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 Bangers and Mash

I fell in love with a lot of things about London when le boyfriend and I studied abroad there…

British accents. Whitewashed buildings. Endless stretches of green space in the middle of the city. Abundant Indian food. Complete silence while riding the subway. War Horse. 15 pence bagels. The fact that I could get a baked potato with butter and cheese from a corner deli at practically any hour of the day.

But perhaps my grandest culinary love affair whilst in London was bangers and mash. And ohhhhh boy, it was an intense affair.

Since everyone in England is terrified of Mad Cow and other meat-bourne diseases, vegetarian B&M wasn’t hard to find at all. There was an awesome little local haunt in Soho called Mother Mash that had not one, but TWO vegetarian sausages and more varieties of mash than I could count. Ohhh my word, it was glorious.

What’s not to love about bangers and mash?

Tasty protein + mashed potatoes (swoooon) + a whole heaping bowl of gravy (If I haven’t professed it strongly enough already, I would marry gravy if I could) = pure heaven for Lauren.

Since returning from London, le boyfriend and I have made vegetarian bangers and mash a nearly weekly dinner staple. At first we were daunted by the seeming complexity of a dish involving three different recipes cooking simultaneously. Luckily, bangers and mash aren’t as daunting as they look and we’re at the point where we have the whole shebang down to a perfect science.

The beauty of this dish is that it can be customized exactly to your liking… any sort of sausage, any filling for the mashed potatoes, any gravy you like! Just follow these easy steps for a great bangers and mash starter pallet.

Bangers and Mash
(serves 4)

  • 4 sausages (vegetarian or otherwise)
  • 3 large russet potatoes
  • Milk or cream
  • Butter
  • Desired fillings for mashed potatoes (see below)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Ingredients for lentil gravy
  1. Fill a medium to large stock pot 2/3 of the way full with water and bring to a boil.
  2. While the water is boiling, peel the potatoes and chop into equally sized rounds, about two inches in diameter. When the water comes to a boil, add a generous amount of salt and throw in the potatoes. Cover and let boil, checking occasionally for about 20 minutes or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork.
  3. While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the gravy by following these directions. Allow to simmer until the rest of the ensemble is completed cooking.
  4. Once the potatoes are soft, remove from heat and drain the water from them, reserving a few tablespoons to keep the potatoes moist while mashing. Using a wooden spoon or a potato masher, mash the potatoes to a consistency of your liking.
  5. There are plenty of great recipes for mashed potatoes out there, but they all consist of roughly the same thing: potatoes, some butter, some milk or cream. Rather than commit to a specific amount of butter and milk, I’m a firm believer in adding each little by little until you get the taste and texture you want. Start with a tablespoon of butter and a splash of milk, build from there until the potatoes are creamy. Throw in some salt and whatever other additions you may want. The door is wide open for improvising, but here are some I recommend:
    1. Chopped green onion
    2. Garlic
    3. Cheese
    4. Pesto
    5. Caramelized onion
  6. While the gravy finishes simmering, fry up some of your favorite sausages using a couple of tablespoons of oil in a pan over high heat. Veggie sausages usually only take a few minutes to heat all the way through, if you’re using the real thing, it may take longer.
  7. Plop a heap of potatoes on each plate. Arrange a sausage on each bed of potatoes. Top with plenty o’ gravy.

Improvising Guacamole

As the old adage goes, when life hands you lemons limes, make lemonlimeade, but when life hands you limes and avocados, well, you better make guacamole.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me, you’ll probably hem and haw over a guacamole recipe until your avocados have gone painfully soft and your limes have turned brown. Then you have to sit and wait patiently for life’s next shipment… and we all know life’s shipments are like CSA boxes; one week it’s a veritable rainbow of veggie variety and the next it’s 6 pounds of wilted swiss chard.

So we must learn to tame our foodie egos and resist the urge to scour the world for *the best* recipe that will distinguish our guacamole from everything else on the smorgasbord. Yep, we must learn to improvise.

constantly hear the refrain “I wish I were better at improvising.”

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I used to say that a lot too…

But one day I figured it out; the ability to improvise isn’t a character trait we’re either born with or not… nope, it’s something you have to work at. Some of the confidence needed to improvise comes with time and lots of cooking, but a big part of it is just taking risks, educating yourself, and starting small.

That’s why guacamole is a great dish for a newbie improviser to start with!

I mean, let’s face it…there are a million+ different recipes out there for the world’s best guacamole, but they all come down to variations on the same handful of ingredients: avocados, citrus, spices, and onion — sometimes more, sometimes less, but most of the time, just those few things. So why not work toward a guacamole you want to eat? Make it your very own and leave the search for praise until later.

Here’s a few easy steps to get you improvising a great guac on your own!

  1. Read a lot of different recipes. Pay attention to what appeals to you and what turns you off. Make a mental or a physical note of those things.
  2. Always start with the base. When you’re not using a recipe, it’s essential to start by thinking critically about the prime ingredient. That’s the foundation you’re going to build your dish off of, so it should be strong and solid and crystal clear in your head. In the case of guacamole, our star ingredient is avocado, so start by asking yourself (and answering) these key questions:
    1. “Do I like my avocado chunky or creamy?” For the former — cube the avocado, for the latter — mash it. Like a happy medium? cube half the avocado and mash the other half; the world is your oyster, little improvisor! Slice, dice, mash, whip, cream — it’s all up to you.
    2. “Do I want the avocado to be a vehicle for other ingredients or the sole star?” This, in addition to how much guac you actually want to make, will effect how much avocado you put into the dish. I’ve seen really good hybrid salsa/gaucs that use one avocado and pile on the toppings. I’ve also seen guacs that use 6 avocados and absolutely nothing else. Again, up to you.
  3. Add the additional “typical” ingredients and sample sample sample after every addition. Ask yourself: “Would I like it to have more of that flavor? less?” Add more if that’s your jive. If it’s too much for you, think about how you can counteract that flavor. In most cases with gauc, the answer will be “more avocado”, which has a bland and masking flavor. If you find yourself repulsed by the quantities you just added, more avocado will bring it back down to a base. A good jumping point to start with (for a guac made with two avocados):
    1. 1/2 a lime
    2. 2 tablespoons chopped onion (I prefer red)
    3. pinch salt
    4. various pinches of cumin, chile powder, coriander, paprika (totally up to you)
    5. 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  4. Now the fun part! Ask yo’self “What do I really WANT to taste in my gauc?” For me, the answer is usually “spicy!”, so I often throw in lots of finely chopped chile pepper. Sometimes the answer is beans, corn, cheese, tomatoes or all of the above. Don’t be afraid to go a little crazy; most of the time you can usually pick out your additions before it’s too late. If you’re really concerned, put some guac aside and use a spoonful to try out mini-creations! Some of my all time favorite guacs have come from the weird stuff: siracha sauce, adobo peppers, banana peppers, you name it… it’s been thrown in there at some point. I make my guac based on my mood and so should you!