Last Friday’s Birthday Week Indulgence was lunch at one of my go-to “quick food” spots in the 650: Asian Box. (More about that some other time.) While I was watching the locals fight it out for lunch-time parking spots in the ridiculously crowded Palo Alto Town & Country shopping center and digging into my usual — rice noodles with tofu and vegetables, topped with peanut sauce and sriracha — I was thinking about how essential that peanut sauce was. That my Box lunch wouldn’t be nearly as craveable without it (at least not enough to get me to brave the Town & Country parking lot on Friday afternoon). That I’m ambivalent about peanut butter, but will happily eat peanut sauce. Peanut sauce is delicious and complex, with that umami thing that keeps me coming back for more.
So, come Sunday afternoon when I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to make space in my jam-packed refrigerator (and which kitchen experiments I need to sacrifice to the compost bin), I come across not one, but two containers of DIY Crunchy Peanut Butter. Oof, I’m not eating that any time soon. Unless! Why not make my own peanut sauce? I gathered up a few condiments from the refrigerator (confession: I love condiments and probably have waaay too many), a container of simple syrup (leftover from making limoncello), and olive oil.
The version I came up with isn’t “authentic,” but it is easy to make, flavorful, and adds some punch to a quick meal of noodles and steamed vegetables. The fun in making this sauce from scratch was using ingredients that I had on hand and thinking of them as building blocks of flavor. How was I going to balance sweet, tart, spicy, with that umami flavor that makes peanut sauce so interesting and craveable?
First things first: I had to thin the peanut butter, which mean adding some oil. Olive oil is my default for savory cooking, so I’d added it to the peanut butter, almost without thinking. (Later it occurred that peanut oil might have been a better choice, but oh well.) I added a touch of sesame oil for variety and to complement the roasted peanut flavor. That left me to figure out — by trial and error — how to add complexity while balancing the sweet, tart, and salty components. I started by adding some ponzu sauce, to hit the notes of sweetness, saltiness, and tartness all at once. From there I adjusted the sweet/spicy combo by adding some simple syrup and some sriracha. Finally I added some fish sauce for its umami quality. Fish sauce on its own? Not so great. But it really does add that final oomph to a sauce.
I’ve been trying not to slather this sauce on every meal this week, but it’s my new favorite condiment. Give it a try, and feel free to tweak the flavor components to your taste — that’s the best part of DIY!
Recipe: Peanut Sauce
Yield: About 1/2 cup
While this sauce is an easy pairing for Asian-style noodles, such as soba or mai fun, you can also use it as salad dressing or a dipping sauce for grilled vegetables, chicken or tofu. Need more sauce? Double the recipe!
2.5 ounces DIY Crunchy Peanut Butter (or your favorite brand of natural, crunchy peanut butter), warmed/softened in the microwave on high for 15 seconds
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon simple syrup
1 tablespoon ponzu sauce
1½ teaspoons sriracha (or to taste)
1 teaspoon fish sauce (or to taste)
- Place the peanut butter in a small mixing bowl.
- Add the olive and sesame oils to the mixing bowl and mix with a fork, combining until smooth.
Keep stirring until all of the oil has been combined with the peanut butter. The mixture will appear thinner and lighter colored, but don’t worry, it will thicken up when you add the remaining ingredients.
- Add the simple syrup and ponzu sauce to the peanut butter and oil mixture, stirring in a tight center (creating a whirlpool-like effect).
Continue stirring until the mixture is smooth. You’re creating a water-in-oil emulsion by adding the liquid simple syrup and ponzu sauce. The result is a lot like what happens when you make a chocolate ganache.
- Add the fish sauce and sriracha to the sauce, mixing thoroughly to combine.
- Taste the sauce and adjust the sweetness, saltiness, and spice to your taste by adding a bit more simple syrup, fish sauce, or sriracha.
Take it easy with the fish sauce; a little goes a long way.
- Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.