Photos by Cathy Arkle
When deciding what to cook for dinner, I’ve never really paid attention to the sauces that go on my food. I usually concentrate on the entire dish. Well, after this week, I learned that a good sauce can transform even basic, grilled chicken into something special. Our teacher, May, taught us the difference between classical and contemporary sauces and we concentrated on three different categories: Reductions, Emulsions and Purees.
Most sauces you’ll get in restaurants today are contemporary, which kind of makes sense, being that the classical types are high fat types with lots of butter and cream like velouté, béchamel, hollandaise, and the ever popular mayonnaise. Yup-mayo started as a sauce. We actually made this from scratch. A lot easier than it seems! I’ve included the recipe for it below.
A Reduction sauce is usually based on a brown stock plus whatever flavorings you choose to put into it. One of most basic is the red wine reduction-always a good choice for a lean cut of meat! You can vary this by using different types of wine, like Marsala and Port or even use a brandy. The important thing in a reduction is the consistency. The term “nappe” means that the sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. So that’s what you need to look for when stirring and reducing your sauce. The last step is to strain it so it’s smooth.
An Emulsion is when a fat and another liquid are mixed together. This is a little tricky because normally, oil and water don’t mix, right? Well, here they do. You just have to do it the right way—and have patience and a strong wrist. Why a strong wrist? Have you ever used a whisk for 7 minutes straight? It’s hard! Yes, you could use a blender or food processor, but where’s the fun in that?!
Here’s where our solo classwork started. We were each to make a beurre blanc sauce and homemade mayonnaise. Beurre blanc literally means white butter. For this recipe, temperature control is really important. After combining the first series of ingredients, I had to remove it from the heat source and SLOWLY whisk in cold butter. It won’t emulsify if the butter is melted or even room temperature. Interesting, no?
Mayo is another emulsification that we’re all familiar with. But try making it from scratch. You need patience to very slowly pour the oil into the egg yolks, mustard and vinegar while whisking the whole time. I’m not a huge mayo fan, but this was pretty darn good!
Our group assignment was vinaigrette. Again, lots of whisking. The basic, but not ‘hard and fast’, rule for vinaigrettes is a 3 to 1 ratio. 3 parts oil to 1 part acid (this means a vinegar or juice). We were allowed to be creative for this, so Kathy, Mindy and I chose to make ours with orange and basil. All you do for this is use OJ instead of vinegar and chiffonade some basil to whisk in. We even used a touch of orange zest! (Good suggestion, Mindy!)
Purees are sauces that depend on the fresh flavors of the ingredients and herbs that go in it. Pesto would be an example of this type of sauce, as are chutneys. They’re usually not totally smooth and have a rustic edge.
Sauces serve a definite purpose and how they’re paired with food makes a HUGE difference in taste. You want your sauce to add visual interest and texture to your dish, like using a chunky sauce with a smooth chicken breast. You also want it to be appropriate for the food. You’re not going to use a red wine reduction with a Dover sole and who’d want a delicate sauce on a leg of lamb?!
Whichever sauce you decide to prepare, just make sure there’s enough for each and every bite—you’ll be glad you did. And I’m glad I learned how to make all of these. My ketchup will be taking a back seat from now on!
By the way, check out Cathy’s Blog for the Salsa Verde recipe. It’s AMAZING with meat, chicken and tofu!
Here are two more fantastic ones. And so easy!
Basic Red Wine Reduction
2 shallots, finely chopped
4 oz red wine
4 oz demi-glace (stock that’s been reduced)
Reduce wine and shallots. Add demi-glace. Stir. Strain.
1 medium shallot, minced
½ C white wine
1 tbsp champagne vinegar
1 oz heavy cream
½ lb unsalted butter, COLD but not frozen and cut into chunks.
Salt and white pepper to taste
Combine shallots, wine and vinegar in a non-reactive saucepot. Add salt. Reduce by half. Add the cream and reduce to a light sauce consistency. Remove from heat. Carefully whisk in all the butter. If the sauce gets cold, carefully heat on low, while whisking constantly. Season with salt and pepper. Strain.