All right, here’s another one for all the broke artists out there! It’s the beginning of a new year, and following the holidays, there’s a strong chance the wad of cash under your bed is looking thinner than it normally does this time of month. Time for some budget eating.
Stir-fries have always been one of my go-to cheap meals. I usually make a super-large batch in one go so I can have it at the ready for a number of meals and save food prep time. Vegetables and tofu are very budget-friendly — especially if you have a good produce shop nearby that undercuts the local supermarket. The priciest element you’ll have is most likely to be a store-bought sauce. So it’s even better if you can circumvent the bottled sauces entirely and come up with something just as tasty on your own.
I like a good peanut sauce as much as anyone. But for ages, I rarely reached for it to add to a stir-fry or noodle dish, for a pretty boring reason: I found peanut sauce to be annoying. It was annoying that the good stuff often cost more money at the grocery store than other sauce varieties, even from the same brand. It was annoying that the good, but cheaper, stuff seemed to be continually in and out of stock. It was annoying that the recipes I found frequently involved 30,000 steps and maybe a food processor and too many utensils to justify making it as often as I wanted to eat it. It was annoying that the quick and easy recipes often tasted like barely-dressed-up peanut butter.
Finally I took matters into my own hands and started experimenting with those quick/easy recipes, layering in my own understanding of how to suit my own tastes and expectations. Before long, my own recipe supplanted the earlier, more involved recipes I had – and being able to assemble it all in one bowl certainly helped it speed to the front of the line. I’m not sure anymore what my source material was, and I can’t find any recipes that neatly align with this recipe as it’s evolved. I presume it’s become its own thing by this point. Most importantly, it’s easy, it’s hearty, and it’s cheap. You can find all the ingredients in a standard grocery store. You can find some of the ingredients at an Asian grocery for a bargain.
This is a good simmer sauce for “curries” (yes, I’m aware this is an overused term applied to such a wide variety of dishes and cooking styles that it’s borderline meaningless in the US today), which can involve any combination of vegetables and meat that seem to work. I do a meatless version, where I first quick-fry some one-inch cubes of firm tofu in a wok, until slightly crispy on all sides, before adding the tofu and vegetables to the pan. This is also a good sauce for dipping summer rolls or whatever, and can be served chilled for dipping purposes.
Take these ingredients and add them to one bowl (a large measuring bowl works well):
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock or bouillon
⅓ cup smooth peanut butter
4 cloves of garlic, crushed/minced
4 tbsp. soy sauce
4 tbsp. rice vinegar
3 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tbsp. sesame oil
2 tsp. ginger (powder or shredded fresh ginger root)
Juice of ½ lime
Dash of turmeric
Dash of cayenne
That’s it. Mix it up with a whisk or a fork. Semi-pro tip: It’s easier and faster to get the peanut butter to blend evenly if the stock/bouillon is warm.
Also: I normally use “natural” peanut butter by default. This sauce is one of those cases where, texturally and flavor-wise, I prefer standard creamy peanut butter. Please note using chunky peanut butter would be considered at the very least chaotic neutral, and possibly chaotic evil.
Pour the sauce into a large heated pan, and then stir in your vegetables and protein. How much of the vegetables and protein? I dunno; eyeball it. Simmer on medium heat for about 10 minutes, and serve over rice or whatever. I’m not against noodles. It’s pretty good over crispy ramen noodles.