They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and when I think of necessity, mothers and invention, I think of my colleague Priya Krishna and her mother, Ritu. Years ago, after falling in love with spanakopita on a family trip to Greece, Ritu expertly swapped in feta while making saag paneer when she could not easily find the fresh Indian cheese in Dallas. That’s how the saag feta recipe in her and Priya’s cookbook, “Indian-ish,” was born.
“It almost didn’t go in the book,” Priya told me. “My mom just wrote ‘feta/saag’ at the bottom of a random spreadsheet, and I was like, ‘What is that?’”
It’s in this spirit of culinary MacGyvering that I come to you today with another meal plan, this time illuminating some more significant substitutions that may not be instinctual but yield delicious results. As always, these three recipes offer plenty of ingredient overlap to keep your shopping streamlined and your waste to a minimum.
Pick up the following to make a roasted cauliflower, paneer and lentil salad, herb-marinated seared tofu and pasta with zucchini, feta and fried lemon:
2 medium zucchini
1 to 2 serrano chiles
1 small head cauliflower
1 large bunch cilantro
1 large bunch parsley
1 small bunch oregano
1 bunch scallions
1 bag green or black lentils (or ½ cup of each from the bulk bins)
8 ounces long pasta
1 or 2 (14-ounce) block extra-firm tofu*
1 (10-ounce) block paneer*
2 ounces (or more) feta*
Coriander seeds (or ground coriander)
You’ll also need salt, pepper, olive oil, rice (for serving with the tofu) and capers, which you probably have handy in the pantry. And if you cooked from last month’s desk-lunch meal plan, you may already have lentils and walnuts lying around!
While you can certainly buy paneer, tofu and feta for this meal plan, you can also channel Ritu in a couple of ways. In Nik Sharma’s roasted cauliflower, paneer and lentil salad, you can use either tofu or feta in place of paneer.
Paneer, which is curdled using an acid like lemon juice, is a nonmelting cheese, so it maintains its structure in the oven, on the grill or in a skillet. Cubed tofu is similarly neutral in taste and bouncy in texture, making it an ideal vegan alternative. The protein structures of feta prevent it from melting, so it can be baked and still keep its shape (though it will soften slightly and won’t have that same springiness as a grilling cheese). It’s much brinier in flavor compared to paneer, so keep that in mind when seasoning your dish.
Speaking of seasoning: If you use tofu in the salad, Nik recommends that you salt it a bit before adding it in, and he notes that halloumi is another great alternative for paneer.
As for other swaps and overlaps, the scallions and serrano chile purchased for the salad and the capers on hand for the pasta are all welcome additions to the tofu marinade. (Use the fresh chile in place of the called-for red-pepper flakes.) And while you can use almost any herbs for the tofu, it’s a great vehicle for any leftover cilantro from the salad as well as the parsley and oregano from the pasta.
Lastly, if you’d like to make this plan vegan — beyond opting for tofu instead of paneer — simply skip the feta in the pasta and perhaps add extra capers for that briny oomph.