem for you or me but a problem for many other folks. Another problem is that like many Andean crops it has gone more-or-less sterile–though a friend of a friend of mine has blossoms on his and is trying to coax it to set seed. Wish him luck! The blossoms look like tiny sunflowers. Quite small for the scale of the plant. If and when someone comes up with viable seed that would make it faster to propagate, easier to send by mail, and would avoid disease-buildup.

      Most people who’ve grown them don’t seem to know that Oca is normally cured in the sun to reduce the acidity. I have heard so many complaints about those.

      I have some S. quitoense; they are beautiful but I am worried they’ll be a lot of trouble to overwinter. If I do get some fruit it will be a treat; I’ve heard it’s quite good.

      I’ll have to look up water-pepper.

  7. For lemon, you could try Chaenomeles quinces, some are quite close to lemon in flavor, high in vitamin C and quite hardy. There are many selections, among them, there’s one from Lithuania called Cido, known as northern lemon in the region.

    Other citrus I’ver tried might have the acidity, but taste is quite bad. [I grow and have tasted ripe limas grown in orange land which might explain why I think other things don't make it].

    For pepper, one good option is Zanthoxylum bushes. There are many species, most of them, if not all, with fragant leaves and peppery seeds. Each one is different. I love chewing fresh Nepalese pepper right from the bush.

    Finding aroma similar to pepper will be a challenge. For the punch, I would grow hot peppers. There are many to choose from, some Annuum are very small plants, with hundreds of small pods. These can easily be grown in a pot, placed outside in summer, and in a window the rest of the year. As long as they don’t freeze they’ll survive. In one year you should get enough pods for a few years as they are easily dried. Best are those that are quite hot as you can use small amounts and get the heat without the aroma. If you manage to overwinter them, they need a much shorter season.

    There are other peppery plants but need to check if they would be hardy. Polygonum hydropiper (water pepper) probably is. Tasmania lanceolata is another one to study.

    For sugar, apart from what has been mentioned before … sweet sorghum.

    I’m surprised with the last comment about yacon, I find it quite heat tolerant. It does tolerate quite a lot of shade, that should help those in a borderline climate.

    • Good ideas. Thank you for sharing them.

      I think most folks would be happy with an approximate match for a lot of things.

      TASMANIA LANCEOLATA!! I forgot all about that one. Used to have one but I could not bring it with me when I moved. Never actually tasted the “peppers” but at the time, I wasn’t thinking along the lines I am now. (For those who don’t know it–it’s a member of the Magnolia family from Tasmania; nice glossy evergreen foliage, small starry flowers, might be fragrant I don’t remember; related to Drimys which is a showier tree from the Andes).

      OK, so now I know what “water pepper” is.

      The only Xanthoxylum I’ve ever had is the one used for Szechuan pepper; its a common ingredient in Chinese markets here. I’m curious how they vary in flavor. It would also be interesting to compare the species as garden specimens; I know some of them are evergreen though I have not seen one of these. I wouldn’t be surprised if your Nepali species were one of these.

      Tim Peters also suggested syrup sorghum; that’s probably a good choice for people where summers are long enough and warm enough.

      I have no idea how much heat Yacon tolerates; I’ve just heard that they grow like Dahlias but to tell you the truth I’m not precisely sure how much heat Dahlias take either! I just know that in the USA they’re less common away from the Pacific Coast. Anyway if they’re more tolerant than I realize, so much the better.

  8. I never had luck with dahlias, but yacon grows very well here as long as I water it. I have it as a perennial. My climate is similar to that of San Diego without the fog. Summer highs are in the 90′s, with ocasional 100′s with very long dry sunny summers. It’s very good as a sweet snack, but I think it’s best use is to easy stomach upset in pregnant women.

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