Super Sauces, Nut Butters, and More

>> Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Gina writes:

"Hello, Ashley and Stephen! I've been reading your blog since the days! My question is about condiments. When you added your recipe archive, I noticed that you like to mix together different sauces. I'm wondering how you get the ideas to combine flavors (for example: the parsnip dumplings with the maple and balsamic sauce). Either I'm not that creative or you two may know some secrets I don't know. Regardless, I'd love some info!"

Hi, Gina! First, we were SO happy to hear you've been reading us since Method. This blog has WAY more going on . . . and I think we've grown quite a bit, not just in readership, but also with the content. Anyway, you're right. To add flavor to breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks, we use a variety of sauces in our cooking and baking. More often than not, these condiments are haphazardly created with whatever we have on hand. I'll say that in another way: They are rarely planned. A quick whisk with a fork, a few dashes of salt and pepper, and a bit of tweaking later, we're 9-times-out-of-10 satisfied with the end result.

But how exactly do we get our ideas? We definitely don't have some secrete method of coming up with flavor combinations. We just take what we like, use what we have, and think of what we know works (from restaurants, past meals, and friends) and improvise. It's part of what we love so much about being kitchen-crazed foodies.

I think experience helps when crafting weird sauces, like the maple-balsamic on you referenced, but even a novice can find the perfect mix. Otherwise, how will you gain experience? Yes. It takes a bit of guts to get to the glory, but we'll share some of our tips so you can try it out for yourself without feeling too far out of your comfort zone.

First, here are (just a few) recipes that utilize sauces we've randomly mixed together:

And here's how we come up with them:

We try to keep several types of oils, vinegars, nut butters, jams, spices and sweeteners on hand. Here's a brief list of the items in our pantry right now. It may seem like a lot, but you can assemble an army of taste-enhancers by slowing picking up a couple jars and bottles here and there on your trips to the grocery store.

NOTE: Best of all, these items last a relatively long time . . . and you only need a few teaspoons or tablespoons to create a good sauce:

Maple Syrup
Agave Nectar
Peanut Butter
Almond Butter
Earth Balance (butter substitute)
Olive Oil
Grapeseed Oil
Sesame Oil
Coconut Oil
Yellow Mustard
Grainy Mustard
Kosher Salt
Cayenne Pepper
Sesame Seeds
Red Pepper Flakes
Frozen Fruit
Strawberry Jam
Raspberry Jam
Greek Yogurt
Hot Sauce
Balsamic Vinegar
Apple Cider Vinegar
White Vinegar
Low-Sodium Soy Sauce
Canned Pumpkin
Garlic Cloves
Cocoa Powder
Parmesan Cheese
Coconut Milk
Lemon Juice
Almond Milk

WOAH, NOW! That seems like a lot of stuff. But, trust us, none of these ingredients are terribly expensive. How do we go from these seemingly dissimilar parts to create a whole tasty sauce? As I mentioned above, it's a ton of experimentation and tweaking.

The mental process goes a little something like this:
  • OK. We're making pancakes for breakfast. I'd like a sweet, but unique sauce. Maple syrup is typically used on pancakes. Well, so is peanut butter. Perhaps combining maple syrup and peanut butter -- oh, plus some cinnamon and a bit of cloves -- would work.
  • Hmmm. This stir-fried tofu and veggies would sure taste a lot better with something saucy. I've used soy sauce before, but I remember how I really liked that garlic-ginger dish we had the other night out. It was sweet, so honey might help it thicken and satisfy my sugar craving.
  • This seitan sandwich could sure use a little tang. I've had vinegar put on them before. And I usually get yellow mustard. Maybe I should mix the two to make a sauce. Oh, yeah -- and horseradish has a nice, robust flavor. Sesame seeds will add some texture, too.

Really. It's that easy. Think of dishes you've had before. Think of flavors you KNOW go well together. And then mix them up. (Or perhaps something that sounds CRAZY, but good. I mean, what you see above has pomegranate juice in it -- WEIRD!) Ratios are a bit more difficult to determine. My trick is -- start small and slow. I like to start with a tablespoon of something. Then add in the next thing half-teaspoonful (or so) by half-teaspoonful.

Think about it this way: You can always add more, but taking away and compensating for WAY TOO MUCH cayenne pepper, for example, id much more difficult.

For less common combinations, you may need to think outside the box. Really freak out, man! Risk making something that you won't use. (I hate wasting food, but it happens all in the name of flavor.) Once, I made a grainy mustard peanut butter (yeah, ICK -- what was I thinking?!) that just WASN'T good at all. But now I know. I've learned from that experience. On the other hand, if I had never tried to combine beets, cocoa, and Parmesan cheese, the ever-so tasty Beetza with Cocoa-Beet Sauce wouldn't have been born.

Which reminds me: What you like is what you like. Your friends, spouses/girlfriends/boyfriends, cats/dogs may not agree. Oh, well. That's OK.

Do you feel your inner saucier coming out to play yet? Well, if you're still a bit hesitant, just start with simple sauces.

Like what exactly?
  • Equal parts almond butter mixed with honey. Another time, try adding a pinch of cayenne pepper for some heat. If you want to use it on a stir-fry, add some coconut milk the next time.
  • Equal parts canned pumpkin mixed with maple syrup. The next time, add some minced garlic (for savory) or cinnamon/cloves (for sweet).
  • 1 tablespoon Greek yogurt mixed with a teaspoon or two of grainy mustard. On another occasion, add some horseradish for extra punch.
  • Equal parts Earth Balance mixed with strawberry jam. The next time, add a bit of ground pepper. Maybe even some chopped basil, if you're feeling lucky.
So. That's our process, if you can call it that. Nothing mysterious. Nothing tricky. Just using certain ingredients in sloppy ways to make our taste buds happy. We've been loving the results of our adventures -- and we think many of you like them, too -- so we'll keep mixing together like with like and like with unlike until we strike out so many times we're sick. But I doubt that will happen. A little flavor never hurt anyone . . . right?

Do you have any saucy secrets? Any advice you would like to share with Gina about how to be bolder in the kitchen? Perhaps we forgot some ingredients on our go-to pick list. We'd love to hear from you! Just leave a comment or email us at neverhomemaker [at] gmail [dot] com.

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