How To Alter Recipes

Low fat, sugar-free, meatless, gluten-free, low carb, dairy-free, no sodium, allergen-free, no alcohol… many people are trying to fill special dietary requirements for health issues and weight loss. If you are in charge of meal preparation for such diets, it might seem like you have to learn to cook all over again. Must you throw away all your old favorite recipes? Maybe not. Of course, 5-layer chocolate truffle cake with mocha whipped cream filling and buttercream frosting might have to be retired upon a diabetes diagnosis (unless you're Paula Dean!), but it's often possible to use alternate ingredients to make old standards still part of your favorite meals… and not feel "deprived" by the dietary restrictions.

I learned to cook when I was about 12 years old, with my mother's instructions on how to start dinner cooking before she came home from work. By the time I left home at age 20, I had a pretty good repertoire of meals, desserts, entertainment foods, and breads. I liked cooking from scratch, but didn't much relate what I cooked and ate to nutrition and health. Then in the early 1990s, when I began to educate myself about how diet could be used to build a healthier immune system and avoid health problems, I truly struggled with how to cook they way I was accustomed to. My goals were not too lofty:
  • healthy ingredients
  • good taste
  • nutritional balance
  • satisfying
I had to learn about nourishing foods, experiment with replacing ingredients, not be discouraged by failures, and be open to creative alternatives. Fortunately, my husband Rick is an adventurous eater, and always very open minded to trying new dishes. He is also a very honest critic, so there is never any question when I produce a failure!

Just a note about "prepared" foods for special diets… I've found that food manufacturers often remove one "evil" ingredient and replace it with other "evils" (and/or chemical non-foods), often in the attempt to mimic the taste of the original. Compare a block of regular cream cheese with a nonfat cream cheese, and you'll see a much longer ingredient list on the latter, sometimes with added sodium and sweeteners. I recently looked at Frontier brand Vegetable Flavored Broth Powder as an alternative to meat stock, and the first ingredient is "corn syrup solids," which is a sweetener processed from corn which I avoid, and it also included yeast extract - a taste enhancer - which, for some people, causes the same toxic effects and allergic reactions as MSG (monosodium glutamate). And, if you think you should deal with diabetes by using artificially sweetened "sugar-free" products, google-up "Artificial Sweetener Disease" (or search for "ASD" on http://www.naturalnews.com) and what you read might change your thinking. The bottom line for me is to use as few prepared foods as possible, cooking from scratch with whole foods.

When learning how to cook from scratch for special diets, start with some of your simpler recipes. For an example of a recipe which can be altered for many restrictions, let's look at a Shrimp Bisque I recently made. First is the recipe as I made it (it is very yummy), and below it are notes about my specific ingredients, suggestions for how to substitute for a few different dietary restrictions, and tips on how to change the flavor of the soup even if you don't have dietary restrictions.

1 lb. shrimp (not peeled)
1 c white wine
4 cups broth
2 bay leaves
1 T fresh thyme leaves or 1-1/2 t dried thyme
2 T oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 T tomato paste
4 T flour
1 cup milk
1 t hot chili powder
1/2 t salt
grated parmesan cheese

In a large pot, bring wine, broth, bay leaves, and thyme to a boil. Wash the shrimp and add to the pot. Remove from heat and let it sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Put another pot or bowl under a strainer and pour the liquid off the shrimp, reserving the broth and discarding the bay leaves. Run cool water over the shrimp to stop the cooking and peel the shrimp, discarding the peels and cut the shrimp into smaller pieces.

In the oil, sauté the onion, carrots, and celery until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes over medium heat. Ladle about 1 cup of the reserved broth into a cup and slowing mix in the flour. Add this mixture and the tomato paste to the vegetables and mix. Pour in the broth/flour mixture, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook 10 minutes. Add the milk, chili powder, salt, and shrimp, and cook for 5 more minutes. Ladle into a bowl and sprinkle grated parmesan cheese on top.

INGREDIENTS I USED: (NOTE: you can read more about ingredients which appear below in red, in the ingredients column in the right column of the blog)
  • I used USA Gulf Shrimp, hand carried by my sweet friend Pam from the Florida Panhandle, frozen in water in zipper bags. Seafood shops label country of origin (if not, ask), so please buy only USA products... wild caught whenever possible
  • For the broth, I used organic, free range, low sodium chicken broth, sold in 32 oz aseptic boxes. You could also use seafood stock, vegetable broth, or a water and bouillon mixture
  • I didn't have any white wine open, so I used unsweetened apple juice
  • I used safflower oil
  • My onion, carrots, and celery were organic
  • For such a small quantity of tomato paste, I like the type which comes in a tube like toothpaste and is refrigerated after opening
  • For the flour, I used my own home-ground whole wheat flour
  • For the milk, I used organic nonfat milk
  • For the hot chili powder, I used my own ground dehydrated jalapeno powder, which is very hot. Of course, this can be omitted if you don't like spicy foods, and you can just flavor to taste with black pepper.
  • My choice for salt is Real Salt
  • I didn't have grated parmesan, so I used grated romano cheese

  1. LOW FAT - instead of using oil, saute the vegetables in about 1/4 c of the reserved broth, and either omit the milk (the flour makes the soup thick) or use fat-free milk.
  2. GLUTEN-FREE - The flour can be omitted, which will make the soup a little less thick but not change the taste, or gluten-free flour such as sweet rice or sorghum flour can be substituted. You might try ground flaxseeds will thicken the soup base to your liking, while adding good omega 3's to your diet.
  3. DAIRY-FREE - Eliminate the milk and parmesan cheese, or try soy or almond milk and soy cheese.
  4. LOW SODIUM - Use no-sodium broth and don't add the salt. You could pump up the flavor with your favorite salt-free herb blend, like Mrs. Dash, or add some lemony herbs like lemon thyme, which would accept the shrimp flavor nicely.
  5. NO ALCOHOL - The white wine in this recipe imparts a mild flavor, but can be eliminated. I substituted with unsweetened apple juice, but you could also just add 1 c of water in place of the wine.
  6. SHELLFISH ALLERGY - Use fish instead of shrimp, something with good flavor, like salmon. Do not do the initial boiling of the broth, and eliminate the bay leaves. Or make Chicken Bisque, with boneless breasts!
  7. VEGAN (no animal products) - Instead of shrimp, use a strong-flavored vegetable as the "star" of your soup, such as fennel, sweet potato, or winter squash. Use vegetable broth or vegetable juice for the 4 cups of broth. Eliminate the milk or use soy or almond milk. Garnish with freshly grown sprouts or toasted nuts in place of the grated cheese.

If you don't need any substitutions for your diet, or if any of your dietary changes leave the soup tasting bland, here are suggestions for altering the flavor:
  • Use tomato or vegetable juice in place of the broth
  • Use coconut oil for the fat, add 1 T fresh lime juice (eliminate the milk or it might curdle from the citrus juice), 1 T chopped fresh cilantro, and a garnish of toasted peanuts - for a southeast Asian flavor
  • Use different vegetables in the saute mix: tomatoes, peppers, garlic, asparagus, okra (which will thicken the soup), chopped spinach
Experiment, and let me know how you do!