Seasons by the Sea: What Every Meal Needs

Getting saucy with food's own little black dress
Cheese enchiladas on top of tomatillo salsa with extra pico de gallo on the side Laura Donnelly

A sauce is the L.B.D. of a meal. For those who don’t know, L.B.D. is the abbreviation of “little black dress,” which has come to mean a dressy, reliable wardrobe staple, appropriate for many occasions, from work to fancy affairs. Every woman has, or should have, an L.B.D. in which she feels and looks good, is confident, and just knows it is the perfect thing to wear. By the same token, a piece of grilled chicken or fish may be fine on its own, but nap it with a little pineapple jalapeño salsa and you have dressed it up in an L.B.D. This dish has gone from okay to oh, boy!

If you don’t cook very much or don’t like to cook, you probably never make sauces. If you do like to cook, you probably have a repertoire of sauces, some so easy they literally take two minutes to assemble. It’s remarkable the difference a sauce can make to a dish.

There are so many types of sauces from around the world it would be impossible to do them all justice. For the sake of simplicity and keeping the spring season in mind, I am ignoring warm, rich, creamy, cheesy sauces. Let’s focus on bright and sprightly, easy to make sauces, from delicate to gutsy. Some sauces are as simple as Japanese ponzu (soy, lime juice, mirin, and rice vinegar) and raspberry sauce (raspberries and sugar), some more complex, like mole and tonnato. Some can act as a marinade beforehand, then be boiled to turn into a sauce. 

My favorite kinds of sauces are multipurpose, as in they are good on everything on the plate, and then even better the next day on something else. One favorite recipe on rotation is a roasted red pepper and olive pesto that is perfect on a piece of grilled or baked salmon sidecarred by boiled new potatoes and asparagus. The next day it is great on eggs or slathered on a sandwich. It’s also a nice idea to have extra Mason or Ball jars around so you can give some sauce to friends. This is always a surprise and it can inspire them to make a dish to go with it. 

Another beloved recipe is a version of my friend Laurie’s pesto. She makes it as smooth as velvet and serves it as an appetizer with cooked penne for dipping. The basil leaves are blanched beforehand to retain their bright green color, and the garlic is boiled briefly to tame it. 

A sauce I can never get enough of in Thai restaurants is peanut dipping sauce for satays and summer rolls. This, too, is easy to make at home and goes perfectly with the kind of lighter cooking we aspire to as warm weather approaches. Depending on which Southeast Asian country it is from, the name varies from bumba kacang, sambal kacang, to pecel. Indian chutneys and raitas make meals far more interesting and the list of ingredients can be in the double digits or as few as two. Yogurt, chopped cucumbers, and garlic — also known as tzatziki in Greek cooking — make a raita perfect for marinated grilled chicken.

Green sauces like chimichurri and chermoula are especially good with meats and fish. Chimichurri is an Argentinian sauce that compliments fine steaks and churrasco. It is a mixture of lots of parsley, garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes, oregano, and red wine vinegar. The parsley gives it a pleasant vegetal taste and the garlic, vinegar, and pepper flakes help cut through the fattiness of the beef. Be careful with the oregano, though, this flavor can overpower the sauce if you use too much (I did) and if it sits overnight (it did.)

Chermoula is a Moroccan, Algerian, Libyan, Tunisian favorite that can be used as a marinade and sauce. It is usually a combination of cumin, cilantro, lemon juice, garlic, and other optional herbs and spices. 

Spanish romesco sauce is generally a mixture of roasted red peppers, almonds, sometimes bread, sometimes tomatoes, garlic, paprika, vinegar, and olive oil. Chef Jose Andres’s recipe is a good version and he serves it with fresh peas and mint.

If you just don’t have the inclination to make your own sauces (grrrr . . .) then at least pick up some chutneys at the Hampton Chutney Company in Amagansett or some imaginative sauces by Kimchijews available at L and W Market in Bridgehampton. The salsas and pestos at local I.G.A.s are damned adequate as well. Charissa’s Harissa is a locally made condiment/sauce that you can find in most stores. On its own, it is an intense, spicy blend full of cumin, hot peppers, coriander, and more. If you thin it with more oil or mayo or yogurt, you’ve got a sauce!

Tomatillo sauce or salsa literally takes 30 seconds to make. You just peel the paper husks off of the tomatillos, toss them into a blender or food processor with cilantro, garlic, a jalapeño pepper, and salt, pulse until desired consistency and serve. 

Raspberry sauce is the easiest of all and while it is a bit extravagant, it is also such a treat to serve to guests. Just whir them in a blender with a bit of sugar and strain. Now that scoop of ice cream or plain old slice of pound cake is wearing an L.B.D. and it is fabulous!

People should not be intimidated by recipes for mayonnaise. It is easy to make and you will be a rock star if you serve homemade mayo during tomato sandwich season this summer. Find a simple recipe and practice it. Even if you flub it up, you’ve only spent five minutes and about 50 cents on ingredients.

Try making some sauces and you will discover that you are making meals better, dressier, fancier, often even healthier and prettier. Make some extra for your freezer and friends, too!