By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Soup, sauce better with butters

Between savory stir-fried vegetables and noodles coated in peanut sauce and a spicy spinach potato soup thickened with tahini, nut and seed butters have been playing a prominent role in my kitchen the last week.

The province of much more than peanut butter sandwiches and hummus, these wonder foods can create astonishing results in recipes.

Putting tahini — sesame seed butter — in soup sounds plain weird to me, but it was a great idea; it thickened the soup to a rich, silky texture, and combined beautifully with the coriander, cumin, potatoes and spinach into something very special. There were supposed to be chickpeas in there, too, but my chickpeas had spoiled while waiting for me to get back to them. Bad cook.

I also made the year’s first batch of Ina Garten’s Szechuan peanut sauce, a condiment so delicious you could eat it on cardboard and ask for seconds. I like to keep it in the refrigerator for quickly flavoring stir-fries — and am always tempted to just eat it straight.

It’s from Garten’s “The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook,” published by Clarkson Potter, and was introduced to me a few years ago by a friend, who served me a heaping plateful of stir-fried noodles and sauce, generously topped with raw shredded cabbage and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. I protested that I couldn’t possibly eat so much. Wrong. I polished off every delicious bite, and have kept the recipe close at hand ever since.

Spicy with garlic and ginger, silky with tahini, savory with sherry, it’s just a perfect sauce. Being incapable of properly following recipes, I made a few changes, some of them accidental — substituting a pinch of crushed red pepper for the hot chili oil I didn’t have, forgetting the cayenne and ground black pepper, using chunky peanut butter we had, instead of the smooth kind called for, and cutting the vegetable oil in half.

Which brings me to a digression: Don’t be afraid to alter a recipe. Well, except for when you’re engaging in industrial chemistry or precision baking. Generally, though, cooking can and really should be flexible enough to encompass what you have available, rather than requiring a special trip to the store to buy something else.

Instead of Garten’s provided recipe for a stir-fry of peppers, scallions and spaghetti noodles, I used what I found in the fridge, which varied from day to day, but generally included some form of pretend chicken, sliced mushrooms, sometimes cabbage, carrots, garlic and on occasion turnip greens, with purchased fresh yakisoba noodles, mostly because I like them, although spaghetti works fine and costs less.

The sauce lasts for weeks in the refrigerator, if you don’t keep helping yourself to extra spoonfuls.

Nicole Montesano can be reached at


Peanut sauce

6 garlic cloves

1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed butter)

1/2 cup peanut butter (I like chunky)

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup dry sherry

1/4 cup sherry vinegar

1/4 cup honey

1/2 teaspoon hot chili oil (or a pinch of crushed red pepper)

2 tablespoons dark sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Stick everything in the blender, and puree. Store in the refrigerator. Use generously on stir-fried vegetables and noodles, at every opportunity.

- Adapted from Ina Garten's Szechuan peanut sauce, published in "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook."

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