The phrase, “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” was coined by Johnathan Swift’s punster Mr. Neverout in A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation In Several Dialogues published in 1738. When quill touched cotton, the phrase was used to refer to the strange character of Sir John. Mr. Neverout uses it to proclaim that Sir John, being of low birth, is not a proper Duke and deftly goes on to disparage his character. Although this turn of the phrase is still in play, it has over the years also been used to discourage ingenuity and inventiveness or to encourage people to accept things as they are – in other words, to not rock the boat.
This month’s 5-Star Foodie Makeover Challenge was Junk Food. Specifically, we were asked to use junk food or a favorite snack in a real dish of our choosing. I really hated this idea at first and didn’t want to do it, I thought of telling the group organizers that I was unable to participate due to illness, overwork or travel – something – some excuse NOT to participate.
Having selected my junk food and prepared my dish, I think it was a great challenge and although I am new to the group, I hope that future challenges will be so . . . well I’m not sure whether thought provoking or emotion inspiring is the right phrase, but there it is. I used bar snacks: Beer Nuts, 5-Alarm Chili Peanuts and Planter’s Creamy Peanut Butter to make delicious Malaysian Chicken Satay that we all loved – even the kids. What’s not to like about that.
I suppose the there was a bit of artful dodgerness in the selection of junk food – it’s not really junky. I mean, come on, it’s not a Twinkie right! That said, I never use processed or flavored peanuts in my satay sauce, and despite the millions of recipes on the web for peanut sauce from peanut butter, I have never used it before the challenge for that purpose. So the challenge forced me to abandon my habits and preconceived notions and to try something outside of my food box – which, covering the continent of Asia, is generally pretty big.
This recipe is a wonderful example of how meat is eaten all across the Indo-Malay Archipelago. It is marinated for hours in a sweet and spicy paste, then barbequed on a grill and drizzeled with a rich and flavorful peanut-based sauce. Feel free to substitute beef or shrimp for the chicken and adjust the cooking times, or make a mix of all three meats and allow diners to mix and match flavors.
Grilled Chicken with Peanut Sauce (Satay)
1 lb, chicken, chilled and cut into thin slices
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
2 stalks lemon grass, sliced
2 tablespoons ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup water (more as needed)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
In a food processor, or blender, make a smooth paste out of the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric and water (using water ½ cup at a time). Set aside.
In a wok, dry roast coriander seeds over medium heat until they become fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and empty into food processor or grinder and blend into a fine powder. Mix dark soy sauce and salt with the ground coriander and then add to the lemongrass paste.
Rub paste mixture into both sides of the chicken. Sprinkle the cumin powder over the chicken and marinate for at least 2 hours at room temperature. If you wish to marinate overnight – cover and refrigerate.
When almost ready to cook, prepare the peanut sauce (see below) below and set aside. Thread seasoned meat on to fine metal or soaked bamboo skewers. Grill over charcoal or gas fire or under hot grill 3 minutes per side.
Spicy Peanut Sauce (Satay)
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
2 stalks lemon grass, thinly sliced
¼ cup lime juice
Water (as needed to make a thick sauce)
2/3 cup beer nuts
1/3 cup Planter’s five-alarm chili peanuts
2 tablespoons Planter’s creamy peanut butter
6 dried red chili peppers, diced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
In a blender, grind shallots, garlic, lemongrass and lime juice into a fine paste – adding water as necessary. Add ground peanuts and peanut butter and grind until blended. The key to this recipe is not to add too much water too soon, so use a gentle hand.
Heat oil in wok or saucepan and stir fry peanut paste for 3-5 minutes. Lower heat and cook covered for another 5-10 minutes until lemongrass softens.
Add chili peppers, ginger, salt, and sugar and cook over a low heat for 5-10 minutes till sugar is dissolved, stirring constantly. The sauce will darken considerably as it cooks. Cool peanut sauce and serve with barbecued meat.
Even made with junk food, this recipe is a winner. Unlike a lot of satay sauces, it balances the peanut flavor with the flavors offered by the other ingredients. What I like most about this recipe is the strong gingery flavor that the marinade and sauce combined offer to diners. The recipe for the sauce makes a lot, so either cook a lot of meat or do as I do – save the sauce for later use. It can be reheated and used on meats and vegetables or used cold as a dip for veggies.
In closing I’d like to attest that it is possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear – both figuratively AND literally. In the first sense, it is possible to use salty snacks that one would pop back while watching TV or enjoying a drink to create a great chicken satay. In the latter sense, well . . . I think you all understand what literally means.
It seems that in 1921, Massachusetts industrialist Arthur D. Little was tired of hearing Mr. Neverout’s discouraging phrase, and set out to prove him wrong. He instructed the scientists and engineers working for him to make a silk purse out of “pork by-products”. From a meat-packer they obtained a form of glue made from the skin and gristle of sows’ ears. Taking an amount roughly equivalent to one sow’s ear, he had it filtered and forced through a spinneret into a mixture of formaldehyde and acetone. This glue emerged as 16 fine, colorless streams that hardened and then combined to form a single composite fiber. Little soaked the fiber in dyed glycerin. Then he wove the resulting thread into cloth on a handloom-and fashioned the cloth into the elegant purse shown here, the kind of item carried by Medieval ladies.
If you would like to know more about this interesting tidbit from the History of Science, click here for a full period description of the effort. I think its ingenious and charming and I absolutely adore the subtitle: A Contribution to Philosophy. To all who encounter a Mr. Neverout from time to time. Take a look at this each time you start to feel discouraged. It won’t last long.
(Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Chicken and Beef Satay by Btktan @ Dreamstime.com; Photo of purse and pamphlet on creation of a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear from MIT Archives and Special Collections; 5-Star Foodie Challenge Hosted by 5 Star Foodie & Lazaro Cooks!)