Versatile Sauce

Peanut butter is good. But what else can you do with that jar of peanuts sitting in your pantry? Aside from just munching them whole, I mean.

How about a very versatile peanut sauce?

We’ve got one we’ve been using for thirty years, give or take. It’s an excellent dip for vegetables, goes well on grilled beef and chicken (try marinading the meat with lemon juice, soy sauce, and ginger), and makes a spectacular pasta sauce (use a noodle with plenty of folds: shells, rotini, or bowties). However, I don’t recommend it in PB&J–unless the J is pepper jelly.

It keeps well in the fridge for several days. Make a big batch and use it on sandwiches with grilled meat and pickled vegetables one night, and over pasta a few days later after the flavors mature.

The recipe is adapted from one in Cynthia Wine’s Hot & Spicy Cooking. The book came out in the mid-80s, so new copies don’t come cheap–that link says they start at $88. After three decades, I don’t think Cynthia would be too offended if you picked it up used.)

Our version has evolved over time; here’s the current version:


  • 1/2 to 2/3 cup shelled, roasted peanuts – depending on your dietary restrictions and mood, you can use salted, unsalted, or flavored. We’ve had excellent results with chipotle- and barbeque-flavored nuts. Err on the side of generosity: the nuts are the star of the dish, after all.
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 to 3 cloves minced garlic – or more, if that’s what floats your boat.
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 tablespoon crushed dried red chiles – approximate measure here, and to taste. We’ve found this to be an excellent way to use up those packets of pepper the pizza delivery place insists on bringing.
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice – yes, fresh. I know I often encourage laziness in cooking. This is not one of those times. Buy a lemon and squeeze it yourself; don’t use the bottled stuff. Ever.
  • 1/2 cup water – tap water is fine, don’t feel you need to use bottled–unless you’re in California, in which case, please use a brand bottled outside the state. There’s a drought on, you know.
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil


  1. Using your favorite blender, grind the peanuts. Don’t try to get it too smooth. Even if you prefer creamy peanut butter, leave a few small chunks of nut to add some texture.
  2. Combine all the ingredients except the peanut oil in a small saucepan.
  3. Simmer for at least fifteen minutes. You’ve got a lot of latitude here. It should go long enough for all the ingredients to combine and thicken slightly, but not so long that it turns into a paste.
  4. Remove from heat and stir in the peanut oil.

PB & ?

Something a little different from the cynicism of the past couple of weeks.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is arguably the centerpiece of the classic American lunch. If you grew up in the U.S., you probably can’t begin to count the number of PB&Js you’ve eaten. There’s a reason for that success: the combination of the rich, slightly salty PB wraps the sweetness of the J; at the same time, the tart aftertaste of the J cuts the unctuousness of the PB. Complementary pairs.

You’ve probably got your favorite variation, the one you go to automatically; the one you eat every day for a week without a qualm. White bread, chunky peanut butter, and grape jelly. Whole wheat, creamy organic, and homemade ginger-apricot jam. But no matter how much you like your favorite, every so often you need a little variety, right?

To my mind, one of the most fascinating things about the PB&J is that most people are only willing to consider changing one of the three ingredients. Change the bread? No way. Change the peanut butter? Are you insane‽ In both cases, people might reluctantly change brands, but not the style. Fans of crunchy will turn up their noses at creamy. Those who prefer a “natural” peanut butter flee from pre-stirred varieties.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of room for experimentation with the “jelly” element. Even the change of mouth feel in switching from jelly to jam can be enough to satisfy your desire for novelty. Apple jelly is different from apple jam, and apple butter is different from either.

But what if you want to go further? Break from convention, abandon the J, and let your taste buds roam free*? What combines well with the immutable pairing of PB and bread?

* OK, that’s a disturbing image.

You could try marmalade. You could. I won’t stop you. I don’t think you’ll enjoy it, though. It would take an unusually strong peanut butter to stand up to marmalade and make a balanced PB&M.

Allow me to make a couple of suggestions.

Honey–Sometimes you just want to rot your teeth*. Honey cranks up the sweetness level beyond the ability of jelly, without the guilty feelings that sprinkling your sandwich with processed sugar would bring. And there’s as much variety in flavors of honey as in jellies.

* Let’s face it: 90% of us are never going to brush after lunch.

Cream cheese–Feeling sugared out? Try cream cheese. Not one of the abominations that come mixed with smoked salmon, chives, strawberries, or, God help us, pumpkin. What are you, sick? Just a simple, pure schmear. It works better with crunchy peanut butter, so you get a bit of textural contrast, but even with creamy PB, the slight bite of the cheese plays nicely against the smooth legume.

OK, the floor is open. What do you all use when you want to break free of the standard PB&J?