WE LIVE WHAT IS NATURAL, BEAUTIFUL AND BELOVED
February rushes, gathers heavy coated bitter cold and warmth of eager flowers and shirtsleeve days in a mere 28 days. It is a short month, for sure, but it is also a month when the best cooks show their stuff for this beautiful thing that we call Love. Romance and food can mean a few very good foods like Sichuan, Italian and French. Today it is French. The sauce we will prepare is Béchamel/White and French cream sauces with béchamel as a primary ingredient. Haute Cuisine is the legend of cookery that explains the vast empire of ingredient, technique, flavor and design for Western cuisine. There are Five basic sauces upon which all sauces for Western cooks are based. They are called the Mother Sauces: Béchamel (white/cream), Veloute (blond/stock/juice), Espagnole (brown/demi glace), Hollandaise/Mayonnaise (egg/butter/oil) and Tomato (red).
In the late 19th century French cream became associated with cream whisked with a liquor and added to coffee or black tea. This was to hide the fact of the booze. I have a couple of recipes at the end in honor of this Victorian tradition. This affectation persists today in the form of rich, thick and scented coffee creams and desserts. A French Cream for desserts does exists in Haute Cuisine, and that is recognized by the addition of beaten egg whites to the sweet whipped cream. In order for it to work the egg whites and cream must be whipped to the same peak or thickness.
We have adapted salsas, relishes and concasse (coarse chopped, usually tomato) as well as Mexican moles and chocolate sauces to our savory dishes, so the classic sauces are not all there is to contemporary cuisine. Dessert sauces are different so are not included in the Mother sauce list; I categorize dessert sauces into the following: Chocolate, Cream, Fruit and Emulsion/Foam, they can be chaud-froid (hot applied to cold to coat the dish), hot or cold.
Also, when we think about simple and complex there are elements about these terms that change with each decade. What was simple in 1940 is complex by more lax kitchen standards today. We seem to want everything fast and at the ready. If a cuisine is to be great it must most of all be balanced and fresh. Balance is the key. Even if it takes a while to prepare a meal the end result, and the meditative aspect of making the dinner really is rewarding. Building something great always requires a sturdy foundation, and if that foundation is made with lesser, cheaper ingredients then whatever is built upon it will fail. Keep this in mind as you make any meal, any dish; keep the quality of ingredients and how you treat them paramount to the entire task.
Balance your flavors with sweet to sour, salty to creamy, smoky to earthy and you will have a masterpiece on the table. There will always be three dominant ingredients that define a dish; everything else is built upon those three ingredients, whatever they may be. The best way to think of “simple” is to think balance, and what is balanced may require three ingredients or it may demand twenty, but they must be balanced. Haute Cuisine really isn’t too overly complicated. It just requires a love of food, and the art and technique of food. Bechamel at it’s most base is four ingredients. Nutmeg does not define it, the cream and butter do. Veloute can be five. Hollandaise just requires butter, wine and eggs to be created. Aioli is garlic and olive oil in origin. ‘Haute’ means expert or high quality. Heavy sauces absorbing a dish like a cosmic black hole are a thing of the 1950’s and beyond, and when they appear today it is as an homage to the history of food, not as a mainstay. Each ingredient, each substance edges the other along to better express the nature of what is fresh and delicious rather than what is heavy and stolid.
No cook advances without complete knowledge of the five Mother Sauces and their offspring. Sauces that are built from a Mother sauce are called secondary and tertiary sauces. An example is Mayonnaise with the addition of diced pickles, sugar, curry, ketchup and lemon juice is then a tartar or Russian sauce. The Hollandaise/Mayonnaise began with the simple combination of roasted garlic and extra virgin olive oil (the original aioli) and evolved into the aioli that we know today that is made with roasted garlic, lemon, extra virgin olive oil and egg yolk. To become a mayonnaise you build upon the aioli by cooking (coddle) the eggs over a double boiler, add dry mustard, egg whites, white vinegar and sugar.
To become a Hollandaise you thoroughly cook the eggs by whisking in a double boiler over 190 degree heat with ½ teaspoon water per egg, and add hot clarified butter to the eggs as you beat them, then add lemon juice, salt, pepper, Tabasco and Worcestershire. The colors of Hollandaise/Mayonnaise are from oyster white to canary yellow, and the colors depend upon how much it is cooked and the amount of egg yolk used. They must have oil or butter. A secondary sauce from Hollandaise is Bearnaise, which is created by the addition of tarragon and shallots cooked down in red wine. Another secondary sauce from Hollandaise is a Mousseline, which is made by adding lightly warmed and whipped cream. A mousseline is also blended butter and cream used in baking and for pates, so it’s good to know the exact recipe that is being referred when discussing the Hollandaise family. Example of a tertiary Hollandaise would be a mousseline with the addition of orange zest or even the tarragon base used for béarnaise. If you add tomato paste to a béarnaise it then becomes a sauce choron.
Butter sauces, beurre blanc, also fall into this category of sauces except that egg is not used. It is considered a modern sauce in that it’s use became prevalent in the 20th century. Cream is not used in beurre blanc. If cream were used it would be a white/Béchamel sauce. Interesting how the original was garlic and oil, and the moderns are butter and vinegar. Why this prelude to Béchamel with an explanation of Hollandaise/Mayonnaise (oil/butter)? In a way you would think a beurre blanc more of a cream sauce, wouldn’t you? The texture is creamy, but again, there is no cream. It is very important to recognize the differences in sauces in order to recognize how to use them and how to prepare them. One small change and a sauce can become a completely different thing. Mastering the Egg/Oil and Dairy/Béchamel will enable you to make a hundred different sauces by the mere whim of adding and subtracting from the base Mother sauce.
The most basic of all possible basic recipes for Béchamel is butter, flour, hot milk and nutmeg. That’s it. All béchamel sauces of Haute/French Cuisine have some of if not all these ingredients; there must always be dairy for it to be a béchamel. Since béchamel is a mother sauce other sauces can be enriched with it and designed around it as a base. Boiled and reduced heavy cream is not béchamel. I have seen grown cooks brought to tears over broken béchamel so if it does not come out right the first time don’t give up, once you learn this sauce it will become an integral part of your repertoire.
½ cup yellow onion, diced
12 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 lemon, juiced
1 cup white wine
5 ounces unsalted butter
1/3 cup all purpose flour
1 quart milk
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sea salt
Scald the milk. This means to heat on medium heat to just at 190 degrees. Don’t let it boil. Bring to temperature and hold it there for about 30 minutes. Doing this separates the useless liquid in the form of steam from the dairy fat in the milk.
Cook onion, peppercorns, nutmeg and bay leaves in white wine and lemon until the wine has reduced and the pan is almost dry. Add butter and melt. Stir in flour. Cook on medium for two minutes, stirring, until the mixture is very thick.
It should be a thick paste, if it is not thick enough just sprinkle in a tablespoon more flour. Slowly add the milk to the mixture, keep stirring the whole time. When you have added all of the milk strain and set aside. Stir in Worcestershire and salt. Throw away the onion mix, just save the strained cream sauce, and that is a great Béchamel.
If it is not thick enough to coat a spoon you can add any mild white cheese to thicken, or use a beurre manie. Mixing whole cold butter with flour on a one to one ratio makes Beurre manie. To thicken a quart of béchamel it would take a tablespoon of mix. Stir in while it is simmering at 200 degrees, or just below boiling.
4 ounces butter
1/4th cup shallots, chopped
1 ½ tablespoons all purpose flour
2 cups heavy cream, heated to 150 degrees
¼ teaspoon nutmeg, fresh grated (a tiny amount)
1/5 teaspoon ground white pepper, fresh
1/3 teaspoon salt
Melt 3 ounces butter in saucepan. Add onions and sauté for three minutes, until translucent. Stir in flour. Turn heat down to low. Slowly stir in warm cream. Do it slow to make sure that the sauce is slightly thick. If you go too fast it won’t thicken properly. Too slow and you just get tired. After the cream is incorporated add the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Simmer for ten minutes. Stir frequently. Now, whisk in the last ounce of butter to enrich the sauce. This is as basic as it gets for a great sauce.
Still not rich and velvety enough and you want it taste more like the entrée it is being served with? We’ll take and easy route to transform a creamy Bechamel into a Veloute; this is done by adding stock (chicken, beef, fish, lobster, veal) and egg yolks.
VELOUTEE (Velvety White Sauce)
This is a variation on the classic veloute with the addition of cream and egg. Veloute generally is a stock, but here we transform it further into the domain of what we think of as a rich French cream sauce, hence veloutee.
1/2 cup stock, chicken
2 tablespoons crème fraiche
1 cup béchamel
2 egg yolks
Heat the stock on high to reduce to 1/3 cup of liquid. Add the béchamel and simmer. Whisk the egg and crème fraiche together, then whip two tablespoons of the heated sauce into this mixture, after it is thoroughly blended whip it back into the sauce. Serve immediately.
Make note of these variations on Bechamel as you will surely use them again and again. The way that one or two additions can change a sauce to any purpose makes this basic Mother sauce a kitchen essential.
SESAME SCALLOPS AND LOBSTER WITH BASIL/MINT BECHAMEL
This recipe is for four servings. You can make the sauce ahead of time and just reheat when it is time to eat. Sauté the seafood in bacon and/or duck fat for the absolute best flavor, if this scares you then sauté in a mix of butter and corn oil. You can substitute minced black truffle for the sesame if you are feeling really extravagant. The idea for black sesame seeds and truffle is a variation on a dish from The Inn At Little Washington, one of the best restaurants in America located in the east Virginia countryside near Washington, D.C.
HERB BECHAMEL AND SPINACH PUREE
1 cup béchamel
1 tablespoon basil, chopped
1 tablespoon mint, chopped
1 teaspoon lime juice
Heat béchamel and stir in herbs and lime just before serving.
2 cups fresh spinach
1 ounce fresh arugula
1/3 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup chicken stock
¼ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon Pernod
If you don’t have Pernod then use one star anise seed.
Puree spinach and arugula to very smooth texture. Strain. Heat chicken stock and cream to a boil, then add puree and Pernod. Reduce to thicken enough to lightly coat a spoon. This will take about five minutes on medium high heat.
16 large scallops
4 lobster tails, no shell
¼ cup black sesame seeds
1 teaspoon granulated pink sea salt (Hawaiian)
1 teaspoon fine ground black pepper
2 cups cold water
Submerge the scallops and lobster in cold water for two minutes. Remove and pat dry with cloth. Roll in sesame seed, salt and pepper mix. Chill.
Sauté in hot oil for one minute per side, gently shake the pan as it cooks.
Make a yin/yang figure on four plates with the béchamel and spinach sauces. Line the center of the plate with the seafood. You can also spread out the béchamel and then dot it with little circles of the spinach sauce, and then arrange the lobster and scallops on the sauces. Candied lemon peel and fried parsley are great with this dish.
ROSEMARY CHICKEN WITH BLACK RICE
Béchamel and chicken are natural companions. When we think of French cream sauces there is a certain romance that is added to the dish, a kind of lushness, deep, rich and at the same time tart and lively. This is what makes for a memorable experience. Here you will work with stages of a dish building towards a complete and lovely expression of the basic chicken and rice. A simple chicken, white grapes, rosemary…
Black rice is in Italian and Chinese cuisine. For the Chinese black rice was considered a delicacy for royalty and special guests. Soak overnight to achieve the best texture, then cook in your rice cooker.
8 ounces chicken breast, boned
2 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ teaspoon black pepper, crushed
1/3 teaspoon salt
20 fronds rosemary, fresh
2 tablespoons sour cream
2 egg yolks
¼ cup breadcrumbs
Combine in food processor and pulse 10 seconds with 5 second pause
5 times. It will be a little coarse. Shape into 8 balls.
2 quarts boiling water
2 bay leaves
Poach chicken balls in the boiling water for 5 minutes.
8 slices bacon
2o white grapes
Wrap chicken balls with bacon. Place in roasting pan with grapes.
1 cup contemporary béchamel
¼ cup roasted red bell pepper, pureed
Combine sauce and puree. Pour over chicken in roasting pan. Cover.
Cook at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove from oven. Place chicken on plate of Chinese black rice. Pour sauce over chicken. Here you have the best of both worlds of Haute Cuisine, the Western and the Eastern in this one dish of chicken and rice. A chiffonade (long, thin slices) of spinach and basil scattered over the top of this plate adds to the colorful display of red, black, pale white and green.
FRENCH CREAM DESSERTS
In the world of desserts a French Cream is a luxury. It’s easy to prepare and makes any dessert an event of pure pleasure. Note that when whipping cream you start on high and end on low, when beating egg whites start on low and end on high.
1 ½ cups heavy cream
¼ cup XXX sugar
1 egg white, beaten, stiff
½ teaspoon vanilla extract, pure
Whip cream, sugar and vanilla. In a separate bowl whip egg white to firm texture. Fold egg white into the whipped cream. You can pipe this into puff pastry for all in one dessert or you can add 1/3 cup sour cream to the mix as it whips and serve with fruits. Just coat a cold plate with the French cream, arrange strawberries, blueberries and mango (peach or any stone fruit) on the cream. Crush some cashews and almonds and scatter around the plate. Using a microplane grater grate semi sweet chocolate over the fruits and cream. Garnish with mint.
Another way of thinking of French Cream is as liquor enriched whipped cream for hot chocolate or after dinner coffee. Tuaca, Framboise, Bailey’s, Amaretto, Irish Mist, Pear William, Cognac, Kahlua and Cointreau are all excellent liquors to whip with cream for French Cream and mousses. Brown sugar, palm sugar and molasses each add a deeper flavor as well.
Spirit of the year comes about in the second month,
We find shards of the old one scattered in cluttered
Spaces around the house, some stay,
Some are shuttered or swept away,
Some are transformed and given names like
“gift”, “donation”, “save” or “another day”;
But things never wasted, trashed or stored
Come from the pantry, the oven or Frigidaire,
And those are things we cook, we make, we give
And share with each other every day, we live
With Food, Romance, Life and Home.
Gimmee warmth and a bowl of rice or noodles
Any time, gimmee cream and butter
Over diet chemicals and hydrogenated fats,
I want the touch of my love skin to skin,
The touch of my food from earth to table,
You can trash imitations and transformations,
But nothing compares to a hand held,
A house manicured to self-expression
Or a meal well made with a love well formed.