Saucing for contemporary cooks

May 15th, 2008

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.