Thursday, March 15, 2012

March: French Cooking Part 1-Sauces

It's only natural that from England we head south to the gastronomic mecca of France.  I can not possibly do justice to all that the French have added to the culinary arts in just one cooking class session.  Entire cooking schools are founded on the principles of French cuisine, and most chefs have spent at least some class time learning the classical techniques that are the foundation for not just French cooking, but cooking in general.  For if you learn these foundation elements, you can use that knowledge to create any type of food creation from any continent. 

I decided to start with some sauces because I realized that I use some sort of sauce every day in my food preparation, so I thought it might generate some new menu options for my class members to show them some basic sauce techniques.   I built my class around three of the main sauces in French cooking:  Bechamel, Veloute, and a homestyle version of Espagnole.  I also included several handy sauces: vinaigrette, mayonnaise, compound butter, flavored oil and chocolate dessert sauce.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Mac n Cheese has become a mainstay in the homes of American families, but it usually comes in a blue box and is made on top of the stove in a single pot.  This "from scratch" Mac n Cheese may take a bit more effort and dirty a few extra utensils, but it has the advantages of 1) tasting amazing, 2) you know exactly what's in it, and 3) you probably have all the ingredients for a batch sitting on your pantry shelf on any given day.  It's definitely worth the effort.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

While your making the cheese sauce, boil a pound of elbow macaroni according to the package directions. Don't let the macaroni get really soft or you'll end up with mushy Mac n Cheese.  Drain the cooked macaroni and run under cold water to stop the cooking process.  Set aside until ready to use in the recipe.

For the sauce you'll need:

4 Tbs. unsalted butter
4 1/2 Tbs. flour
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. powdered mustard
12 oz. medium to sharp cheddar cheese, grated (don't use cheese that comes already shredded because it contains powdered cellulose and will make your sauce very grainy)
4 cups cold milk (preferably not nonfat)
Salt, to taste

For the topping you'll need:

2 slices fresh bread made into bread crumbs in a blender or food processor
3 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. minced fresh parsley, or 1 tsp. dried parsley
1 Tbs. lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste

To make the sauce: Melt the butter over medium heat in a large heavy-bottomed skillet (that could describe more than a skillet, but let's not go there.) Add the flour and combine with the butter using a whisk. Cook the flour/butter mixture until it just starts to turn a little golden. You've just made a blond roux. While stirring the roux with the whisk, add the cold milk. Continue to stir with whisk until the milk begins to thicken. You may have to turn up the heat a bit to get the thickening started, budot urn the heat down as soon as the sauce begins to boil. At this point, the sauce you've just created is called a bechamel. Remove the bechamel from the heat and add the seasonings and cheese. Let the cheese melt and taste for the correct seasoning. The amount of salt that you need is based on personal preference and the type of cheese you use. Now you have a cheese sauce, which technically is a small sauce of bechamel.

Once your happy with the taste of the sauce, add the cooked macaroni and stir to completely combine. You can serve the macaroni and cheese at this point, but I prefer to bake the mixture with a crumb topping before serving. To bake, scrape the macaroni and cheese into a buttered 9 x 13 baking dish (if you have a glass or ceramic dish, it makes an attractive serving vessel) and sprinkle with the crumb topping.

Crumb topping: Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the lemon juice and parsley and a bit of salt and pepper. Add bread crumbs and stir to combine completely. Turn up the heat to medium-high and cook the crumb mixture for about a minute. Taste for seasoning adjustment.

Bake the macaroni and cheese, uncovered, for 25-30 minutes.

Pan-Seared Pork Steak with Pan Gravy

I developed this recipe while I was in Salem, Oregon helping my father-in-law. He had a package of pork blade steaks in the refrigerator that needed to be cooked. Pan-searing develops a wonderful caramelization of the natural sugars in meat, and it's this caramelization that is the base for the rich pan gravy. Be careful when searing the meat because it can easily go from a lovely caramelized brown to a bitter, burnt tasting, useless mess. Start with a medium-high heat and reduce the heat once you've gotten a golden brown color on both sides of the steak.

2 lbs. pork blade steak
2 Tbs. unsalted butter
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup diced onion
1/4 cup diced carrot
1/4 cup diced celery
3 cups low-sodium chicken stock (you can use chicken bouillon in a pinch, but it has a lot of salt in it so your pan gravy may be too salty.)
3 Tbs. unsalted butter
3 1/2 Tbs. flour
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
2 Tbs. Minced shallots
2 Tbs. sugar

For the meat: Heat butter in a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until the butter is sizzling. Add the pork blade steak in a single layer and season well with salt and pepper. Leave the meat alone for about 5 minutes to caramelize. Using tongs, turn the steak over and repeat as for the first side. You may need to add a bit more butter to the pan if the pan seems dry. A dry pan can cause the meat to burn rather than caramelize. Once you've browned the meat on both sides, remove the steak to a platter and cover with foil. To the pan, add the onion, carrots, and celery. Again, you may need to add a bit of butter. Cook the vegetables (this mix of two parts onion and one part each carrot and celery is called a mirepoix [meer-a-pwah])until they are caramelized. Deglaze the pan with a bit of stock or white wine to get all the wonderful brown bits off of the pan. Put the pork steak back into the pan and cover with a lid. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the pork for 15-20 minutes, checking the pan occasionally and adding stock to make sure the pan doesn't go dry.

Remove the meat from the pan to the platter and cover with foil. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the contents of the skillet into a mesh sieve placed over a large bowl. Discard the vegetables. Measure the pan drippings and add enough stock to make 3 cups. Make a brown roux in the skillet by melting the 3 Tbs. butter and adding the 3 1/2 Tbs. flour and whisking to make a smooth paste. If the roux seems too dry, add more butter. Cook the roux, stirring constantly with the whisk, over medium heat until it is a rich brown color and smells nutty. This may take a few minutes, so don't walk away from it. It can easily burn if left unattended. Once the roux is a rich brown color, add the cooled stock and whisk to remove any lumps. Continue to cook over medium heat until the sauce thickens. If the sauce is too thick, simply add more stock until it is a consistancy that you like. I like my gravy to be a bit thinner so that it pours over the piece of meat rather than sits on top of it. Something to remember about roux is that the longer you cook the flour-butter mixture when making the roux the less the thickening capacity of the roux, so you have to use a bit more brown roux to thicken a sauce than you would have to use if it were a white or blond roux.

Once you have your pan gravy to the right consistancy, taste it and adjust the salt and pepper to your taste. Add the mustard, shallots and sugar and stir to mix completely. Taste again and adjust. Take ownership of your sauce and add seasonings that you like. Maybe you don't like mustard or shallots, so leave it out along with the sugar. These ingredients make a traditional Robert (row-bear) sauce, which goes very well with pork, but it's just an idea. You can add sauted mushrooms and onions for an equally great pork sauce, or you can leave it as a simple pan gravy with salt and pepper and the mirepoix for seasoning.

Anyway, once you have finished your sauce, spoon it over the pork steaks and sprinkle with a bit of chopped fresh parsley. This would be great served over wide egg noodles.

VARIATION: Instead of making a pan gravy, which is thickened with a roux, you can make a simple pan sauce instead. Follow the recipe as directed, but after straining the juices from the pan, return the juices to the pan but do not add any stock to it. You should have at least 4 Tbs. of pan juices remaining to make the sauce. If you have more than this, cook the juices over medium high heat to reduce them to about 4 Tbs. Divide 2 Tbs. cold unsalted butter in half. If your skillet is not hot when you return the juices to it, turn the heat on under the skillet to medium high and bring the juices to a boil. Remove from heat. Whisk a piece of butter into the juices in the pan until it is completely incorporated, then add the second piece of butter. Whisk. Pour the sauce over the steaks.


When you think of mayonnaise, I'm sure you think of the white gloppy stuff that comes in a jar and you'd be right. That is what most of us know to be mayonnaise. But that's because we haven't experienced the sublime goodness of homemade mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is so easy to make and has so many flavor possiblities. If you have an egg, vinegar, and oil, you have the ingredients for mayonnaise. Like everything, the quality of your mayonnaise is subject to the quality of your ingredients, so don't skimp on the ingredients. When I hear back from people who have tried my recipes with inferior results, I often find it to be a case of inferior substitution of ingredients.

Here's a basic mayonnaise "recipe" that can be modified using different acidic ingredients (vinegars, citrus juices) and oils (mild flavored safflower or canola, or more robust extra virgin olive oil or flavored oils), as well as seasonings. It's fun to experiment with mayonnaise because the ingredients aren't too expensive to throw out (not that we ever want to waste food) if our flavor combos don't quite taste as good as they should.

Dilly Mayonnaise

This mayo is great in tuna salad, macaroni salad, or as a dip for steamed artichokes or asparagus.

1 yolk of a large or extra large egg
2 Tbs. white wine vinegar
1 Tbs. dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. dried dill (I use Pampered Chef's Herb Dill Blend)
1 cup mild flavored oil, such as canola or safflower

Place the egg yolk in a bowl that will hold at least 4 cups. You need room to whisk. If you have a rubber-bottomed mixing bowl, that's ideal. It will help steady the bowl while you whisk in the oil. Add the vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper and dill. Whisk until it's completely combined. Now whisk in the oil just a very quick drizzle at a time to begin the emulsification process, which is what mayonnaise is all about. After you've added about a quarter cup of the oil a little at a time, you can start adding the oil in a steady stream to the egg yolk mixture as you continually whisk. Whisking is very important to the emulsion process. Since you'll have one hand busy whisking and the other hand busy pouring in the oil, you can see why having a bowl that won't move around the counter is important. If you don't have a rubber-bottomed bowl, you can put a damp towel under the bowl to help hold it in place or you can call on a helper to hold the bowl in place.

Now making mayonnaise takes a bit of practice to get the feel of just how much oil you can add. A large egg yolk can usually emulsify a cup of oil, but it all depends on how much lecithin is in the yolk and we can't tell just by looking at the yolk. If your mayonnaise starts to look curdled, stop adding oil and whisk like crazy to smooth it out. Don't add any more oil if this happens.

Freshly made mayonnaise will be more like a sauce than the thick mayonnaise from the jar. The homemade mayo will thicken up once it sits in the fridge for a few hours. Personally, I like to use my mayonnaise for salad dressings and dips before it thickens up. Store in a covered container in the fridge.

VARITIONS: Add minced sour pickles to the mayo for tartar sauce; Remove the dill and add some ketchup and sweet pickle relish for Thousand Island dressing; replce dill and mustard with curry powder; replace the white wine vinegar, canola oil and dill with red wine vinegar and EVOO along with one pressed clove garlic and 1 tsp. Italian seasoning for a fantastic aoli spread for sandwiches or thin it down with a bit more vinegar and use it as a dressing. Try fresh squeezed lemon juice in place of the vinegar for a seafood sauce. The possibilities go on and on!

Springtime Pasta Salad:

8 oz. pasta of choice (I used elbow macaroni), cooked according to package directions
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
2 Tbs. minced red onion
2 oz. cheddar cheese cut into small cubes
Dill Mayonnaise

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Taste salad and add salt and pepper, if necessary.


A vinaigrette is similar to a mayonnaise without the egg yolk. The basic ratio is 1 part acid to 1 1/2-2 parts oil. Again, you can change up the flavor profile simply by changing the acid and oil that you use. This recipe uses tangelo/tangerine juice as the acid and sunflower oil to create a light dressing for strawberry and spinach salad.

Tangerine Vinaigrette:

3 Tbs. freshly squeezed tangerine juice
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
dash of pepper
1/2 tsp. minced fresh mint, or 1/4 tsp. dried mint
1/4 cup canola, safflower, or light olive oil

Whish together juice, sugar, salt, pepper and mint. Drizzle in the oil while whisking. Taste and correct seasoning as desired. The dressing will not remain emulsified for long, so whisk the dressing again before using.

Strawberry Spinach Salad:

Wash, hull, and slice one quart fresh strawberries and place in a bowl with 8 oz. washed baby spinach. Add 1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese and toss. Slice half of a red onion very thin and toss the onion with the other salad ingredients. Drizzle salad with Tangerine Vinaigrette.
Add a feww grinds of pepper, if desired, before serving.

Chocolate Dessert Sauce (like Hershey's Syrup, but darker and better)

Let's face it. The bottle of Hershey's syrup lasts about as long as the gallon of milk, which isn't very long around my house. No worries though if you know how to whip up a batch of homemade chocolate sauce that's so good and so easy. I always have the ingredients on hand to make this sauce, so it's my go-to recipe.

2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water
2 oz. cocoa powder, pressed through a sieve to remove lumps
1 oz. heavy cream
3 oz. unsalted butter
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 tsp. salt

Stir together the cocoa powder and some of the measured water to make a smooth paste. Set aside. Place the sugar and remaining water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir to dissolve the sugar while heating over medium high heat. Once the sugar has completely dissolved (there shouldn't be any sugar crystals on the side of the pan) quit stirring. Leave the sugar mixture alone and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and add the chocolate paste. Whisk together. Boil the chocolate mixture over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring often. Remove from the heat and add the cream and butter. Stir. Taste the sauce and add some vanilla extract and salt, if desired. Let cool to room temperature before serving.

Extra Recipes

Butter Cake: adjusted for high-altitude

Place oven rack in lower third of oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Stir together in a bowl: 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder and 1/2 tsp. salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat together 1 1/2 sticks (12 Tbs) soft unsalted butter and 3 large eggs. Add 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract and 1 1/2 tsp. pure almond extract.

Alternately add the flour and 1 cup plus 2 Tbs. buttermilk to the butter/sugar/egg mixture, beating well after each addition.

Scrape batter into a loaf pan that has been sprayed with cooking spray and lined with parchment paper (at least on the bottom). Bake for 50-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the pan with a knife before trying to invert the cake onto the cooling rack. Cool completely before slicing.

Compound Butter: to 1/2 pound unsalted butter, add 1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice, 2 Tbs. minced fresh parsley, 1 tsp. sea salt, and 1/8 tsp. white pepper. Mix together thoroughly. Spoon the butter onto a piece of plastic wrap and roll into a log about 1" in diameter. Chill butter until it's firm before using. Use on meats or add to steamed vegetables or pan sauce.


No comments:

Post a Comment