How to Make Whatever Dinner You're Craving — Even If You Don't Have the "Right" Protein
Want chicken parm but only have tofu and pork chops in the fridge? These recipes prove that flexibility can still be satisfying.
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No matter how diligent of a meal planner you are, sometimes a strong craving comes out of nowhere and derails the best of intentions. I’ll paint you a picture: it’s 3 p.m. and you are busy typing away on your computer or running after a little one when all of a sudden, the image of an ooey gooey chicken parm pops into your head. The more you think about it, the more you start to taste the tangy tomato sauce, stretchy melty mozzarella and savory chicken cutlet that is a little crispy and a little soggy all at the same time. But when you open the fridge at 6 p.m. and survey the goods, you remember that you cooked up that last package of chicken the day before yesterday. You weigh your options: you have some pork chops, a block of tofu and a package of ground meat. You sigh and cast your dreams of chicken parm aside. Well, maybe not so fast!
One of the great things about recipes is that even within a classic there is room for flexibility. Pork chops can sub for chicken, ground meat can sub for steak and lentils, beans and crumbled tofu can sub for ground meat. Will it taste exactly the same? Well no, but what’s the fun in that anyway? There have been a few recipe riffs I’ve tried over the years that I’ve liked even better than the classic. So, to help you out with how to make the dishes you crave with what you have — and when popping to the store isn’t an option — here are some classic recipes that took a slight detour.
If You Have Pork Chops:
The essence of restaurant-worthy chicken piccata is the bright, tangy salty caper studded sauce, built in a skillet after browning quick cooking chicken. Pork chops make a fantastic sub for chicken here because they are mild in flavor and easy to cook in a skillet. A light dusting of flour on the chops before browning helps the sauce cling and coat the meat so every bite delivers on flavor.
Turns out this classic chicken recipe is perfect for a boneless pork chop, too. If you typically find boneless pork chops dry or bland, this recipe will change that. Wrapping them in prosciutto before cooking seasons the meat and helps keep it juicy, while the sage and melted provolone add creamy and herbaceous counterpoints. They are quick cooking so dinner can be whipped up in a snap.
If You Have Fish:
Instead of having a pan fried cutlet of chicken or pork topped with a mound of crisp salad, this recipe pivots to using roasted trout. It’s lighter than the classic counterpart, dirties fewer dishes and cooks in just 10 minutes.
If you need some inspiration for your next salmon meal, this is it. Grilled salmon replaces turkey in this layered sandwich full of bacon, garlicky mayo and avocado. Frilly toothpicks optional!
If You Have Ground Meat:
Saucy mushrooms in a marsala heavy pan sauce could make a shoe taste good. But please don’t swap the usual chicken or veal for your sneaker. Instead, mix up a blend of ground beef and Italian sausage and broil it until browned and slightly crisped. It takes a classic dish to a whole new place.
This recipe has all the 5-napkin drippy goodness of a classic cheesesteak, without needing any actual steak! Instead, thin patties of ground beef are smashed on a hot griddle until well browned with crisp savory edges. Topped with sautéed peppers and onions and melted cheese, you might eat it too quickly to realize it’s not sliced steak.
If You Don’t Have Any Meat:
Taco night is always a solid dinner choice, but even if you find yourself without meat, you can still make fantastic tacos. This recipes roasts onions with sweet potatoes and celery root for a hearty taco filling that goes perfectly with a fresh pineapple salsa or any of your favorite toppings.
Cauliflower is such a popular vegetable, and for good reason! It is so transformative and can be meaty, creamy, tender or crunchy. In this recipe, the florets get coated in a light batter and fried until they are crispy on the outside and creamy and tender on the inside. The homemade sweet and spicy General Tsos sauce sinks into all the nooks and crannies for maximum flavor.
Canned lentils often get overlooked when it comes to a pantry stock-up, but they take center stage in this hearty recipe. The look and act like little nubs of ground meat and soak up all the usual chili flavorings. Spoon it over a baked potato, sprinkle with your favorite toppings and it will fully satisfy that chili craving.
Tofu lovers and skeptics alike should take note. The sweet-sour sloppy joe sauce we all know and love is a delicious choice for crumbled sautéed tofu in this comforting sandwich. The sauce is bold enough to transform the tofu (perfect for skeptics) without totally hiding its natural earthy flavor. A sprinkle of cheese (vegan if you like) and a few pickles add the right final touch.