Improvising Peanut Sauce

A long, long time ago…

Before the responsibility of things like a job, and rent payments, and foster dogs, and billz billz billz…

I traveled far “across the pond” to live in London for 6 glorious months as part of “study” abroad. And ohhhhhh my, “study” I did. Over that half a year I learned many things about Britain, its culture, and its storied history. For example…

I learned that Big Ben really is prettier at night…

And that it’s practically a sin to call Tower Bridge “London Bridge” (but I did it anyway)…

And that these red phone booths pretty much serve no function other than for escort ads and obligatory tourist photos…

And that it is necessary to wear brightly colored tights with your dresses if you want to fit in with London’s hipster scene…

What looks like a grungy basement in this photo is actually a famous, super popular venue called Notting Hill Arts Club frequented by people like Courtney Love and Robert Pattinson. Despite being super trendy and full o' celebrities, it is indeed pretty much a medium sized basement with an overpriced bar.

And that warm beer really isn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be (and that you should wait until photos are over to start gulpin’ it)…

But aside from building an epic bottle collection in our kitchen, practicing my British accent, and apparently only ever wearing the colors red and black, I did find time to actually learn some things.

Yeah, I learned a lot about history and manners and culture and traveling and street smarts and all that jazz… but surprisingly, I also learned a ton about cooking.

London was the first time I had a fully equipped kitchen at my disposal and no cafeteria to abide my laziness. Prepared foods and meals are few and far between in European supermarkets. Yep, everyone cooks… which meant I had to learn how, too.

Another important kitchen lesson learned in London: how to do the dishes while drunk.

One of the biggest culinary accomplishments I had while in London occurred while le (ex)boyfriend and I were on a never-ending mission to find the perfect peanut sauce recipe. It started one day when one of us ordered peanut noodles at a food stand called “Mr. Peanut,” run by a small, 80-year old Asian man whom I can only assume was Mr. Peanut himself. Now I dunno what Mr. Peanut put in these noodles, but they. were. heavenly. After three orders we were practically worshiping at Mr. Peanut’s food truck alter, and an obsession to re-create the noodly, peanuty, deliciousness was born. Three times a week, every week, we attempted a new peanut sauce recipe to pour over ready-wating spaghetti.

But something wasn’t working… we must have attempted a dozen recipes, but every single time got different results: spicy, goopy, watery, thick, tangy… nothing was really jiving with our taste buds, nor remotely compared to the crack-like ecstasy that was Mr. Peanut’s sauce. Fed up, one day I said to myself “screw it, we’ve done this so many times, I know the gist of the ingredients, I’m just going to wing it now…” And with a lot of patience and a few mishaps, a little improviser (and a great peanut sauce!) was born.

Ever since then, I’ve stuck to mostly my own intuition when making peanut sauce (and sauces in general). I can’t say that the sauce comes out tasting exactly the same every single time, but it’s always a sauce the I’m interested in eating, which is all that counts, right?

Working up the courage to face peanut sauce head on without the comforting reassurance of a recipe was probably one of the greatest contributions to making me the confident little chef I am today!

Learning about sauces is a great way to figure out how different foods interact with each other without the big risk that comes with improvising a whole entire meal. When a made-up sauce doesn’t work out, you can just scrape it out of the pan and heat up some Prego — crisis averted and meal saved!

But if it works out, whipping up your own sauces can teach you a lot about flavor combinations and food purposes, which can really help turn your gears when it comes to getting creative in the kitchen…which is precisely why I’ve whipped up this little tutorial to help get your feet wet with improvising sauces, starting with an easy-peasy peanut sauce.

  1. Read a lot of recipes. Take note of their differences and similarities. Chances are, more a dish as common as peanut sauce, there is going to be a lot of variability in recipes, but you’ll probably still be able to get a grasp of what you’re going to need.
  2. Understand your “cast of characters.” In food dishes (and especially in sauces), ingredients can be looked at like parts in a movie or play. You’ve got your star of the show, supporting characters, some extras, and some understudies. Knowing which ingredients play which role can help you figure out proportions, but more importantly, knowing what exactly an ingredient DOES for a dish is the key to knowing how to balance, add, and correct inadequacies. Sometimes it helps to actually write out the list of ingredients and their roles. For peanut sauce, our cast of characters is as follows:
    1. Peanut Butter — the star of the show! Its purpose is to be the most prominent flavor and fill your mouth with peanuty goodness. For half a pound of noodles you’ll want to start with about 1/2 to 3/4 a cup of this.
    2. Soy Sauce — a supporting character. Its purpose is two-fold: add flavor and add liquid to start breakin’ that peanut butter down into a sauce. You’ll probably want no more than a few tablespoons of this.
    3. Rice wine vinegar (or any clear colored cooking vinegar) — plays a small role but an important one! This little guy is necessary to break apart the peanut butter’s gooey consistency to a more sauce-like texture. Just a dash of it is necessary.
    4. Honey, brown sugar, or some other sweet ingredient — Balances the strong taste of the soy sauce and vinegar. The sweeter you like your sauce, the more of a role this guy is going to play. The amount you’ll need is all up to you, but I’d start with a tablespoon and go from there.
    5. Water — Controls the thickness of the sauce. Add more water to thin it out, heat the sauce longer to thicken it. Sometimes I don’t even use water, this is one of those ingredients that will have to be adjusted as you go.
    6. Oil — Use whatever oil you like here, but I recommend peanut or sesame. Its only real purpose is to heat the pan and keep the peanut butter from sticking (so you’re not going to need a lot of it, just enough to heat the pan).
    7. Extras — There are soooooo many things you can add to peanut sauce to make it shine! Some recommendations (to add, little by little): chopped green onion, red pepper flakes, siracha, milk (for a creamier sauce), sesame seeds, mustard seeds, garlic, ginger, chopped peanuts (for a chunkier sauce), lime juice. All up to you, little improviser!
  3. Have all your ingredients in front of you and START SLOW. Heat the oil in the pan, use low heat, and add the ingredients one by one. Once you’ve added the peanut butter, soy sauce, and vinegar, a sauce should start forming (with a little help from a spoon or spatula). Add in the sugar, mix well, then taste.
  4. Use your senses to critically appraise your sauce and figure out what it needs. Taste critically to figure out what it needs:
    1. Too salty? You probably added too much soy sauce. Counteract this by adding more peanut butter, sugar, or water.
    2. Too sweet? Too much sugar. More peanut butter or soy sauce, or perhaps a spicy addition like red pepper or siracha.
    3. Too bland? Figure out what you want to taste more of. Needs more sweetness? Add sugar. More spice? Whatever spices your hear desires. More salt? Throw in some soy sauce.
    4. Visually appraise the sauce, too. Is it thick or thin enough for what you’re using it for? If it’s going to be a dipping sauce, you want it thick. For noodles, you’ll want it thinner so it spreads. Adjust the thickness by adding water to thin the sauce out (a little vinegar helps too), heat the sauce longer if you’re looking to cook off some of the liquid.
  5. Whatever additions you make, always do it little by little. Remember, you can always add, but never subtract. Adjust teaspoon by teaspoon and taste after every addition, asking yourself “what else does it need?”
  6. When it tastes good, looks good, and is warm enough, STOP adding and remove from heat. Your sauce should be done! Serve it whatever way your heart desires: as a satay dipping sauce, over noodles, over meats or veggies, on top of rice:

There you have it, little improvisers, a one-of-a-kind sauce without any help from a recipe! Mr. Peanut would be so proud! These same steps can walk you through whatever kind of sauce you’re lookin’ to make, and soon enough you’ll be on your own, whippin’ up whatever sort of sauciness sparks your creativity! Happy improvising!

Improvising Griddle Cakes

It’s getting to be that time again.

My fridge is over-run with leftovers. It’s either time to start eatin’ or time to start trashin’.

No matter what I do, I always seem to end up with leftovers. To be fair, this is often deliberate on my part. I like to eat leftovers for breakfast the next morning. I like to have a back-up if I can’t make lunch before I have to leave the house. I like to pretend that if I make a pound of pasta ahead of time, I’m saving myself work later in the week.

Le boyfriend hates leftovers. Like, with a passion. So that leaves me to do most of the work in takin’ care of the rows of tupperware containers in our fridge.

I hate wasting things! I mean, you’re talkin’ about a girl who keeps a bag in her freezer with (cleaned!) discarded vegetable scraps from chopping (heyyy, I hold out hope that one day I’ll use it to make vegetable stock). Every month or so when I clean out the fridge, my heart pangs with every *swish* of the trash bag as something else gets thrown in it… all the big plans I had for those items, gone in one fell swoop. The phyllo dough that was going to be a tart one day. The tomatoes that were going to be sauce. The onion that could have been so many things…

Recently, I’ve been trying to find ways to repurpose multiple leftovers into one meal. One of the best solutions I’ve come across so far is griddle cakes.

Pretty much anything can go into a griddle cake. Open your fridge and take stock of your leftovers… small pastas, rice, beans, hearty vegetables, potatoes… whip ‘em together with a little bit of egg and fry ‘em up! Leftovers begone!

Normally, I’d include a basic recipe at the end, but since this is about using your leftovers, I figured it’s time for a little griddle cake improvising tutorial!

This week I had about a cup of rice, half a can of black beans, and some shredded carrots that needed immediate addressing. These were pretty ideal ingredients for griddle cakes… even though you can make them out of almost anything, it’s best to have something mushy (like rice) to keep together the more piece-y ingredients (like beans and carrots).

If you don’t have something starchy, mushy, or sticky, try to break down what you do have into as thin pieces as possible. I recommend shredding! Think about latkes or zucchini cakes — shredding brings out the moisture in veggies and helps keep ‘em stuck together.

When picking your ingredients, try to imagine what the overall texture will be when mixed together.If you think you can easily form the mixture into a shape that would stick, or can at least be formed into something, you’re good to go. If not, throw in some mashed up beans, some cheese, or a binding veggie (like those mentioned) above.

Mix all your ingredients together and spice ‘em up the way you like. Since my griddle cakes were shapin’ up to be like rice and beans, I added southwest sort of seasonings: cumin, paprika, some cayenne and cilantro. Feel free to go with a theme or just go with your gut… up to you, buckeroo!

When everything is mixed together, crack an egg into the mixture and mix well again. One egg is usually sufficient, unless you’re cooking for a big group. As long as the mixture looks evenly goopy and sticks together okay, you don’t need to add any more.

Heat some oil in a pan and when it gets really hot (like steamy…as in, the photo below teehee), drop a dollop of the mixture in and flatten into a cake. 

Now the key here is to be patient! They’re gonna’ need about 7 minutes or so on each side. If you do the first flip too soon, your griddle cakes could end up looking like this:

Not the end of the world, they still taste good, but a little patience never hurt anyone!

Every so often, I’ll use a spatula to press down on each cake and push out some of the moisture/spread the heat to the inside of the cake. This also helps me tell if the underside is cooked or not; if the cake spreads out more when I press down, it needs a little more time.

When it’s time to flip, do it fast! If you can flip ‘em with just a shake of the pan, you’re my hero! But if you’re like me, a very quick flip with a spatula works too.

Chances are, somewhere along the line, one of your cakes will fall apart. No need to worry, little improviser. Use your hands to help reshape them while they’re still hot; they may not look perfect, but they’ll be in one piece by the time they cool. Like so:

It’s up to you how you want to serve ‘em up! I like them on their own, but could easily see eatin’ them on a sandwich or covered in a thick, fruity sauce! Eat ‘em up!

Vegetarian Pasta Carbonara

Who loves secret ingredients?! *Raises hand* Ooo me! I do! I do!

Back when I was a baby blogger, I had a pretty specific image of what kinda foodie I wanted to be.

I wanted to be the type of chef that brings an awesome dish to a party… one of those dishes that everyone passes around and says “ohhh emmm geee…. you gotta try this!” Of course, everyone would ask me for the recipe and when they did, I’d give ‘em the intimate details, followed by a pause and a semi-obnoxious “…and my secret ingredient.” I’d be one of those people, bound and determined to take my best recipes to the grave with me…

But I digress… I’m a terrible culinary secret keeper. Like, really, really bad. Like, if Harry Potter had entrusted me to be his secret keeper for his prize-winning pumpkin juice recipe… well, Voldemort would have certainly found it looooong ago…

What can I say? I’m a giver…tastiness was meant to share!

But last week, for the first time, my dream came true! I was asked for a recipe and got to get on my culinary high horse and say to someone, “shoo, buckeroo! This dish has my very own secret ingredients.”

Which is kind of pointless in retrospect, because I’m about to tell the whole food blog world about it…

Last week we had some friends visiting from out-o’-town. They are all meat eaters and we are all poor post-grads who would — let’s face it — rather spend our hard earned cash on alcohol than food. So one night this week, before an evening of heavy bar hoppin’, I made everyone dinner and chose a recipe that I thought would have enough meaty elements to impress our guests.

I made spaghetti carbonara, which, for those of you who don’t know, is a pasta dish comprised of bacon, peas, garlic, olive oil, egg and cheese. It is very hearty and very smokey.

Now, there are some vegetarian meat substitutes that live up to, if not surpass, their meat counterparts. Veggie bacon is NOT one of them. The texture is all wrong, the flavor is all wrong, the color is…frankly, bizarre…and it’s completely missing the smokey smell and taste. Overall, a crude attempt at a carnivore’s delight. LAME-O!

But it just so happens that I found another ingredient that fills in all of fakin’ bacon’s gaps…

SMOKED CHEESE.

It is God’s gift to fake bacon. It helps the texture, the color, the smell…and OH BOY, does it help the flavor… I’d say on a scale of one to smokey, that shizzz is burnin’ down the house!

In at least a handful of dishes now, I’ve used smoked cheese in place of, or in addition to, fake bacon, and the results have far surpassed my guest’s meaty expectations. Even le boyfriend asked, “is there meat in this?” last time I made my vegetarian pasta carbonara. A kitchen win on all counts!

This dish, though, was a big hit all around and proves that being a vegetarian doesn’t mean you have to compromise on your favorite meaty foods. In fact, I highly recommend this dish to carnivores…the flavor far surpasses what I remember of pasta carbonara with real bacon…

Enjoy!

Vegetarian Pasta Carbonara

  • 1 pound dry spaghetti
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 10 strips of fakin’ bacon
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
  • Salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup or more of frozen peas
  • 1 cup of shredded, smoked cheese (I use a bagged mix from Trader Joe’s)
  1. Prepare the sauce while the pasta is cooking to ensure that the spaghetti will be hot and ready when the sauce is finished; it is very important that the pasta is hot when adding the egg mixture, so that the heat of the pasta cooks the raw eggs in the sauce.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until tender yet firm (as they say in Italian “al dente.”). About two to three minutes before the pasta is ready, throw the frozen peas into the boiling water with the pasta. Drain well, reserving 1/2 cup of the starchy cooking water to use in the sauce if you wish.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a deep skillet over medium flame. Add the fake bacon for about 3 minutes, being careful not to overcook (the bacon gets hard and crispy this way). Remove the bacon from the heat and cut into small pieces.
  4. Using the leftover bacon-y olive oil still in the pan, heat up the garlic and sauté until fragrant.
  5. Add the hot, drained spaghetti and peas to the pan and toss for 2 minutes to coat the strands. Toss in the fake bacon and the smoked cheese, mix well.
  6. Beat the eggs and Parmesan together in a mixing bowl, stirring well to prevent lumps. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the egg/cheese mixture into the pasta, whisking quickly until the eggs thicken, but do not scramble (this is done off the heat to ensure this does not happen.) Thin out the sauce with a bit of the reserved pasta water, until it reaches desired consistency.
  7. Season the carbonara with several turns of freshly ground black pepper and taste for salt. Mound the spaghetti carbonara into warm serving bowls. Pass more cheese around the table.

Buying Spices

When it comes to spices, some people are all about simplicity.

My mom, for example; she has a total of three spices in her cabinet: garlic powder, salt, and pepper.

Obviously as an act of rebellion, when I started learning to cook, I would periodically try to sneak spice jars into my mom’s shopping cart at the supermarket. I mean, I’m all about the salt and garlic powder too, but you gotta give this foodie some room to grow, Ma… a little oregano never hurt anyone, ya know?

But nooooooo, my mom wouldn’t have any of it. “Spices are too expensive,” she’d say as she heaped an armful of spice jars back into my arms, leaving me to hang my head in culinary shame as I trekked back to the spice isle to replace them. I’d stand there, staring in awe of the massive alphabetized rack before me; “All the cool chefs have spices,” I’d think disgruntledly to myself, “I never get anything cool! Just stupid salt and pepper!”

Now that I’m older and live off of my own paychecks, I have to concede — my mom was partially right, spices are expensive…

if you buy them in a supermarket.

I’m a firm believer in maintaining a full and varied spice rack, but I’m also hell-bent on not breaking the bank to do it. Here’s the secret:

buy in bulk.

No, no, I don’t mean bulk as in the Costco style — not “buy 45 cans of tomato sauce for the price of 40″ type of bulk.

In the land of co-op supermarkets, buying in bulk means that the store buys a large amount directly from a supplier, with no product labels or fancy names. Then they let you, the shopper, take exactly the amount you want and charge you by weight. Many co-op supermarkets (and some Whole Foods stores) do this with dried foods like pastas, rices, flours, granola, dried beans, and yes…spices. Some (like mine) even offer cooking oils in bulk.

This is what the bulk foods isle looks like at my supermarket:

Usually this means that you pay a lot less than what you would pay for a packaged, labeled product. More importantly, it means you can get exactly the amounts of food you need or want, which is particularly helpful if you’re scoping out a recipe that requires rarer ingredients, like semolina flour, chickpea flour, cornmeal, etc.

Yep, buying in bulk is truly a chef’s saving grace, especially when it comes to purchasing spices.

This is a small sample of the spice isle at my local co-op. Those big jars all contain spices and are organized alphabetically. You find the ones you want and transfer your desired amounts into small or medium sized plastic baggies. Then you slap a PLU code on ‘em, take them up to the register and cash out.

Most of “those in the know” recommend you only buy the amount of spices you’ll actually use in a year. By the time 12 months rolls around, most spices have lost their flavor and color. Unfortunately, if you buy the stuff in jars from Shaw’s or Stop&Shop or any other big supermarket, you’re usually getting a lot more than you’re going to need in a year. You’re also paying between 75% to 90% more per an ounce to buy the jarred stuff. Here’s a quick price comparison I found over at TipHero:

Not only great for stocking up on those big name spices (like those listed above) that we all cook with often, but also stellar for those little-known spices you’re only going to use once or twice. Need two tablespoons of amchoor powder? Instead of buying a whole jar, you can pick up exactly two tablespoons… for roughly 25 cents.

When I first moved to Boston, I set up my kitchen with my very first spice rack by buying 20 different spices from my local co-op. My total start-up costs? $7.15. Uhhh yeah… that’s awesome.

So where do you find these magical bulk places? Like I said, co-op supermarkets! Chances are, your town has one. If my tiny little college town in Delaware had one, there’s a good chance that there’s one by you too. Local Harvest is a great website for finding these things out.

Anyways, that’s my little two-cents worth on spices. Hope it was helpful! Happy shopping!