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Three Easy Sauces for Grilled Food

Borrow a tradition from Southeast Asia, Argentina, or Spain, and whisk up these sauces for grilled fish, chicken, or steak

Fine Cooking Issue 51
Photo: Scott Phillips
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This time of year, everyone’s searching for quick ways to spice up that ordinary piece of grilled steak, fish, or chicken. Among my favorite solutions are dipping sauces: those relatively thin, explosively flavorful condiments found all along the world’s barbecue trail. Their essence is spontaneity—there’s no lengthy simmering or blending required. You simply whisk the ingredients together, so these sauces are ideal for quick weeknight meals. And they’re not just for grilled food—they’re equally appealing on broiled or sautéed meat, poultry, or fish.  

Most of these sauces balance richness with the piquancy of an acid: olive oil offset by vinegar, for example, or peanuts counter-pointed by lime juice. Because they’re so simple, dipping sauces rely on the assertive flavors of fresh herbs, fiery chiles, pungent garlic or onions, or tongue-tweaking citrus juice.  

Argentina’s chimichurri is an outstanding example of the species—a bright green sauce, rich with olive oil and redolent with garlic. There are probably as many versions as there are asadores (pit masters) to serve them. The most basic chimichurris, found among the gauchos (cowboys) of the Pampas, are little more than dried oregano and hot chile flakes moistened with oil and perhaps some vinegar. As you venture to the popular steak houses of Buenos Aires, the chimichurris become more vibrant and flavorful. Vampire-defying doses of garlic are added (my recipe is a little milder), with fistfuls of chopped fresh parsley (the latter is nature’s mouthwash, muting the malodorous assault of the garlic). Vinegar offsets the richness of the oil. The overall effect is rather like that of a loose pesto without the cheese. I can’t think of a steak, chop, or even grilled chicken breast that wouldn’t be immeasurably improved by a spoonful.   

Moving to Barcelona, we find the same yin-yang of oil and acid in a Catalan vinaigrette that makes the French version of the sauce seem downright anemic. Spanish pit masters load up their vinaigrettes with capers, onions or shallots, diced tomatoes, and pickles—some go so far as to add diced olives or hard-cooked eggs. Catalan vinaigrette is one of three condiments invariably served with grilled seafood or meat in northeast Spain (the other two are alioli—garlic mayonnaise—and romesco—a roasted vegetable, chile, and nut sauce). If you’ve never thought of vinaigrettes as having much substance, this baby is for you.  

Southeast Asians are particularly adept at the art of the dipping sauce, and Vietnamese bo bun or Thai satay wouldn’t be the same without them. These are true dipping sauces—served in tiny bowls, into which you dunk snippets of grilled beef or pork or tiny skewered satays. The dipping sauce I’ve included borrows freely from several cuisines of Southeast Asia: fish sauce from Thailand, sambal oelek (chile paste) from Indonesia, cilantro and mint from Vietnam. Although it contains peanuts, this dipping sauce is very different from the creamy peanut sauces of the region. Here, the nuts add sweetness and crunch.

Pair these sauces with just about any grilled food

You could certainly follow tradition when serving these sauces—chimichurri with beef, Catalan vinaigrette with grilled poultry or seafood, Asian dipping sauce for grilled tofu or pork. But I prefer a mix-and-match approach. All are sufficiently robust to stand up to the sturdiest steak or sparerib, but none is so overpowering that it couldn’t be served with grilled fish. The sauces can be used as a dip, in which case you’d want to provide each guest with a tiny bowlful, or you can just spoon them over a filet or any just-sliced grilled meat.


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