In the movie Elf, the man-child played by Will Ferrell pulls a jug of syrup from his sleeve and pours it on his spaghetti. Only then, once his noodles and marinara are slathered in sugary liquid, will the giant elf eat his dinner.
I have a real-life friend who's the same way when it comes to hot sauce. He puts it on eggs in the morning, chicken sandwiches at lunch and lo mein for dinner. I've seen him use it on salad. Once, on a dare, he chugged half a bottle at a restaurant table like it was Gatorade; kid hardly broke a sweat. When my friend makes something that actually calls for hot sauce, like wings or a queso dip, he has to make two portions—one for him and one for people who still value their remaining tastebuds.
I don't share my friend's affection for atomic heat, but I have learned something from him (and the elf): A perfect sauce can elevate even the most mundane main dish.
In my house, taking a couple minutes to whip up a killer sauce means I can make regular chicken nuggets for the kids and turn it into something worthy of standout street food for me. It means I can reheat leftovers that have lost their natural flavors and infuse them with something special, in little or no time. It means I can have a delicious meal on the fly and, when the cupboard is stocked and the mood is right, feel inspired to build an entire meal around the sauce rather than the other way around.
Here are three recipes that fit this category for me, ranging from foolproof simple to requiring a bit more prep time but paying off in the end.
What you need: 1/4 cup chicken or veggie broth, 2 tablespoons peanut butter, 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes.
How you make it: Mix it all in a small bowl. That's it.
Eat it with: Definitely chicken, but also veggies like red peppers and snow peas.
Garlic Chipotle Mayo
What you need: 5 cloves peeled garlic, 3/4 cup mayo, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 chipotle peppers in adobo.
How you make it: Cook the garlic in a pan over medium-high heat until cloves are golden brown. Transfer to food processor with rest of ingredients. Blend until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Eat it with: Excellent with roast beef and steak, even better with fries.
Homemade Rooster Sauce
What you need: 1 pound red jalapeño peppers (no stems), 1/2 pound red Serrano peppers (no stems), 6 cloves peeled garlic, 3 tablespoons honey, 3 tablespoons tomato paste, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 1/2 cup white vinegar. (Pro tip: Stick with just jalapeño peppers, and be sure to remove seeds and ribs, for a slightly milder sauce.)
How you make it: Chop up the peppers and place them, along with everything else, into a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour into medium saucepan and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce to medium heat and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let sauce cool to room temperature. Bottle and refrigerate. Lasts up to a week.
Eat it with: If you're my buddy, just about any damn thing.