The Mother Sauces – Béchamel

Alright, enough screwing around – Back to the Escoffier version of the French Mother Sauces, as asked for and promised! We covered velouté, so it’s time for béchamel, (and down the line, espagnole, tomate, and hollandaise).

Béchamel - Creamy goodness!
Béchamel – Creamy goodness!

Béchamel is arguably the most versatile of those magic five, (although tomate might dispute that claim). So many derivatives come from it. Béchamel is a cream sauce, with a heart of roux, the combination of flour and fat that gives its richness to all variants. As much as it may pain French cuisine to say so, béchamel’s roots are predominantly Italian. In that country, besciamella, (or balsamella, or bechimella), have been around for hundreds of years prior to their cropping up in French cooking. In everything from pasta primavera to lasagna and cannelloni, besciamella has been used to tie many an Italian dish into a coherent whole. The secret weapon to those Italian cream sauces? A dusting of fresh ground nutmeg – Not enough of the latter to taste like nutmeg – rather just enough to hint at something exotic. Béchamel variants are found literally everywhere, but those roots run deepest in the heart of Europe.

Béchamel in its French incarnation first appeared in print in the mid seventeenth century, within François Pierre La Varenne eponymous work, Le Cuisinier François, the bible of early French haute cuisine, (that tome was so popular that it enjoyed some thirty editions, over three quarters of a century). That first sauce, named after the Chief Steward to King Louis XIV, was a veal based velouté with a copious amount of fresh cream added. The essence of béchamel is simplicity itself – butter, flour, milk, salt, and white pepper – That’s it.

From béchamel comes many famous derivatives. There’s mornay, with cheese added, and mushroom. There’s crème sauce, with cream replacing milk. Nantua adds an essence of shellfish, mustard seed in mustard sauce, and soubise, which adds minced onion. And of course, the basic sauce itself can be varied widely merely by altering the ratio of roux to milk – from a relatively thin and easily poured sauce containing one tablespoon each of butter and flour to one cup of milk, right up to three tablespoons of each roux constituent, which will yield a very thick sauce, indeed.

Fresh herbs are all you need for amazing béchamel
Fresh herbs are all you need for amazing béchamel

Really though, the sky is the limit. Have some lovely fresh herbs in your garden? Add a few whole leaves of basil, or sage, a stem of rosemary, or thyme – That silky net of gently simmered dairy fat will embrace and enhance whatever you add. Smoked salmon, kalamata olives, capers, fresh lemon juice and zest – one or two, maybe three such things are all you need to make exquisite sauce.

One important caveat, though – Something as simple as béchamel demands good, fresh ingredients. Old, low quality, or past their prime constituents will tube a béchamel faster than anything. On the contrary, fresh butter, flour, and milk will sing a far more complex tune than their simple roots might suggest.

How you make a béchamel is, for my mind, easily as important as what you make it with. This isn’t a sauce to just be dumped in a pan and heated. There are steps and rules, if great results are what you expect. For my mind, there are four guidelines you simply must follow.

Great ingredients and patience is the key to béchamel
Great ingredients and a little patience is the key to béchamel

1. Cook the roux first, and make sure that it remains a white roux – This means medium low heat, constant whisking, and paying close attention to the look and smell of the roux as it cooks. There’s nothing wrong with darker roux, many things demand the nuttier, more intense flavors they bring – But classic béchamel is a white sauce and should stay that way. Consider also this – the lighter the roux, the greater it’s thickening power – it takes considerably more of a dark roux to thicken an equal amount of whoever you’re working with.

2. The milk must be scalded prior to adding it to the roux – This is critical to a smooth, homogeneous sauce, and to fully integrating the milk without breaking the roux.

3. Don’t break the roux – the roux should be heated through and starting to bubble a bit before milk is gradually added. Rather than dumping a cup of milk in all at once, you need to slowly add a little milk and stir it into the roux – allow that to heat through and start to bubble, then add a little more milk and repeat – Doing this controls the splitting of starch chains and the forming of new bonds as the sauce is heated and milk is slowly introduced. The breaking of those starch chains means that the starch molecules don’t thicken as effectively, but by the same token, they’re less likely to reconnect to each other, which will leave a nasty, congealed mess instead of a lovely sauce. Think of it as if the milk is stretching a net of fat and starch – You want that net to hold a lot of liquid, not break and lose it – n’est pas? Take a look at the pics in this post on mac and cheese and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

4. Cook the sauce long enough to achieve a slightly less thicker final product than you want, then do whatever you’re going to do with it. Chances are good that might involve more cooking, so don’t overdo it in the formative phase of things – That sauce will continue to thicken if it’s made into mac and cheese, lasagna, or stroganoff.

Classic Béchamel Sauce

1 Cup Whole Milk
2 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon ground White Pepper
OPTIONAL:
1 or two grates of fresh Nutmeg
In a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat, add the milk. Watch the milk closely and whisk occasionally, until tiny bubbles form around the edge of the pan where it meets the milk. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a heavy sauce pan, add the butter and melt thoroughly.

Add the flour and whisk to incorporate. Cook while gently but constantly whisking, until the blend has stiffened up a bit, (this is caused by some of the moisture from the butter being driven out of the mix). This will take about 2 to 3 minutes or so.

Drizzle about a quarter cup of hot milk into the roux, and whisk steadily. The results will look like mashed potatoes. Whisk gently but constantly, until the heat of cooking causes the mix to bubble.

Add another quarter cup of milk, whisking gently but steadily, and allow it to heat completely through before adding more milk. Repeat with the he remaining half cup of milk.

Add the salt and pepper, taste, and adjust seasoning as desired. NOTE: If you’re adding herbs, proteins, etc, this is the time to thrown them in there.

Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking for up to 5 minutes. Stop when your sauce is a bit less thick than you want it. Remove from heat and do what you’re gonna do.
So, what are ya gonna do with that?

There’s Mac and Cheese, of course

And Beef Stroganoff,

How about Pasta Primavera, with whatever fresh veggies float your boat saluted in a little olive oil and butter, and angel hair pasta, thrown into a sauté pan with your sauce, tossed to coat and incorporate, and served with crusty bread and a fresh, green salad?

The rest of that journey is yours to take.

Mail Call!

OK, now, seriously – We will get to the rest of the mother sauces, but frankly, the mail bag has just been far too good to ignore!

First off comes this from Dean, over in Wisconsin –

Here's Dean, just back from stalking the wily wild garlic!
Here’s Dean, just back from stalking the wily wild garlic!

Eben,
I hope you are well.
Just a reminder about keeping summer greens for winter soups, stews and special breads. We cut the green tops off of our onions and cut up and froze in ice cube trays, and later store in a bag like you suggested green peppers one time. Also freeze beet tops, carrots tops etc. for winter greens….
Love your blog!
Dean

That is brilliance worthy of note, gang. This covers two really important points, here at this time of year when gardens overflow with good things. First off, we all too often don’t use everything we could and should from the stuff we grow, and greens are a perfect example. Dean’s email is spot on in that regard, because far too often greens and tips are tossed out as waste – Sure, they’re good for compost, but they’re far better for eating. Secondly, saving such stuff for winter is another must do. The cold months make it that much harder to get good fresh tastes, let alone all the good things they harbor.

Don't toss those greens!
Don’t toss those greens!

Turnip greens hold more vitamins and minerals than the turnips do. Beet greens are rich in vitamins K, A, C, B1, B2, B6, and E, as well as a raft of trace minerals. Spring onion tops offer vitamin C, plus hefty antioxidants. Carrot tops are rich in vitamins and minerals as well, and contrary to old wives tales, they’re not toxic – In fact they’re a market vegetable in many parts of Europe.

Greens should be frozen to last until winter, and as such,they’ll do well with a quick blanching. As with so many things, freezer burn can be an issue, so getting as much air out of whatever you store them in is key. Alternately, you can sauté greens with a little. Olive oil, salt, and pepper, and freeze them that way, or use them to make stock for soups and stews. As Dean noted, greens are a perfect thing to freeze in ice cube trays, so that you can pull out one or two to liven up a cold month meal.

 

The second note we got came from Israel, where Udi was kind enough to send this,
Just to let you know that my 10 month old daughter adores sloppy joe made according to the recipe on your blog. I serve it mixed with an equal amount of rice, mash it up a bit with a fork and she just cant get enough. You should see her. She’s like a junky, taking one bite and her entire body moves and she shakes her hands till the next bite is served.

And as you can see, he wasn’t exaggerating at all.

This young lady loves her sloppy joe!
This young lady loves her sloppy joe!

This young lady loves her sloppy joe!

We get a lot of mail, and I try to answer it all – now and again, something really touches home for me, as these do. Thank you to all of you who subscribe, write, email, PM, or call – This is why we are here.

Why do we rest meats?

Great question came in today, too; this one from Rob in New Zealand, “Just read your Southwest Pepper Steak recipe, and I saw where you wrote, ‘do NOT cut any flesh for at least 10 minutes after it’s off the heat.’ I see that a lot, so what’s the big deal?”

Great question, Rob. I’m guessing, since you ask, that you’ve never committed the sin itself! Meats need that rest to allow their juices to redistribute evenly throughout the meat after cooking, as the protein gradually cools. This happens because the relatively long fibers of muscle that make up the meat we eat are constricted as we cook them. Those fibers are filled with juices, mostly water. As they’re cooked, the fluids get pushed toward the outside of the meat, predominately because that liquid just doesn’t compress, so it’s gotta go somewhere, and out is where it’s got to go. The post cooking rest lets all that liquid come back to relative equilibrium. If you don’t wait and cut too quickly, most of those juices are gonna wind up on the plate, leaving you with a tough and not very tasty hunk of meat. 

Rests for steaks, chops, chicken, and like relatively smaller cuts should be 10 to 15 minutes. Large roasts should get 20 to 30 minutes.

Just for the record, the only method I can think of that doesn’t require a rest is sous vide – cooking a protein in a vacuum sealed package immersed in water that is circulated at a precisely controlled temperature. 99.9% of us home cooks won’t ever try that, but you sure can if you’d like to – It’s easier than it sounds and doesn’t require fancy equipment.

Sous Vide Steak

2 steaks, about 6 ounces each.

Sea Salt

Fresh ground Pepper
Have the steaks at room temperature, and season with salt and pepper about 30 minutes before cooking.

Fill a stock pot with water and put it over a large burner on medium heat. Have an instant read thermometer close at hand and monitor the water temperature. When it hits 135° F, reduce the heat until it’s holding that temperature quite closely – Maintaining that temp is key to the success of the process.

Prepare a cast iron skillet over a large burner on high heat, and have 2 heavy zip lock type bags big enough to each fit a steak.

When the skillet is smoking hot, sear each steak thoroughly on all sides, and make sure the biggest surfaces are well caramelized – This helps seal in flavor, and also kills bacteria before the proteins are immersed.

Remove the steaks and allow them to cool enough to handle briefly.

Slip a steak into a bag, seal 90% of the zip, and then suck the last air out, (try using a straw as my Sis advises. You can also immerse the bag in water, leaving just the unsealed corner above the surface, and let the water pressure do the job for you, but make sure no water gets in the bag.)

Slip the sealed bags gently into the hot water bath and allow them to cook, covered, for 60 minutes, (although up to 90 minutes won’t hurt anything at all.

Slide the bags out of the water, plates the steaks, add a little unsalted butter to each and serve right away.

Here’s a great sous vide time and temp guide from Chef Steps as well, including all sorts of veggies.

And for everything else, like I said – before you slice, give it a rest.

Blanching & Freezing Fresh Peas

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Received this PM earlier today, from alert and hearteningly honest reader Sarah, who lives in the wilds of Cleveland, Ohio.

‘Recently saw the photos of your wife’s garden. It just so happens that I planted peas for the first time this year, and lo and behold, they actually grew! I ended up harvesting a big pot, and then realized that I really don’t know the step by step for preserving these things! Naturally, I though of you, so, what do I do?!’

Well, Sarah, first and foremost, I hope you know how much it thrills us that you thought of us first with such a great question. Secondly, good on ya for asking, and third, your timing couldn’t be better – Monica and our two lovely Granddaughters picked a whoppin’ big bowl full of fresh peas last night – They’ve headed for the park, and I’ve been tasked with pea processing – so let’s get after it!

Freezing really is the best thing to do with fresh peas. You didn’t mention the variety you grew, so first we’ll touch briefly on the three most common versions, shell, snow, and sugar snap. Shell, (also called garden, English, or Sweet), are thin skinned peas with an inedible shell. Snow peas, (also called Chinese pea pods), are smaller peas with a thicker, edible pod. Sugar snaps, (or just plain snap), peas are a cross between the former and the latter, with a very thick, edible pod and relatively large mature peas.

Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.
Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.

For both snow and snap varieties, while you can and should eat some whole when they’re just picked, it’s best to remove the fibrous strings that run along the seams before you do so.

Regardless of what variety you’ve grown, you’ll want to freeze them. Canning peas is laborious, and frankly, doesn’t yield very good taster or appearance. Shell peas must, of course, be shelled prior to freezing. Snow peas can be frozen whole, as long as they’re blanched first – If you don’t do that process diligently, you’ll end up with nasty, mushy results.

With snap peas, I’ve found that whole peas just don’t freeze very well; they’re really delicate things, which is why their freshness is so fleeting. For my mind, it’s best to eat and cook whole peas at the peak of their freshness, and to shell anything you’re going to freeze. Don’t toss the pods however; sauté them in a stir fry, or better yet, make a pea stock, which makes a phenomenal base for split pea soup. Here’s how.

Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup
Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup

Snap Pea Stock

10 Cups Water
4-6 Cups empty Snap Pea Pods
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion, rough chopped
1/4 Cup Carrot, rough chopped
2 Tablespoons Celeriac or Celery Leaf
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 Bay Leaf

Put everything in a large stockpot over medium high heat.

As soon as the stock begins to simmer, cover and reduce the heat until you’ve got a very slow simmer; cook for 45 minutes.

Pour the stock carefully through a chinoise, or a colander lined with cheese cloth into a clean mixing bowl.

Allow to cool to room temperature.

Transfer to clean glass jars, or a freezer bag. May be frozen for up to 4 months, or refrigerated for 3-4 days prior to use.

Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant and lovely stuff to boot
Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant, flavorful, and lovely stuff to boot

To preserve those peas, you’ll need to shell them. As with all production cooking processes, set yourself up an area where you can have everything arranged right at hand. To shell fresh peas, grab one and turn it wide seam side up, with the stem away from you. Grab the stem between thumb and forefinger, and zip it back toward you – that’ll remove the fiber along the seam. Now zip your thumb nail along the seam and viola, your pea will open up like a book. Push the peas out of the pod and into a mixing bowl.

Now it’s time to blanch. There are a lot of questions about blanching, and most, if not all of them are answered here at one of my favorite cooking sites, serious eats. Blanching is a short, high temperature cooking cycle done in boiling water, followed by an immediate plunge into ice water. We blanch for three reasons when – To
destroy enzymes that begin to break produce down once they’ve been harvested, to preserve great color, and to keep them crisp – All very worthwhile pursuits, indeed.

The fine print for blanching is that you want two things without question – First, you need water at a steady boil through the relatively short cooking time, and secondly, you need to plunge what you blanched into ice water immediately after cooking. Those things are non-negotiable for the success of the process.

The old adage about using lots of water to blanch really doesn’t translate all that well to home kitchens – The logic ran that a relatively large volume of water won’t lose temperature as drastically when food is introduced. That’s true for commercial stoves, but not so much for home cooks – If you’re blanching in small batches at home, a pot with one quart, (4 cups), of water will actually recover a boil far faster than larger volumes.

Second issue is salting. The sages say ‘salt heavily’, and to some degree, that’s true. You want water about as salty as the ocean, or about 3%. The wonderful website Pickl-It has a super handy brine calculator that’ll let you dial that right in, (and its 1 ounce of salt for 1 quart of water). Now, this requires weighing, because the fact is, all salt weighs differently. I can’t recommend a small kitchen scale enough – They’re cheap, easy to use, and if you get at all serious about baking, you’ll want to have one anyway. I’ll give you a cheat and tell you that 1 ounce of the most popular kosher salt is roughly 5 teaspoons. While Harold McGee notes in his epic reference volume, On Food and Cooking, that salt tenderizes veggies by interacting with natural pectins, this also means that too much can make your peas soft.

Finally, there’s time. I don’t know how many folks I’ve heard say that you ‘blanch for about a minute,’ and frankly, that dog just don’t hunt. Blanching time varies depending on what’s being blanched, and you should pay attention to that. The Reluctant Gourmet has published a great blanching time list, so head over there, read and heed.

OK, now we’re ready. It’s possible I just made blanching sound really laborious, but it’s not at all. Set up a station so everything is close at hand. You’ll want a stock pot of salted water, a large bowl with ice water, and a single mesh strainer handy.

Everything set up to blanch
Everything set up to blanch

Shelled peas do indeed blanch for about a minute. For peas, corn, and a whole lot of veggies that are small individual things, I add about a half tablespoon of butter to the blanching water. It doesn’t impart much taste, and it helps them freeze without turning into a block of peas or whatnot.

A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate
A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate

Once your water is boiling merrily, throw in those shelled peas and count off a minute. As soon as the time is up, carefully pour the peas into a single mesh strainer and immediately into the ice water. Work the peas around gently with a slotted spoon to help them cool. Let them sit in the ice water for about 3 minutes, until they’re thoroughly cooled. Scoop off any remaining ice, pour the peas back through the strainer, then transfer them to a clean mixing bowl. Viola – bright, crisp blanched peas.

Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas blanched and ready for the freezer

Now it’s time to package for freezing. A vacuum sealer is the bomb for such things, but not everybody has or really needs one. Next best thing is a nice, heavy freezer ziplock style bag. Portion the peas into bags based on your anticipated use – I portion for two, as you can always whip out an extra bag for guests. Seal about 90% of the bag, then suck all the air out that you can, and zip it all the way closed while you’re still sucking. That’ll do about as good a job as possible to deter freezer burn and keep things fresh. Label your stuff with the date, pop them in the freezer and you’re good to go.

Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas ready for the freezer

So, there you go, Sarah – Maybe more than you asked for, but hey – You got me started! Happy preserving.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables

Well, here’s another fine mess I’ve gotten us into… So, a slight diversion from the mother sauces, again by popular demand.

Being a tease the other night, I posted some Instagram pics of dinner, and ended up with a lot of y’all asking for a recipe, so here it is. If I’m gonna tease, I gotta come across thereafter. So here’s that dish – Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables.

This is a recipe that I literally threw together when some amazing sugar snap peas came ripe in Monica’s garden. You can often find really nice ginger chicken wontons for sale locally, but they’re also pretty easy to make at home, if you’ve got the time – They can certainly be made in less than half an hour with store bought wonton wrappers.

Ginger Chicken Wontons

1 Pound ground Chicken
1 large Egg
1/4 Cup Spring Onions, fine diced
1″ fresh Ginger, minced
2 cloves Garlic, smashed and minced
1 tablespoon Hoisin Sauce
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice powder
3″ to 4″ wonton wrappers
Small bowl of ice water

In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and knead by hand to thoroughly incorporate.

The key to making wontons is to have a nice, open prep space; arrange all the components so that they’re right at hand, then get after the production.

Wonton wrappers are square, which messes some folks up – don’t let it, it’ll work out just fine.

Spoon a heaping teaspoon of the ginger chicken mixture into the center of a wrapper.

Dip a finger tip into the ice water, and then run the wetted finger tip along the top and right edges of the wrapper.

Now get hold of the lower left corner of the wrapper and pull it up over the filling to the top, right corner.

Smooth out the wrapper so that all the air is squished out and the wrapper is tight all around the filling.

Dip your finger tip back into the ice water and dab that onto the right corner, then grab that corner and bring it around to the left one, and give them a pinch to seal everything down – viola, you got a wonton, (or, for that matter, a tortellini.)

So, now it’s cooking time, which means it’s time to decide what to add to your wontons. We had those amazing peas as our center piece, so I chose other stuff that complimented that, and here’s the drill. If you’ve got one, use a cast iron frying pan for this.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables
Browning the wontons

Ginger Chicken Wontons With Summer Vegetables
1 Cup Sugar Snap Peas
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1/2 Cup Cherry Tomatoes, sliced roughly 1/4″ thick slices
1/4 Cup Sweet Red Pepper, rough chopped
1/4 Cup Sweet Onion, rough chopped
1/8 Cup fresh Cilantro, chiffonade
1 Tablespoon fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
1 small lemon, halved
1 large clove garlic, smashed and minced
Sea Salt
Fresh ground Pepper
Peanut Oil to coat the pan

Prep - get your mise en place
Prep – get your mise en place

Put a cast iron frying pan on medium high heat, and coat the bottom of the pan with peanut oil.

When the pan is up to heat, add the onion and peppers.

Season lightly with sea salt and pepper, and continue cooking until the onions begin to turn translucent.

Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates.

Transfer the aromatics from the pan into a small plate and set aside.

Always start with the aromatics - That's the foundation for great flavor
Always start with the aromatics – That’s the foundation for great flavor

Add oil to recoat the bottom of the pan and allow that to heat through.

Add the wontons and sauté on one side for about a minute. Use a wooden spoon or fork and flip the wontons, and sauté for another minute or so until golden brown.

Add the chicken stock and allow to heat through.

Once the wontons and chicken stock are simmering, add the peas and tomatoes, reduce the heat to just maintain the simmer, and sauté for about another 3-4 minutes until the veggies are heated through.

Add the basil and cilantro, stir to incorporate and a heat through.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables
Letting everything marry

Squeeze the juice from the halved lemons and stir to incorporate.

Taste the jus and adjust seasoning with sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

Allow everything to heat thoroughly through.

Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables
Ginger Chicken Wontons with Summer Vegetables

Serve piping hot.

Alright, by overwhelming popular demand…

Y’all have spoken, and we hear ya!

The response to our Velouté post was huge, but strangely enough, most of it wasn’t about the sauce, it was about the sauces – All five Escoffier Mother Sauces. In so many words, a whole bunch of you asked if we wouldn’t just keep going and cover the remaining four – Béchamel, Espagnole, Hollandaise, and Tomato – And make a clean sweep of things. So, that’s exactly what we’ll do – The rest of June and most of July will be Mother Sauce Month!

Stay tuned!

Le Velouté

Ah, the joy that is a velouté; say it with me now – Veh-Loo-Tay – D’accord! It’s a safe bet that a fair chunk of y’all aren’t as familiar with this giant of sauces as you’d like to be, and we’re about to fix that.

Le velouté is a giant because it was anointed by the legendary Père of classic French cuisine, Auguste Escoffier, as one of the five Mother Sauces, the roots from which a host of classic French and world variants spring, (The other four, for the record, are Béchamel, Espagnole, Hollandaise, and Tomato). Velouté derives from the French ‘velour’, and speaks to the light, velvety nature of the sauce.

The classic Velouté - Light and creamy
The classic Velouté – Light and creamy

The classic velouté combines a light stock like chicken, veggie, or fish with a blond roux as a thickener. Typically, only a little salt and pepper is added for seasoning. The light stock refers to one in which the bones, veggies or racks are not roasted prior to the stock being made – That keeps the color and flavor notably lighter. Since the sauce itself is quite delicate, it’s most often paired with the things that make up the stock it derives from – poultry, fish, or vegetables.

Then come the derivates, which are too numerous to list here; the point is that a basic velouté is a jumping off point for almost endless experimentation. Add a little lemon juice, an egg yolk, and some cream, and you’ve got an Allemande. Onion, paprika and white wine yield a Hungarian. Adding mushroom liquor and cream to arrive at a Suprême, and so on. Here’s how you start.

Classic Velouté
2 Cups light Chicken Stock
2 Tablespoons unsalted Butter
2 Tablespoons all purpose Flour
Sea Salt
Fresh ground Black Pepper

Add the butter to a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, and melt completely.

Add the flour, whisk to incorporate thoroughly, then allow the roux to cook for about 2 minutes, until the blend starts to smell slightly nutty.

Add the stock in a slow drizzle, whisking constantly. The sauce will start out kinda like mashed potatoes, and thin progressively as you continue adding stock. Go slow, take your time, allowing the sauce to return to a simmer before adding more stock. There’s an elastic bond formed between the fat and the flour that is integral to the finished sauce – For that reason, never dump in a whole bunch of liquid when thickening with a roux – work slowly and steadily to allow that elasticity to be retained and do its thing. The roux not only thickens, it traps tiny air bubbles formed when you whisk. The end result is a velouté that, while appearing thick, is remarkably light and airy.

Once all the stock is added, reduce the heat to low and allow the sauce to cook for about 10-12 minutes, whisking occasionally.

Remove the velouté from the heat and serve immediately.
There’s a reason that a Saucier, (The Chef responsible for making and serving sauces, as well as sautéing dishes), is often considered one of the the highest positions in a pro kitchen, second only to the Chef and Sous Chef. And frankly, whatever the cuisine, a great sauce is key to many a dish – From Italian to Indian, Mexican to Moroccan, sauces rule, and for good reason.

A great sauce elevates a dish, enhancing and highlighting rather than overpowering. Take, for example, the wonderful, fresh tomato sauce in which a Oaxacan style chile relleno is floated – Without that, it’s a good relleno, but with it, it’s a dish of complex, sublime beauty. Arguably, no sauce does a better job at this than a velouté – The lightness of stock and the richness of a thickener combine in a way few others can or do.

That classic velouté is important to try and to keep in your quiver for when you might need it – It’s deceptively simple and quick. That said, there’s more than one way to skin a potato – Who says that, in your own kitchen, you must follow some rigid set of rules when it comes to sauce?

Let’s say you sautéed a chicken breast, and while its resting, you’re wondering what might make a nice finishing touch. Add a couple tablespoons of butter to that sauté pan, let it melt, then pull out some chicken stock, and add that. Whisk to incorporate, and let everything come to a simmer.

Now, shake in a little Arrowroot, (a powdered root made from any one of a number of tropical plants), that is a potent yet quite transparent thickener. A dash of salt, a twist of pepper, and you’ve got what many would call a pan sauce, (it is), but as far as I’m concerned, you would not be at all out of line to call it a velouté, (which sounds far sexier, doesn’t it?). Put on your best Eric Ripert accent and call it that – Who’s to argue with you?

The bottom line is that a velouté is, fundamentally, thickened stock. You can arrive at that end result any way you see fit. Corn starch will work, as will modern, molecular gastronomy versions like Ultra-Sperse 3. That product, made by Modernist Pantryu, is a ‘all-natural cold water swelling starch’ derived from tapioca. Ultra-Sperse works with cold or hot liquids, doesn’t get lumpy, and yields a remarkably smooth finished product with virtually no added or off-putting flavor notes. It works quickly, has amazing stability, and is genuinely fun to play with, (And for the record, no, I am not sponsored by or in league with Modernist Pantry, I just like their stuff a lot). I tend to use either Arrowroot, which I keep in a shaker top bottle above the stove, or Ultra-Sperse, because they’re quick, and they provide a lighter sauce than the traditional roux.

And then there’s all that variety. As I noted above, adding a couple, two, three ingredients to a standard velouté creates a whole ‘nuther stable of deliciousness. Veggies, from carrot to cucumber, tomato to turnip, can be added – Then you’ve got something really special. Asparagus, artichoke, sweet corn – Whatever is fresh and strikes your creative fancy. Go farther afield and add mango to chicken stock, finish that velouté, and top fresh salmon with it. Maybe blueberries and lime with pork tenderloin – You get the idea. Grab a copy of The Flavor Bible, and come up with some new pairings of your own.

If what you want to add to a velouté requires cooking, and especially for veggies, it’s best to blanch them in boiling, salty water, (no salt for fruit, of course), and then plunge them quickly into an ice water bath – That will instantly stop the cooking process, and retain all those vibrant colors – That’s important, because we eat with our eyes, right?

Next, process your fruit or veggies in a blender or processor until uniformly smooth.

Transfer whatever you’re saucing to a sauté pan over medium heat.

Add a couple tablespoons of butter and whisk to incorporate.

Add your thickening agent graduating, whisking gently and constantly. When your just shy of your desired thickness, remove the sauce from the heat.

If you want to be fancy, (or if your ingredients are fibrous), run the sauce through a single mesh strainer, and then serve promptly.

I wrote this piece because yesterday was Father’s Day, and our youngest, along with our dear friend Mario Young, came over for the night. M and I bought fresh local chicken breasts, sweet corn, a baguette, stuff for a lovely green salad, a couple of nice bottles of wine, and stuff to make strawberry shortcake for dessert.

Then M saw some very nice looking avocados and said “what about these?” As we chose a couple, the little light bulb over my old, bald head brightened notably. Here’s what I made – And note that I took some serious poetic license with the classic velouté, and you know what? Not only is that perfectly OK, that sauce was the absolute star – Everybody raved over it, and the light, fresh taste it added to a perfect meal.

Velouté de Avocat UrbanMonique

1 large, ripe Hass Avocado
1 1/2 Cups light Chicken Stock
1/2 Cup Greek Yoghurt
2 Tablespoons unsalted Butter
2 teaspoons fresh Lemon Juice
1-2 teaspoons Arrowroot
Sea Salt
Fresh ground Pepper

On a hot grill or barbecue, slice the avocado in half, remove the pit, and place the fruit cut side down on the grill for about one minute.

Grilling avocados deepens their flavor
Grilling avocados deepens their flavor

Gently turn the avocado cut side up and grill for another 4-5 minutes, until the meat around the edges of the skin begins to notably soften.

Remove the avocado from the heat and allow to rest for a few minutes.

Scoop the avocado meat into a heavy sauté pan over medium heat, then firmly mash the avocado with a potato masher or a large fork.

Add the butter and whisk to incorporate.

Slowly but steadily add the chicken stock, whisking steadily, allowing the sauce to heat through as the stock is added.

Add a teaspoon of arrowroot and whisk steadily. The sauce should begin to thicken notably. Continue whisking, and add more arrowroot if you prefer a thicker sauce.

Season lightly with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. NOTE: I like pepper, but you can certainly leave it out and let diners add their own. My friend, (and excellent home cook), David Berkowitz recommends white pepper here, so that you don’t get dark little flecks in the sauce – He noted that after reading the original post – As noted above, we eat with our eyes!

Reduce heat to low and allow the sauce to cook for about 5 minutes – Remove sauce from heat and either serve rustic, or run it through a single mesh strainer if you prefer a smoother texture.

Serve hot.

Our Velouté de Avocat UrbanMonique was the star of this great meal
Our Velouté de Avocat UrbanMonique was the star of this great meal

Want to take things a step further, and create a great summer soup?

Sopa de Aguacate

4 Cups light Chicken Stock
1 large Avocado
2 Tablespoons unsalted Butter
4-5 fresh Basil leaves
1 Tablespoon Greek Yoghurt
1 teaspoon Arrowroot
Sea Salt
Fresh ground Pepper

Add the chicken stock and butter to a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat, and cook until the stock simmers.

Remove the pan from the heat, add the arrowroot and whisk steadily to incorporate.

In a blender or processor, add the avocado, basil leaves, a healthy pinch of salt, and 5-6 twists of pepper. Pulse the mix two or three times, then add a cup of chicken stock, pulse a couple of times, and repeat until all the stock has been added.

Add the arrowroot and yoghurt and pulse a couple more times to incorporate thoroughly.

Can be served immediately, or chilled and served cold.

Sopa de Aguacate
Sopa de Aguacate

Fresh Berries!

Fresh berries are in season here in the Pacific Northwet. Driving pretty much anywhere, you’ll come across roadside stands offering blueberries, strawberries, raspberries – Not to mention cherries as well. While you might think you’d be better off in a store, it ain’t necessarily so. Stop by a few of these stands and you’ll quickly learn to spot good from bad, (and most are quite good). A roadside table put out by the growers themselves is almost always a sure winner for price, freshness, and truly supporting local small businesses.

Fresh berries are a catch!
Fresh berries are a catch!

Of course, the chief and oft unspoken danger of such stuff is not being prepared to store, preserve, or use what you buy – I don’t know how often I hear about great produce going to waste, but it’s all too often. As such, have a plan or plans in mind for what you intend to do. Canning, freezing, and quick use are all good ideas, but be sure you have the time set aside, and the equipment you’ll need – Last thing you want to do is find that you’re out of rings and lids after doing up a batch of preserves, right?

We freeze a lot of berries, because it does a good job of preservation, is relatively easy and quick to do, and lends itself to spur of the moment use down the road. Keeping in mind that berries are quite delicate, here’s what we do to get the best quality out of a batch.

Gently rinse berries in cool water, then place them in a colander lined with clean paper towels and allow them to dry a bit.

Cover a clean baking sheet with waxed or parchment paper, gently spread the berries evenly across the sheet.

Freeze fresh berries on a lined baking sheet.
Freeze fresh berries on a lined baking sheet.

Put the sheets into your freezer and allow a nice hard freeze before removing them, at least 3-4 hours, or more. Transfer berries to hard containers or plastic bags, mark them with the date, and you’re done.

We do different sized containers based on the amount needed for intended use – enough for a pie, a batch of ice cream, etc, and mark that volume on the bag or container as well. If you have a vacuum sealer, you certainly can and should package hard frozen berries that way, as it will minimize air contact, freezer burn, etc. if you don’t have one of those toys, sucking the air out of a filled ziplock will do a pretty good job as well. Carefully packaged and sealed berries will last 6 to 9 months in a freezer, no problem.

So, what about that immediate use? Try this amazing ice cream recipe – You can thank us later. The bourbon, for the record, adds a nice little hint of smoky, woody sweetness, but more to the point, it’s a fantastic little trick for home ice cream makers – The little bit of high proof booze keeps your scream from turning into a frozen brick, that all too common malady.

Blueberry, Vanilla & Bourbon Ice Cream

1 Quart Heavy Cream, (at least 30% milk fat)
1/2 Cup plus 2 Tablespoons local Honey
1 Quart fresh Blueberries
1 Tahitian Vanilla Bean
2 Tablespoons Bourbon

In a sauce pan over medium heat, add the berries, 2 tablespoons honey, and the scraped seeds from the vanilla bean, (put the remaining bean in some sugar, or vodka, and let it steep for future projects).

Stir steadily as the berries begin to simmer and pop. When roughly 3/4 of the berries have burst, remove the blend from the heat and transfer to a blender, (or use a stick blender if you prefer). Pulse until you have a smooth, uniform purée.

Pass the purée through a single mesh strainer into a smaller mixing bowl; send the skins, etc to your compost bucket.

Place the purée bowl in larger bowl 1/2 filled with ice and water, and allow it to sit, stirring occasionally to aid cooling.

In a large mixing bowl, combine cream, 1/2 cup honey, and bourbon. Whisk briskly until uniformly incorporated.

Blueberry, Tahitian Vanilla & Bourbon Ice Cream
When the ice cream is close to done, add the berry purée

Process the cream mixture in an ice cream machine or churn. When the ice cream is well formed, slowly add the puréed berry mixture. When it’s uniformly incorporated, send it to the freezer.

Blueberry, Tahitian Vanilla & Bourbon Ice Cream
Blueberry, Tahitian Vanilla & Bourbon Ice Cream

Classic Three Bean Salad

It’s the morning of Memorial Day, (Or any other summer holiday/weekend/event). You’ve just hung up the phone, agreeing to attend a dinner, and you asked what you can bring – ‘A salad,’ says your host, and there you are…

While potato, macaroni, or green might beckon, why not opt for a light but hearty Three Bean Salad instead? Where this veteran of many a picnic fares from is unclear. It’s been a staple since the 19th century in this country, and is certainly far older in others. When living in Texas, I heard multiple claims to Mexico as the origin point, but I’ve yet to find anything concrete to confirm that. Regardless, it’s delicious, super easy and fast to build, tastes like a million bucks when set beside typical summer fare, and best of all, it’ll be even better the next day. Here’s our swing at the classic.

UrbanMonique Three Bean Salad
1 15/16 Ounce can cut Green Beans
1 15/16 Ounce can cut Yellow Wax Beans
1 15/16 Ounce can Red Kidney Beans
1/2 Green Bell Pepper
1 small Purple Onion
1/2 Cup Raw Cider Vinegar
1/3 Cup Avocado Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1/4 fresh Lemon
1 teaspoon Celery Salt
1 teaspoon ground Grains of Paradise
Pinch of rubbed Sage
Pinch of granulated Garlic

In a single mesh roughly rinse all the beans, then transfer to a large non-reactive mixing bowl.

Rinse, core, seed pepper and onion. Chop both, and add 1/2 Cup of pepper and 1 Cup of onion to the beans.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, celery salt, grains of paradise, garlic, sage, and juice of the quarter lemon.

Pour dressing over veggies and toss to incorporate thoroughly.

Refrigerate in an airtight container for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

Classic Three Bean Salad
Classic Three Bean Salad

Serve cold.