It was not my fault that no one had checked to make sure we had popcorn oil to fry the fish. Gordy and I were responsible for catching and cleaning them, and we had done our job.
Eight nice bass fillets were ready for the popper when the cook discovered his oversight. It was a Sunday evening in 1963 in Madison, Wisconsin. Stores near the campus were closed and no one home in Tripp Hall had any oil.
You might be wondering why four students in a men’s residence hall (a.k.a. dormitory) where cooking equipment was not allowed were planning to fry fresh fish for supper.
The explanation is quite simple. Though the dining hall fed us twenty meals every week, we had to fend for ourselves Sunday evenings. Cooking was forbidden in the hall, but popcorn poppers were allowed. Lake Mendota was a hundred yards away and filled with bass. And once you learn how, you can fry bass fillets to a delicate golden brown in a popcorn popper. With an appropriate beverage, they are delicious between slices of cheap white bread.
Our chef found a jar of peanut butter. Pointing to the oil on top of the contents he assured us that peanut butter would work. It did, sort of. We ate blackened bass fillets with plenty of salt and pepper and made the cook scrub out the popcorn popper. He bought a large bottle of popcorn oil the next day.
That Sunday supper is why I avoided peanut sauce for nearly forty years. However, once I was persuaded to taste it, I became an immediate convert. Maybe if we had had some curry powder and lemon juice that evening it wouldn’t have taken so long for me to discover the joys of peanut sauce, but we were just poor students trying to save a dollar on a Sunday night. Our spices were limited to salt and pepper shakers borrowed from the dining hall.
By which circuitous route I come to James Barber’s Pork Chop Sate. Sate or satay is a Javanese delicacy that has spread across southeast Asia. It is basically meat which is marinated, grilled on skewers and served with a sauce. A spicy peanut sauce is the most common through much of Indonesia.
Barber’s recipe eliminates the skewers and the separate sauce but produces a delicious dinner in less than thirty minutes. The recipe comes from Fear of Frying, one of three small cookbooks in a boxed set that my sister Patsy gave me for my birthday a few years ago. The books are filled with good simple recipes, many with wonderful titles like “Spaghetti anda Stuff,” “Mrs. Marco Polo’s Homecoming Stew” or “Slightly Pretentious Pork Chops.”
Here is James Barber’s recipe for Pork Chop Sate.
2 pork chops
2 T vegetable oil
1 small onion (2 – 2 1/2 inch diameter)
1 medium tomato (3 inch diameter)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. curry powder
Big pinch of cayenne
1/2 cup water
1 T lemon juice
2 T (heaped) peanut butter
Peel and slice the onion very thin. Wash, remove the stem scar and quarter the tomato. Heat the oil to very hot in a skillet. Fry the pork chops about one minute or a little longer on each side until golden brown. Push the chops to one side of the pan, add the onion and tomato. Stir and continue frying until the onion is translucent and tomato is beginning to lose its juices. Turn the heat down to medium.
Stir in the curry powder, cayenne, water, juice and peanut butter. Stir well to mix all the ingredients. Cook five minutes over medium heat while stirring to keep the sauce from sticking. Turn the chops a couple of times to coat them with the sauce. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring often.
Serve with rice and bread.
NOTES: Use a natural peanut butter with no hydrogenated oils, sugar, etc. You can double this recipe if guests are expected. A simple fruit salad goes well with satay.