The cool, sunny mornings this time of year always remind me of setting off to work each day during the first few months that I spent living in Boston. It was the summer between my junior and senior year of college, and I was working for a feminist newspaper located in an old factory near MIT.

On their way to the chopping block.

Photo: maiylah via flickr

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When I had come for my interview I had gotten to the office with no trouble, but on my first day of actual work in June, I managed to get off the elevator on the wrong floor, and I suddenly discovered myself in a brassiere factory. I was astonished that a feminist newspaper could be located one floor above a bra factory, and even more stunned when I heard the women who worked there speaking a language I could not identify. (In retrospect I think it might have been Portuguese, but I’m still not sure.)

When I finally found my way to the newspaper’s offices and remarked upon its proximity to the bra factory, the editor just sighed and rolled her eyes — sort of the way she had when she’d asked me how I had heard of the paper and I’d answered, honestly, that I had read about it in Glamour. I wasn’t exactly what they were looking for — a straight, fashion-conscious college student without a single plaid flannel shirt to my name — but I felt strongly, and still do, that being straight and girly makes one no less of a feminist. Anyhow, it was my first real newspaper job, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity I had to work there. Except for all the roaches and non-stop Holly Near songs, I remember it with fondness.

One of the most interesting aspects of the neighborhood, besides the Necco candy factory next door covered in six-foot-high letters that read “Smells Good!” (which did indeed produce delicious scents daily) was the incredible diversity of food available in the neighborhood. I had cooked Indian food at home out of The Vegetarian Epicure, but I had never had it cooked by people who actually knew what they were doing. Not far away were two excellent Chinese restaurants that offered dishes I had never seen on the menus of the suburban Chinese restaurants of my youth, and I discovered the delights of Middle Eastern food at a restaurant called, what else, The Middle East.

It was the lunch trucks directly in front of MIT that interested me the most. There was one in particular that sold falafel, something I had never had. I ordered some and had to decide which sauce to dress it with: green or red. I thought, well, green is cool and soothing, whereas red is hot. Green means go and red means stop. Yes, friends, this was my color-as-cultural-symbol thought process when encountering an unknown food.

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I took one bite and the next thing I knew I was writhing on the grass in front of the student center. My mouth was on fire. My skin was on fire. It felt like my entire being was on fire. I don’t remember too much more about the incident, except for the fact that none of the hundreds of people walking by asked if I was OK. I felt like the Kitty Genovese of capsicum. The skin around my lips took a full week to heal. I’ve never encountered anything that hot again in my life.

During that summer, I lived in a hippie house where 16 people shared collective cooking duty. One of the dishes I used to make was peanut noodles. The first time I made them, a female member of the collective asked me how I could not have known that chunky peanut butter was more politically correct than creamy (I am not making this up!) and then one of the male members jumped to my defense and said, “Maybe the recipe doesn’t work with chunky peanut butter!” While they fought bitterly over peanut butter’s essential political nature, I finished the dish. Here’s a recipe and a guide to custom-blending your own peanut noodle sauce.

DIY Peanut Sauce

Making a peanut sauce that suits you and only you is totally covered under “the pursuit of happiness.” Here’s how you do it:

First, you need a nut butter. I like peanut butter, but if you need to avoid peanuts or just want a change of paste you can use tahini, ground toasted sesame paste, or almond butter.

Next, you need a flavorful thinner. Good choices for this are sherry, sesame oil, dry white wine, or tea. (Water also works.) Some people use tamari or soy sauce as a thinner, but I think it should be used sparingly as a flavoring instead.

Now you want to add flavors that will please you: garlic, ginger, red pepper flakes, red pepper oil, star anise, curry powder, and five-spice powder can be nice additions. Thinly sliced shallots are nice as well. Honey is good for sweetening the sauce, and I even used peach jam once. It was delicious! I like to add tamari or soy sauce near the end of the process, after I’ve tasted all the other flavors together.

For crunch and color add toppings of scallions, red pepper, chopped peanuts, sesame seeds, and sliced cucumber. I like to cut the cucumber into half moons or long matchsticks and the red pepper into small triangles for diversity of shape and color. If you have some extra time you can make scallions that have curled “fringe” on the ends: take a section of scallion about four inches long and make several one-inch cuts into both ends. Then throw the scallions into a bowl of water filled with ice cubes. The fringe will curl up. This is totally unnecessary but kind of fun and interesting. Otherwise, just cutting the scallions into little rings, both the white and the green part, works perfectly well.

If you’ve been wanting to add whole-grain pasta to your diet, this recipe is a good place to start. Whole-wheat spaghetti is good, and buckwheat noodles and various kinds of soba really stand up to the sauce.

Boil the pasta, rinse it, and let it cool a bit. It doesn’t have to be cold, but if you add the sauce while the pasta is too hot it will make the sauce “break,” i.e., the oils will separate from the rest of the ingredients. I figure on between 1/4 and 1/3 of a pound of dry pasta per person, but you may need more.

To make the sauce, combine 1 cup of nut butter, 1/3 to 1/2 cup of one or more liquids for thinning it (depending on desired thickness), and a variety of flavorings such as 1 teaspoon chopped ginger, 1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic, 1 tablespoon honey, and a pinch of curry powder. Now throw your concoction into a blender until it is uniform in texture.

Pour the sauce into a cup and taste it, adding tamari or soy sauce to taste. Add 1 tablespoon initially and then 1/4 teaspoon at a time until you get just what you want.

Some people like to serve the noodles tossed in sauce but then create a “fixings” bar with the scallions, red pepper, cucumber, chopped peanuts, etc., in little dishes so that their friends can customize their own meal. Let peanut sauce freedom ring!