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Get saucy this summer with these simple recipes to elevate your favorite dishes

Muhammara (red pepper and nut spread). (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)
Muhammara (red pepper and nut spread). (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

It’s hot. You don’t have a whole lot of energy for cooking dinner. Maybe throw something on the grill? Make a salad? A sandwich?

Summer heat can drain your creativity when it comes to putting together a meal. But a simple sauce can elevate a plain old piece of grilled chicken, zucchini , tofu or steak into something exciting and bursting with flavor.

These three sauces — all made quickly using a food processor or blender — can be assembled using just a few ingredients. The sauces are what I call “flavor builders.”  They’re in your refrigerator when you need new flavors to boost a dinner that doesn’t feel all that inspired.

The salsa macha — a gorgeous blend of garlic, chiles, sesame seeds, peanuts and vinegar — offers spice, nuttiness and a smoky flavor that goes well with everything from chips and tacos to grilled chicken or shrimp. Spoon a tablespoon onto grilled fish, heat up some tacos, and you’ve got the making of a great dinner.

The summer green herb and tahini sauce is thick, almost like a dip. It can be served with raw vegetables, taco chips, or spread on pita bread with leftover sliced meat, fish, salads, or chicken.

And then there’s muhammara, a Middle Eastern-inspired spread, which bursts with sweet pepper and chile pepper, nuts, cumin, olive oil and breadcrumbs.

All these sauces will last, covered and refrigerated, for several days or longer. (None of them freeze particularly well.) You’ll quickly find yourself relying on them for all your summer cooking, like an old friend that brings new life to the party.

Summer green herb and tahini sauce

Summer green herb and tahini sauce. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

This is a thick sauce, full of fresh summer herbs blended with tahini, olive oil and lemon juice. It works as a dip with raw vegetables or grilled or cooked shrimp. Spread on warm pita bread with slices of grilled lamb or spoon it over grilled chicken.

I made the sauce using parsley, cilantro, dill and summery mint, but you can use any combination of green herbs you like. You want a total of about 1 ⅔ cups.

Use your favorite brand of tahini, one of mine comes from Seed and Mill in New York City.

Makes about 1 cup.


  • ½ cup tahini, stirred
  • ½ cup fresh parsley, removed from stems and coarsely chopped
  • ⅓ cup fresh cilantro, with stems, coarsely chopped
  • ⅓ cup fresh dill, removed from stems and coarsely chopped
  • ½ cup fresh mint, removed from stems and coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • About ¼ cup boiling water
  • 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper


  1. Place the tahini, parsley, cilantro, dill, mint, lemon juice and half the water in a food processor or blender. Whirl until thick and chunky. Add the remaining water depending on how thick or thin you want the sauce to be. Add the olive oil, salt and pepper, and whirl.
  2. Place in an airtight jar or container and refrigerate for up to a week.

Salsa macha

Salsa macha cooking. (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

I first experienced salsa macha years ago when a friend brought me a jar home from her trip to Mexico. I fell for it in a big way. What was it? It tasted like a version of Asian chile crisp, like peanut butter and chile oil fell in love. It had so many flavors I adore, all mingled together into one spicy, smoky, nutty sauce.

Originally from the Veracruz region of Mexico, the salsa is made with dried chiles, garlic, peanuts, sesame seeds and vinegar cooked up in oil.

There are so many uses for this sauce: Spread it on tortillas for your next taco, add a spoonful to egg dishes, or spoon it over grilled fish, meat or poultry. It can also be used as a condiment added to stir-fries and stews to add a smoky spicy flavor or added to cold noodle salads or noodle soups.

Makes about 2 cups.


  • 1 cup olive or vegetable oil
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 4 small or 2 large dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeds removed, and coarsely chopped*
  • 4 chiles de árbol, stemmed and seeds removed, and coarsely chopped*
  • ½ cup plus 1 to 2 tablespoons roasted salted peanuts
  • 1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon red or white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 teaspoon light brown sugar or honey
  • Salt to taste

*Chiles can be found in Latin American grocery stores or online


  1. Place the oil in a heavy skillet (like cast iron) over medium-low heat; add the garlic and cook gently for about 6 to 8 minutes, or until the garlic slices soften but do not brown. Add the chiles and cook, stirring for 2 minutes. Add the ½ cup peanuts and sesame seeds, stir, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the vinegar, 1 tablespoon of water and a generous pinch of salt and cook, stirring for 3 minutes, letting most of the vinegar and water evaporate. Remove from the heat and let the salsa cool.
  2. Place in the container of a food processor and blend until chunky; you are not looking for a smooth paste, but rather a chunky salsa. Remove from the food processor and place in a glass jar. Stir in the remaining 1 to 2 tablespoons peanuts. The salsa will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for at least a month.

Muhammara (red pepper and nut spread)

Muhammara (red pepper and nut spread). (Kathy Gunst/Here & Now)

This red pepper, scallion and pomegranate spiced sauce is incredibly versatile. It’s a classic Middle Eastern sauce and works just as well spread on warm pita bread with chopped tomatoes and parsley as it does spread on a burger, grilled sausage, shish kabob, crudites, chips or sandwiches. Traditionally made with walnuts, I used almonds and loved their crunchy addition.

Makes about 2 cups.


  • 1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped, or 1 cup chopped roasted red pepper strips
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • Juice from 1 large lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon ground Aleppo pepper, or red chile flakes*
  • 1 small fresh green pepper (like a jalapeno or serrano) deseeded and ribbed, and chopped
  • ½ cup almonds or walnuts
  • 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses**
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup breadcrumbs or panko
  • Salt and pepper


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • A sprinkle of Aleppo pepper flakes or red chile flakes
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped almonds or walnuts

*Aleppo peppers come from the Syrian city of Aleppo, a gorgeous dark red color with a slightly spicy, earthy, big flavor. 

**Pomegranate molasses, found at Middle Eastern markets, is a thick reduction of pomegranate juice that’s been boiled down with sugar and lemon juice. If you don’t have any, you can substitute 1/2 tablespoon honey mixed with pomegranate juice. 

You can find pomegranate molasses and Aleppo pepper at Middle Eastern markets, gourmet shops or online here and here


  1. Roast the pepper: There are several ways to do this. If you have a gas stove top, place the pepper directly on the stove grill top and cook until just blackened on all sides, about 7 to 10 minutes, tossing the pepper from side to side. Alternatively, you can roast the pepper on a hot grill, tossing it from side to side or under the broiler. Once it’s blackened, remove the pepper from the heat and place in a paper bag, seal the bag, and let it sit for around 5 minutes. The sealed paper bag will “steam” the pepper and make it easy to remove the peel. Remove the blackened peel, core and deseed the pepper; cut into small pieces. Alternatively, you can use premade roasted jarred peppers.
  2. In the bowl of a food processor or blender, add the roasted pepper, scallions, lemon juice, cumin, Aleppo pepper, green chile, nuts and pomegranate molasses. Pulse the machine until you have a thick, chunky mixture. Add the olive oil, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper, and pulse until the mixture comes together but is not necessarily smooth. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, Aleppo or cumin as needed.
  3. Place in a bowl or on a plate and, using the back of a spoon, create a “well” around the rim of the mixture. Garnish by drizzling with the oil, Aleppo pepper and chopped nuts. The muhammara will keep, covered and refrigerated, for several days.

Other favorite summer sauces:

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