In film, there’s the breaking of the fourth wall, when an actor turns from the enclosed snowglobe of her scene to speak directly to you. It makes you sit up straight, feel thoughtful, feel a part of the show yourself.
There aren’t the same sorts of “walls” in food, per se, but there is—amidst the daily, Food Pyramid-approved routine of neatly separated Protein, Vegetable, and Starch—another element. It’s the salty yogurt dollop alongside a curry, the flurry of crunchy breadcrumbs in a salad or atop a pasta, the potato chips jammed into a sandwich or crumbled over a bowl of onion dip. It’s the Special Sauce. And it breaks the fourth wall in its own way: It perks you and your lunch up. It’s what makes you look down at your plate and go MM! emphatically.
One of my favorites ways to add this extra element to whatever I’m eating is with a sort of special sauce. About half the time, it’s yogurt-based—I’m a yogurt fiend. The other half the time, I turn to nuts and seeds for a quick, creamy, rich, spunky something to smear beneath a pile of noodles or salad.
To do it, you basically make a tiny batch of nut butter: Grind nuts or seeds or both with a little liquid in a food processor or high-speed blender until creamy, then add concentrated jolts of flavor to give it some character. Then swoosh and dollop liberally over everything.
Just about any nut or seed will work, especially the more buttery among them: cashews, macadamias, sunflower seeds, walnuts, peanuts, Brazil nuts (if you’re among the small but ardent group of Brazil nut fans). You can put them right in the food processor or blender and they’ll blend right up. For less buttery nuts—almonds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, pistachios—you may want to soak them before you blend, in cool water for a couple of hours if you’ve got the time or half an hour in just-boiled water if you don’t. (Also, regarding seeds: Only the bigger guys apply here. Sorry, great lovers of poppy, flax, sesame, and chia seeds.)
The ratio of water to nuts couldn’t be easier to remember: It’s just 1:1. Half a cup of sunflower seeds? Half a cup of water. That will give you a thick but still drizzleable sauce to futz with. For a thicker or thinner sauce, reduce or increase the amount of water.
How to flavor it? Depends on what you’re serving with the sauce. The best way to start is by raiding your spice cabinet and your fridge:
Spices: smoked paprika, chipotle chile powder, curry powder, five-spice powder, onion powder, saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, garam or chaat masala
Pastes from the fridge: Sriracha, harissa, Thai curry paste, yuzu kosho, miso, mustard, tomato paste
Herbs and other fresh flavors: citrus juice and zest, capers, any coarsely chopped fresh soft herbs (or even spinach!), vinegar, coarsely chopped garlic, grated ginger, coarsely chopped chile (seeded if you’re spice-sensitive)
Wildcards: matcha tea powder, the sauce from a can of chipotles en adobo, cocoa powder (especially with a little chile powder or sauce!), pitted and roughly chopped olives, unsweetened shredded or flaked coconut, nutritional yeast
Start by adding anything that’s in coarser pieces (e.g. garlic, olives, coconut, capers) to the bowl of a food processor with a pinch of kosher salt, and pulse to pulverize. Add the nuts or seeds and the water, along with any add-ins you like (start with one or two), and blend until completely puréed. Dip in a finger or spoon and taste. More salt? More heat? More acid? Perfection? Adjust accordingly.
If you want to skip the whole pulling out the food processor routine, you can start with a premade nut butter as your base—peanut butter and almond butter, of course, but also tahini or any fancy nut butters you happen to have kicking around.
Your sauce will keep in a tightly sealed container about a week in the refrigerator.
Now: What to do with it? For starters, I like it at the bottom of a bowl of noodles or grains: Use the back of a spoon to smear a spoonful of it along the curve of your bowl, then pile noodles, vegetables, tofu or eggs or shredded chicken or hunky pieces of tuna or salmon, herbs galore on top. You could also just plop a well-placed spoonful of it in the corner of your lunchbox. (More lunchy bowl ideas? Right this way.) Dip crudités in it. Or massage it into a kale salad, or toss with roasted vegetables or tofu or chicken. Swoop up some of the sauce with every forkful.
A few ideas to get your gears turning: - Sunflower seeds + capers + nutritional yeast + lemon zest + red wine vinegar + black pepper = vegan Caesar-ish for serving with a big pile of romaine (and an equally large pile of croutons)
Almonds + miso + mustard + grated ginger + rice vinegar + lime zest = A friend to cabbage slaws and rice bowls everywhere
Cashews + garam masala + turmeric + coconut flakes + lime juice = Cries out for chickpeas and cauliflower
Walnuts + orange zest + red wine vinegar + capers + parsley = A picker-upper for Italian-ish sautéed greens or vegetables