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!

New Year’s Resolutions and No-Calorie Noodles, Three Ways

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not good at a lot of things. I’m a terrible parallel parker. My artistic abilities are limited to shoddily drawn cartoons on par with those found in a third grade art class. I can’t for the life of me deep fry something without either completely ruining it, starting a fire, or burning off half of my taste buds.

But I have no shame in admitting that I am exceptionally good at making New Year’s resolutions. So good in fact, that last year I made exactly 50 of them.

Yes, 50. I have issues, don’t judge me.

Did I accomplish any of said resolutions? Considering I threw away the notebook containing them sometime in September, I would venture to say probably not…

But this year I’m doing things differently.

For starters, I’m not making 50 resolutions.

And this year I’m not going to be secretive about them and pretend I’m above all that New Year’s hoo-ha.

And I’m going to resist the urge to lump all of my goals into one big resolution like, “I’m going to be better at everything I’m already doing and start doing all the things I’m currently not.”

And this year I’m not going to start my list of resolutions with a resolution to make a list of resolutions. Yeah, that happened:

This year, I’m narrowing it down to five solid, concrete, accomplishable resolutions with measurable outcomes.

And I’m going to work my butt off to accomplish them…

…because on the off chance the world ends this December, and judgment day is less than 12 months away…well, I’ve got a loooooootttttt of work to do if I ever have a shot of getting my ass into heaven.

So, this year I’m going to work on 5 things, and only 5 things:

1) Find a new job.
2) Cook. Five times a week. No excuses, mofo. And baked potatoes with butter and cheese don’t count. Oh, and start packing a lunch while you’re at it. And for god’s sake, eat a normal breakfast once in awhile.
3) Blog. Once a week. At least. Don’t complain about it, you love this shit.
4) Share. Let others read Two Veggies. Play guitar for someone other than your stuffed animals. Go running with someone, even if you’re afraid you look like an injured ostrich while doing it.
5) Be healthier. Resume some form of viable exercise and perform it at least three times a week. Eat more vegetables. Eat a piece of fruit once in awhile. Commit to eating “healthy” meals five days a week.

Concise, right? <<Insert applause>>

But let’s talk about that last one for a minute.

A lot of people make resolutions like that… you know, the usual buffet of typical New Year’s promises: be healthy, lose weight, exercise more, stop smoking, stop drinking, stop stuffing yo’ face full of chocolate cake at every forsaken opportunity.

I’m not a nutritionist, or a doctor, or motivator, or a life coach. I can’t give a long, inspired speech about finding your inner willpower, harnessing the inspiration to make get off the couch, making small permanent changes instead of big temporary ones… all that sing-songey new year’s stuff.

But I can share a little secret I stumbled upon that might make all those things easier:

Tofu shirataki. Looks like pasta. Tastes like pasta (i.e., nothing). Has the same texture as pasta (almost). But is only 20 calories per serving.

Did you hear that?!

I said, 20 friggin’ calories per serving. If that’s not a New Year’s miracle, then I don’t know what is.

In addition, the shirataki is (sort of) all natural. It has three ingredients: tofu, yams, water. It is dairy free, gluten free, vegan, vegetarian, and (almost) no carb. If you’re Paleo, I imagine this is as close to a pasta substitute you can get (while I’m pretty sure cavemen didn’t eat tofu shirataki and it wouldn’t “technically” be Paleo, I doubt it would be a harmful addition to a Paleo meal when you’re just dying for some friggin’ pasta). They’re available at pretty much every grocery store I’ve been to, usually in the produce aisle next to where they keep the meat substitutes.

I’ve spent some time cooking with these bad boys over the past few months and I’ve had great results. As an Italian, it would be sacrilegious of me to ever consider permanently giving up pasta, but it’s always good to make substitutes when and where you can and save up all your pasta points for a night when you can really splurge on something goooooood…like pasta carbonara.

Here are three tried and tested recipes using tofu shirataki, each with a completely different taste to help you get kick started with your goals in the New Year! They all serve two VERY generously. Happy 2012!

Broccoli and Tofu Shirataki in a Spicy Ginger Scallion Sauce

  • 1 package of tofu shirataki, drained and rinsed with hot water
  • peanut oil, for sautéing
  • 1/2 onion, minced
  • 2 large broccoli crowns, chopped
  • 6 scallions, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, ground
  • 1/4 cup of soy sauce
  • 1-2 tablespoons honey (depending on how sweet or salty you like your sauce)
  • a pinch of red pepper flakes
  • siracha sauce to taste
  1. In a large pan or wok over high heat, add a liberal amount of peanut oil and the chopped onion. Stir until soft, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add the broccoli crowns, stirring constantly until they become heated and soft, about 10 minutes. Remove the onions and broccoli from the pan and onto a nearby plate for later use.
  3. Heat a little more peanut oil and add the scallions and ginger. Cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the soy sauce, honey, red pepper and some siracha. Heat for about 2 minutes and then taste, adjust the ingredients to your liking.
  4. Add back in the broccoli and onions and coat well in the sauce.
  5. Lower the heat and add the tofu shirataki, stirring until evenly coated with the sauce and heated through.
  6. Serve with some freshly grated ginger on top!

Thai Curry Noodle Soup

  • 1 package of tofu shirataki, drained
  • 2oz Laksa paste or other Thai curry paste
  • 1 large can (1 1/2 cups) light or full fat coconut milk
  • 2 cups mixed chopped vegetables
  • handful fresh basil leaves
  1. Place noodles in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to stand for 1 minute then massage to loosen into individual strands. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile heat 2 tablespoons of peanut or other vegetable oil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add curry paste and stir fry for 30 seconds. Quickly add coconut milk and 2 cups boiling water. Bring to the boil and add vegetables. Simmer for 2 minutes or until vegetables are cooked to your liking.
  3. To serve, divide noodles between 2 bowls. Pour soup and vegetable mixture on top of the noodles and top with basil leaves.

Mexican Pasta Bowls

  • 1 package tofu shirataki, drained and rinsed under hot water
  • half an onion, minced
  • splash of olive oil
  • 1 package fake veggie chicken (if you like)
  • three bell peppers (of assorted colors if you’re feeling fancy), cut into thin strips
  • 1/2 cup of canned black beans
  • 1/4 cup of frozen corn
  • small pinch of red pepper flakes
  • shredded chedda’ cheese, if you please (I sho’ do!)
  • Hefty pinches of:
    • Cumin
    • Chile powder
    • Paprika
    • Salt
    • Pepper
  1. In a large pan, saute the onion in the olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add the fake chicken, bell peppers and frozen corn. Cook for about 7 minutes, until peppers are soft.
  3. Add the black beans and all the spices, mix well and heat thoroughly, about 3 minutes. Toss in the tofu shirataki and heat another 2 minutes.
  4. Dish into bowls and serve topped with shredded cheese, salsa, gauc, or whatever else fits your palette!

Lentil Gravy (or A Love Letter to Gravy)

If I were to pick my top three favorite foods in the whole wide world they would be: pasta in pesto sauce, baked potatoes with butter and cheddar cheese, and… gravy.

There are few things I find more irresistible at a dinner table than a creamy, simmering boat of fresh gravy. At Thanksgiving I cover my entire plate in it until the lower contents can no longer be seen. At family reunions my grandma makes poutine with extra gravy because she knows I won’t rest until each french fry is individually saturated in the stuff. I legit had a dream that I swam in a pool of gravy one time. No joke – I have a serious gravy problem.

As you can probably tell, when I can get it, I make exceptions for real MEATY gravy. But, like fish, it’s one of those things I’ll eat when I’m out, but won’t cook on my own. The thought of manhandling some poultry or beef parts to get a goopy, sloggy stew just disgusts me. I’d rather turn a blind eye to the process and just have the finished product served in heaping ladle-fulls across my plate. If it doesn’t look like meat, I can momentarily pretend it’s not, right?

Well, seeing as le boyfriend and I are addicted to vegetarian bangers and mash, we’ve been trying to find a vegetarian recipe we can make quickly at home that stacks up to the real stuff.

After many, many tries, we found one — an amazingly simple and flavorful mushroom gravy, but one day, le boyfriend started making it, only to realize we didn’t have mushrooms. Not wanting to give up on the prospect of bangers and mash for dinner, he improvised and subbed in lentils instead.

The finished product blew us away! It had a great texture, a smooth taste, not to mention an extra protein kick…who knew lentils packed that much flavor?! I’m calling in a solid 10 on the yum-o-meter.

So far as I can tell, this is the closest thing you can get to real deal meat gravy — perfecto for Thanksgiving, poutine, or (if you’re Two Veggies and eat ‘em weekly) bangers & mash.

Vegetarian Lentil Gravy

  • 3/4 cup lentils, rinsed
  • 1 small yellow or white onion, minced
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 3 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 tbsp poultry seasoning (or 1/2 tsp each of sage, thyme and marjoram)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. In a large skillet, melt the butter and add onion and lentils. Sautee for just a minute or two over high heat.
  2. Reduce heat to medium and add vegetable broth and soy sauce. Slowly add flour, stirring well to combine and prevent lumps from forming. Bring to a simmer or a low boil, then reduce heat.
  3. Add poultry seasoning, salt and pepper, stirring consistently. Allow to cook for 20-25 minutes, stirring regularly, until gravy thickens and lentils are cooked through, adding more broth if necessary to thin out the sauce.