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Saucing for contemporary cooks

I remember the first day of culinary school. Chefs in starched white coats and white neckerchiefs leading the new recruits in their semi-starched coats with yellow neckerchiefs, made the subtle yet clear distinction of chef vs. apprentice. The halls smelled of spice, baking breads, simmering stocks and sauces. The curriculum was daunting, designed to weed out less serious students by overwhelming all of us with work, both hands-on and text-study. “A Chefs Orientation to Soups, Stocks and Sauces,” the most intense section of all, introduced us to the world of classical technique and culinary fundamentals, including required memorization of the five-mother sauces and hundreds of their offspring, called smaller sauces. We were told repeatedly this would ensure success with all we were about to undertake the next eighteen months as well as our whole culinary careers.

As in most things new you learn the basics and take baby steps forward from there. For sauces it begins with stocks. For soups, it begins with stocks. For braising, stewing and a variety of cooking techniques it begins with stocks. So stock is where I’ll begin today. A stock is the resulting liquid from cooking bones with aromatics (herbs, spices and vegetables) in water for long periods of time. There’s lots of skimming and monitoring until ready to strain out the bones and solids. However the resulting liquid extraction is not yet ready to serve. It is now an a important ingredient for making many more intense stocks, sauces, stews, soups and braises.

Today’s chefs and home cooks often use commercially made stocks and demi glace that saves the 12 to 24 hours it takes to make it from scratch. Demi is made from combining one of the mother sauces, Espagnole, with more brown stock and then cooking down by half with an herb bouquet garni. It is a long process that makes the choice to use commercial varieties a good alternative, especially since there are some really good ones available. I recommend resisting the varieties that come in a cube or dehydrated pack. In any case check the ingredient list and be sure the first ingredient list is stock and there is no salt or corn syrup.

Admittedly it is hard to beat a homemade stock especially chicken, which is pretty easy and still inexpensive to make. My love of chicken stock as a basic ingredient may be from my Jewish heritage. At all times, I keep a couple of gallons in the freezer for soups, sauces, risottos, braises, and pastas, and I still make it the way my mother does. But as much as I use chicken stock, lately I am into using the liquid made by extracting the flavor from single vegetables, like mushrooms and beets. My migration is toward simplifying the process without loosing the impact, with sauces made from reductions or those that are made without a stock in the background at all. Fresh sauces like salsa, infused oils, juice extractions, relish, pesto, chutney and even ketchup are often on my menus these days.

The word “sauce” according to Food Lover’s Companion is “thickened, flavored liquid designed to accompany food in order to enhance and bring out its flavor.” For many people, the word conjures up pictures of something flour or cornstarch thickened that our mothers made with mushrooms or possibly something from a can with the promise of low sodium. Roux (flour and butter thickener) thickened sauces and gravies are very challenging, and when a cook does them well, s/he wears it as a badge of kitchen accomplishment. Seems every family has one member who is known for making the best gravy. Still even though I am first to load up on the turkey gravy at Thanksgiving, sticking to lighter saucing is best for everyday dining for me. I find contemporary saucing, that is, sauces without flour thickening, easier to make, lighter on the palette and just more interesting to create.

Dining al fresco and grilling season is the perfect time to start saucing without roux. Sauces made with an acidic background from vinegar, tomatoes, or citrus are easy and light. They add a big punch of flavor without adding weight. A Latin favorite of green tomatillos salsa makes for a great companion to spicy rice and grilled halibut, for example. And a grilled vegetable relish style sauce adorning the top of a buttery risotto creates a yin/yang flavor profile. Golden delicious apple in a juicy chutney works well with goat cheese ravioli and toasted hazelnuts. I like a simple pan seared filet of beef with chive infused oil and fiery romesco sauce.

This week I am teaching a fundamentals class in cooking, which is probably what started me thinking about my early culinary training. I find myself wanting to skip over the mother sauces, and teach to my more recent repertoire that still fits the definition of saucing. Here I have a wine based sauce, and some others that are made without classical thickening.

MARSALA WINE SAUCE
¼ cup EVOO
2 each shallots, finely chopped
1-2 #mushrooms, sliced
2 cups Marsala wine
1-2 cup chicken stock
21 tsp. fresh thyme, hand picked from stems
2 oz butter, room temperature
Seasoning of salt, pepper coriander to taste
Chopped chives, as desired Method:
Heat the EVOO in sauté pan. Add shallots and mushrooms and cook gently until translucent. Add the wine and stock to deglaze; Add the fresh thyme and simmer to reduce by 2/3s.
Strain sauce into clean pan or service container. Add butter and swirl in to incorporate. (Off the heat) Season with salt, pepper, and fresh ground coriander, and garnish with a clipping of chives, if using.

Serve with chicken, seafood and steaks.

GAZPACHO SALSA (as a sauce)
¼ cup peeled, seeded, minced tomato
¼ cup peeled, seeded, minced cucumber
¼ cup seeded, minced red pepper
¼ cup seeded, minced green pepper
2 ½ tsp seeded, minced jalapeno ¼ cup minced red onion
2 ½ tsp minced shallot
2 ½ tsp finely minced parsley
2 ½ tsp finely minced tarragon
¾ tsp celery salt
3 TB EVOO
3 TB sherry vinegar
TT sea salt and coriander
Method: combine ingredients and reserve chilled for service. Serve on grilled fish; as dipping sauce for fried fish or fried shrimp; with Ahi tuna; and even grilled chicken.
ROMESCO SAUCE
4 roasted plum tomatoes, cooled
6-8 cloves garlic, roasted
6-8 raw garlic, peeled and chopped
2 TBSP plus 1/3 cup EVOO
¼ cup blanched whole almonds
¼ cup peeled hazelnuts
1 dried ancho chili, cored, seeded (rehydrated)
1 slice crusty It. bread
1-2 tsp sea salt
2 TBSP red-wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste Method: Coat with small amount of EVOO and roast the tomatoes and half peeled garlic for about 90 min at 375F. Meanwhile place about ¼ cup EVOO in a hot pan followed by the nuts and toast nuts about 6 minutes. Drain on paper towel. In same pan toast the chili pepper only about 15 seconds. Remove and soak in hot water for 10 minutes to soften. Drain; set aside. In the same pan toast the bread and set aside.
To finish: Place roasted tomatoes, garlic, nuts, bread and drained chili in a food processor with metal blade. Process pulsing to blend; add the rest of the EVOO and red wine vinegar and blend into chunky yet smooth sauce. Adjust thickness if too thin with more bread; if to thick with some red wine.
Serve with beef, chicken, and vegetables; stirred into soups as a finish, risotto, over polenta; and as a spread for bread or sandwiches.
BLACKBERRY CATSUP
1# blackberries*
1-2 TBS water
1 1/3 cups pure maple syrup
1/3 cup cider vinegar
½ tsp cinnamon ½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cloves
½ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp ground pepper
Method: place blackberries and water in a large sauce pan and simmer until they begin to break up, approximately 20 minutes; puree through food mill removing seeds; return to stove; reduce to slightly thickened and add maple syrup, vinegar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, salt and pepper and cook for approximately 20 minutes or until ingredients have bloomed in the blackberry reduction, chill to serve.


Growing up Italian

Eating from the simple Italian pantry

I have always been proud of the fact that I have strong Italian roots and I find that when I speak of my family the story is almost always centered on something that happened in the kitchen over a good Italian meal. What I appreciate the most is I learned to enjoy simple pure, authentic ingredients. No matter what the time of year, cooking at our house meant the weekly trek to the West side Market in Cleveland. We’d always get the staples; see below, along with whatever fresh vegetables were available. We’d also get some imported meats or a fresh sausage, hand made in front of us, and of course, cheese. Our trip to the market was made faithfully despite our rather large well stocked pantry. We ate simple home cooked meals created from raw ingredients including lots of fresh market foods all the time.

So, eating and cooking Italian does start with picking out pure simple ingredients. For my family it meant maintaining minimum number of staple ingredients, any one of which might be called a basic Italian food group.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Ours was often from the bulk barrel imported from Italy. I guess we were unable to get the expensive imported varieties, so when I traveled to Italy the first time I remember thinking I had never tasted such olive oil! It was bold and grassy and made me want to eat it alone without adding vinegar on my salads. It is influentially tastier than butter to me.

Tomatoes: When they were not fresh in season we bought canned. My dad would proudly describe the farm in Italy where they were grown and canned when tomatoes were at peak, making them better than just any canned tomato.

Parsley: Flat leaf is what I recommend. And though it is easy to grow in season, it is widely available year round in markets due to local green house productions. It is undeniably a requisite for simple Italian food.

Garlic: There are many varieties and I look forward to garlic season when the interesting ones appear at farmers markets. My one consistent belief is that the sprout, especially when green, should be removed before chopping because it is the sprout that imparts bitterness and makes it difficult to digest.

Cheeses: Especially a good Parmigiano-Reggiano; in our fridge my mom kept a large Tupperware container of this good stuff, already grated! Cheese was not as much a main ingredient as it was used to add a punch of flavor in small amounts. Provolone Picante stands out as a super star that I use regularly today. Unlike the cylindrical domestic variety often confused with bulk mozzarella because of its bland flavor, the picante has a hard rind that surrounds a spicy, lemony-tang flavor with an herbaceous background, perfect for finishing Italian dishes.

Lemons were another staple in the produce bin of our fridge, along with the seasonal vegetables we’d get on market day. I don’t think my Mom knew what “real-lemon” was from the green bottle, that is. Fennel at our house was as common as celery is in most American households. I know it is seasonal, and there must have been times we couldn’t get it, but in my memory it was always there!
Pasta: Of course we always had pasta around. This would be mostly dried pasta as I recall, and even when the fresh stuff was sold commercially, my folks stuck with the dry varieties they had learned to trust. My mom would do homemade ravioli quite often, and that must have contributed to my taste for making it fresh now. I do like some dried pastas and use them regularly, too.

These basic ingredients or staples of our family kitchen together actually make up a meal that my dad would whip up pretty regularly. He called it pasta aioli (pronounce “i- yoy”) which distinguished it from the French garlic mayonnaise classic, spelled the same and pronounced, “ay-oh-lee.” I was corrected many times during my early culinary training when I would give my dad’s pronunciation. Anyway, Bob Sr. would put EVOO in a pan, just to warm it with the chopped garlic being careful not to brown it or let it cook too fast. Then he’d stir in pepper flakes, and many times, added canned anchovies packed in oil that would melt into the sauce. He finished with fresh chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon before tossing it in the pasta, usually fettuccini. Grated Parmesan went on at the table usually. This was dinner allot in our house, a sort of poor man’s Carbonara meets mac and cheese. And with the exception of anchovies, it is a meal most kids would remember, Italian or not.

Occasionally dad would dress up this family recipe with fresh tomatoes or chicory and even fresh spinach, making a primavera style pasta. And my mom would sometimes fry up a white fish to go with the pasta. In any case family meals were almost always accompanied by raw fennel. I believe one of the best ways to begin and end a meal so heavily leaden with garlic is with sweet raw fennel. Sprinkled with a little salt, this crisp vegetable promises a light anise flavor that not only cleanses the palate but aides in digestion.

I hope you enjoy this recipe as a side dish or light dinner meal. You will notice my recipe is a bit different from my dad’s described here, but I am sure he wouldn’t mind. I suggest you use it whenever you are thinking of macaroni and cheese—for a little variation.

BOB SR.’S PASTA AIOLI (i-ohoy!)
1 lb dry pasta, cooked in boiling salted water until just el dente
EVOO as needed
1 head of garlic, cleaned, peel, remove sprout, chopped or sliced
Zest and juice from 1 lemon
4 oz anchovies & oil
½ cup flat leaf parsley, washed, dried, roughly chopped
½ cup parmesan cheese, grated Method: Cook pasta; coat with small amount of EVOO set aside.
Place ¼ cup EVOO over medium heat in a large sauté pan. Add ¾ garlic and all anchovies with their oil. When garlic is translucent, add parsley, lemon juice and zest. Add in remaining raw garlic pasta and toss.
Serving Suggestions: Add 1 pint washed cherry tomatoes to sauce when adding the anchovies and garlic; and or add 1lb washed baby spinach. Accent with dry cured olives. Eat along side crusty pan fried white fish or quickly grilled chicken breast.

Complete the dish with a salad of fresh shaved fennel or fennel sticks, lightly salted with sea salt.