“Sauces. I’ll say it my bowls taste lame.”
I recently asked a bunch of my friends what they’ve been eating for dinner recently (it was for my job, sort of) and found myself of the receiving end of a veritable outpouring of sentiments requesting sauces.
It would seem that many of my friends have taken to a pretty respectable if slightly boring style of eating - a grain bowl (farro, rice, quinoa, etc) topping with a bunch of roasted vegetables and maybe some protein. This makes me happy because it hopefully means that they will live for a long time (so many vegetables!) but it makes me sad to think that they are so regularly eating food that leaves them uninspired.
At first when I started thinking about answering this question, I was like great, no problem, I’m going to pull up all these cool recipes that I always read and bookmark. But the reality is that I am kind of a sauce-slacker. I feel like in the food world it is super trendy to be like “oh my gosh, I made this sauce from scratch during my 9-hour marathon meal prep session and I’m going to put it on everything and life is going to be perfect.”
To me, this is unrealistic for several reasons.
I feel like usually those sauces are herb-based and, to be quite honest, fresh herbs are not really in my budget. this is partially because…
I never seem to use up all of these sauce before they turn brown and weird and gross. that’s the truth and i’m not ashamed to admit it.
I also don’t have a food processor or even a blender that works very well so it’s hard to make these sauces.
Zhug - Zhug sauce (pronounced zoug) is a Middle-eastern sauce made from cilantro, chiles, and garlic. Think pesto, but with no cheese and more spice. It’s a very trendy sauce right now, and pretty easy to make if you have a good blender or food processor. BUT Trader Joe’s also sells a really good version that you can keep in your fridge for about 10 days before it goes bad. It’s great with Mediterranean flavors on a grain bowl, but I also love it on toast with eggs or avocado, stirred into hummus, or into a chicken salad for an excellent sandwich. Here’s a great recipe if you want to make it yourself.
Salsa - I always keep a jar of salsa verde in my fridge. I prefer verde to regular tomato salsa because I think it tastes fresher, with a little more acid. This is my favorite (it’s very mild!). I love it on rice and beans with some roasted sweet potatoes - a very unglamorous meal made very delicious.
Garlicky yogurt - Use a garlic press or a microplane or just chop the hell out of a big clove of garlic and stir it into plain yogurt. Add a pinch of salt, some black pepper, and maybe a squeeze of lemon. This is delicious on anything, basically. I love it with fried eggs and toast, or with harissa-roasted vegetables. Use it as a counterpoint to something spicy for a cooling, creamy effect. (Think sour cream.)
Lemons - Keep a couple of lemons around is a great way to wake your food up a little if it feels a little…dead. Just squeeze a little over your food to freshen it up, or thinly slice, toss with olive oil and roast with vegetables for a caramelized, sour effect.
Lao Gan Ma spicy chili crisp - Anything that is at all vaguely Asian (or even not) is improved by this sauce. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that literally every person I have showed this to is obsessed and addicted. It is crunchy, a little spicy, salty, and very savory. You can get it online but it’s more expensive - you can find it at basically any Asian grocery store. I love it on any food that is asian inspired - noodles, tofu, stir-fries - and many that are not (scrambled eggs!!!)
Calabrian chiles - (See the photo at the end of the post.) This is the only semi-luxury thing that I’m going to recommend. I became addicted these chiles when I was working at an Italian restaurant, and they’re still a go-to cooking staple for me. I like them chopped up and cooked into the base (when you’re sautéing your garlic/onion/carrot at the very beginning of cooking, add a teaspoon or too for a nice backbone of heat). Calabs (as I tenderly call them) are great in tomato sauce or any kind of soup, or just chopped up on top of a simple pasta. They’re spicy, but with a fruitiness and tang from the little bit of vinegar in their curing liquid. The oil is also delicious and great for cooking. They’re harder to find - look at specialty Italian grocery stores or just buy these online, already chopped up and super easy to use. For reference, this is what I have in my fridge. No exaggeration - that’s how much I love them.
Sambal oelek - I was introduced to sambal through a friend’s love of Indonesian cooking, but it’s a great way to add heat to your food without tons of other flavor. Sambal is pretty pure chile, not tons of vinegar or other flavors - it gives the clean flavor of cooking with fresh chiles without having to actually buy fresh chiles all the time. It’s widely available - look in the international section of any grocery store.
Harissa - Harissa is a middle eastern chile paste made garlic, red pepper, chiles, vinegar and salt. Some versions have a little preserved lemon for good measure. I have recently tossed it with carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli and brussels sprouts to add a little heat and flavor to the ingredients in my bowls. You can buy it as paste, as a spread or as a dry spice blend. This is what I have in my fridge currently, but Trader Joe’s also makes a good one.
Tahini - At this point, I feel like tahini is as common as nut butters - it’s another fairly shelf/fridge-stable item that can be used to amp up an average bowl. Here is a great recipe for a Lemon Tahini dressing that you can keep around. I also like this buttermilk tahini ranch recipe, for which I do not use a blender. (I just whisk.)
Nuts - Nuts can definitely be pricey on that post-college budget, but I buy bags at Trader Joe’s or Costco and keep them frozen until I need them (nuts do go bad!). Before I use them, I always toast them by tossing them into a dry cast iron skillet over medium-high heat and stirring regularly until they’re fragrant and darkened. Chop them up and add them to salads and bowls for a little extra flavor and texture and healthy fat! I love walnuts, almonds and pecans, though hazelnuts also feel quite luxurious.
Breadcrumbs - not a sauce, obviously, but I always keep around a container of Panko breadcrumbs, which you can buy at any grocery store. A toasted garlic breadcrumb makes everything seem 50% better - Finely chop garlic or pass through a garlic press - I do about 2 large cloves per quarter cup of crumbs. Put a good glug of olive oil in a cold pan, and add the garlic. Heat it over medium, and as soon as the garlic starts to bubble, add the breadcrumbs. Toss well to mix everything and cook, stirring constantly, until breadcrumbs are nicely toasted and darkened. Add this to a kale salad for some good texture, or throw on top of pasta, sprinkle onto a piece of salmon. Breadcrumbs up the ante anywhere there isn’t any textural variation.
I think the best way to improve the flavor of your bowl experience is to let a certain part of the world inspire you. A rice bowl with broccoli and sweet potatoes can be Middle Eastern inspired (add zhug, garlicky yogurt and some toasted nuts), Mexican (add some refried or black beans, some salsa and maybe some cheese), or Italian (add parmesan, black pepper, and some diced Calabrian chiles.). Instead of having a kale rice bowl with chicken, make a fried rice with everything chopped up and fried together, seasoned with soy sauce and topped with some chile crisp or sambal.
I hope this is helpful! Do you have a question that you think I can helpfully (or unhelpfully) answer? Send me a text because we’re probably close friends since you’re reading this blog. OR email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, send me an Instagram message or comment below!