Kitchen Intuition: Peanut sauce

Authored By aliceodea

I posted a picture of my lunch in the article I wrote last week: a bowl of couscous, sautéed greens and mushrooms topped with scallions, peanut sauce and sesame seeds. It was a meal that I threw together in 10 or 15 minutes, including the few moments I spent whipping up the sauce that topped the dish. That was some magic peanut sauce, the stuff of dreams. It was warm, creamy and packed with flavor.

There are so many things you can do with a good peanut sauce, and many of them basically amount to being an instant meal. Need a dinner in a hurry? Throw some soba noodles on the stove, and while the water is simmering, mix up a quick peanut sauce to pour over the noodles. Maybe chop a green onion to use as a topping, and then sprinkle it all with some sesame seeds. BAM. Dinner’s ready. When cooking up a strange medley of vegetables that need to be used up and you want something to bring them together, make a peanut sauce. It works for everything! It’s a salad dressing; a dip for raw vegetables or spring rolls; a condiment (try it in a sandwich or on fries!); or a sauce for anything from pasta, rice or potatoes to tempe, tofu, chicken, beef or fish. And kids love it.

Now, I’m going to freak out some purists out there with this, but all you really need to make a basic peanut sauce is peanut butter, soy sauce and an acid. There’s a lot more you could do (just Google “peanut sauce recipe” to see the great variety of possibilities), but that is all left to your personal tastes, mood and imagination. I like to mix up a fresh batch every time so that I can adjust it according to what else is on the menu. I might want it especially thick or thin, or maybe I’ll be in the mood for something with a spicy kick. I figure out how much peanut sauce I want to end up with and put that much peanut butter into a small saucepan on the stove over low heat. I add some tamari and vinegar, tasting it and adjusting it from there, perhaps adding a bit more of something and maybe some water if it requires thinning.

You do need to start with a good peanut butter, and that means staying away from the Skippys, Jiffys and Peter Pans. I try to find nut butters that are made from nothing but ground nuts; not only do they leave out the hydrogenated oils, mystery chemicals, and breathtaking amounts of sugar and salt that you get in the industrial versions, but they’re also less likely to separate, so they maybe won’t require regular stirring to keep the oil mixed in.

The ingredients are wide-open to substitutions. If you don’t have peanut butter, you can try another nut butter, like almond or cashew butter. Or start with whole nuts and run them through the food processor. You can use soy sauce, tamari or liquid amino acids. And instead of vinegar, you could try an alternate acid, like lemon or lime juice. A lot of recipes call for the addition of coconut milk, and if I have a can open, I might pour a little in. Some recipes also call for adding a sweetener, but I don’t see the point; there’s too much sugar in the Western diet already, and peanut sauce is plenty tasty without it. But some other flavors you might want to add to the mix include garlic, coriander, cumin, onion powder, cayenne, tamarind, red pepper flakes, toasted sesame oil, ginger, galangal, minced chili peppers, sesame seeds, Sriracha, broth, curry or miso paste, fish sauce, oyster sauce or Worcestershire sauce.

The peanut sauce doesn’t have to be cooked. I tend to blend it over heat because that softens the peanut butter and makes it easier to stir in the other ingredients. But you’re free to mix a batch using your own elbow grease, or using a blender or food processor. And if by some miracle you have any leftovers (because who will be able to resist seconds?), it will keep in the refrigerator for several days.

You probably already have all the ingredients. Enjoy!

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.