“…They dined on mince, and slices of quince which they ate with a runcible spoon. And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon.” – Edward Lear, The Owl & The Pussycat
I spend a lot of my time teaching people how to cook. More accurately, I spend a lot of time helping people feel more comfortable in the kitchen. I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at it. Yeah, sometimes I can’t help it and I’ll grab the spatula out of someone’s hands because “OMFG, would you stop moving that chicken around and let it cook already?”
But for reals…
1. I love the “A-ha!” or even the “A-ha?” moment. When the switch flips and everything locks into place, you can actually see it on peoples’ faces, and it’s gorgeous. And the questions! The ones that make me think about things in new ways and develop new approaches to things I’d always done because that’s how I was taught? Fanfuckingtastic.
2. I like teaching the rules, and then very much like teaching how to break them without breaking the code of “make it nice, or make it twice”. In other words, shortcuts are rarely ever shortcuts, and sometimes that diversion is just for fun. And if it is a shortcut? Totally fine, as long as you know when and how to deploy them without sacrificing the dish, or your credibility.
3. Lastly, I really adore showing people how to have a good time in the kitchen. I mean, relax people. Pour that second glass of wine. Put on that podcast you’ve been meaning to catch up on (or better yet, this). You are making dinner, not curing cancer. If you just slow down and realize that if you tell people what you did make, rather than what you tried to make, their expectations are calibrated, and you have had what was probably a very necessary learning experience.
And at the base of all of this is a need for everyone that I spend time with behind/next to/around the stove to understand the basics. Lately, I’ve been spending time around the stove with one particular person, who oddly enough seems interested in what I have to say about food and feeding yourself/others, and viewing food as more than fuel. And I like it. I mean, really really like spending time seeing the kitchen through new eyes with him. In the latest episode, I let go of my very favorite sauce, hollandaise. This was a big deal for me. While I love getting people to “do” in the kitchen over “observe”, this one was more than casual for me. But I let it go, and he did the thing, and it was awesome. On many levels.
Simply put, hollandaise is the best. It’s warm. It’s ever so slightly dangerous (it could break at any second, become grainy, is stored at a temperature designed to breed bacteria – pffft, we’re tougher than that – or could just fail for no reason at all). It’s butter whisked into velvet submission with a little lemon and chili. You know, for the sex appeal. And it’s the mother of all mother sauces.
What’s a mother sauce, you ask? Well…if you, like me, spend entirely too much time reading about food and the “rules” that accompany it, you may have stumbled on the list of the 5 Mother Sauces. My list has seven, but that’s because I include two cold sauces while the traditional five sauce list is for warm sauces only. The idea is that every other properly made sauce begins with one of these seven. I guarantee you’ve eaten every last one of them (or their progeny) at some point in your life because if you break it down, every other sauce (called “small sauces”), again properly made, originates with one of the following:
Hollandaise: Egg, butter, lemon, chili, salt & becomes Béarnaise, Foyot, Dijon, Choron, Maltaise, & Mousseline sauces. You’ve eaten this on eggs benedict time and time again. NO REGRETS.
Béchamel: Flour, butter, salt, nutmeg, cream/milk & becomes Crème sauce, Mornay sauce, Cheddar sauce, Soubise sauce, Nantua, and Mustard sauce. You’ve eaten it in Mac ‘n Cheese, straight out of the pot with a wooden spoon. Probably late at night. Definitely with a John Hughes joint on like this or this or this.
Veloute: Stock, flour, butter, salt & becomes Normandy sauce, herbed seafood sauce, Poulette sauce, Aurora, Hungarian, Shrimp, Bercy, Mushroom, Allemande, and Supreme sauce. You’ve eaten it on biscuits and gravy. Repeatedly (if you are anything like me and just order it the second you see it on the menu).
Espagnole: Dark roux, tomato puree, veal stock & becomes Marchand de Vin, Lyonaisse, Sauce Robert, Chasseur, Charcuterie, and Madeira sauce. You’ve eaten this any time there is a vaguely unidentifiable brown sauce on the plate (Salisbury steak, anyone?).
Tomate: Tomatoes, mire poix, pork, veal stock, thyme, peppercorns, bay leaf & becomes Spanish, Creole, Portugese, and Provencal sauces. You’ve eaten this any time you eat pasta with red sauce. I mean, you *know* this sauce.
Aioli: Eggs, olive oil, lemon (optional), mustard (optional), garlic, salt. This is just mayonnaise and basically becomes any other sauce you would add mayonnaise too. You’ve eaten this more than you could ever imagine, and it’s my second favorite (but most used) sauce.
Vinaigrette: Vinegar, olive oil, salt, mustard & becomes the basis of every salad dressing on earth. If you are smart, you’ll start making it the basis of most of your marinades too. You’ve eaten this anytime you eat a salad. I mean, *any* time you eat a salad (because who eats dry greens?).
OK, so now you have an idea of the basic sauces and are now probably dying to get started, right? I mean, who doesn’t spend a Tuesday night roasting veal bones for a brown stock and then a dark roux to make Sauce Espangole so that you can then make Sauce Robert (say it with the French accent – you’ll feel better, I promise)?
We’ll get to each of the mother sauces in the next few weeks, but I want to start with my all time favorite, mentioned above. It’s super easy to fuck up but with some attention and desire to do it right, it’s also dead easy to make. It’s great on eggs, perfect in spring on blanched vegetables, makes a crudité dip like no other, and will cause those around your table to bow down to your greatness and bring you the objects of your greatest desire to your next dinner party. Too much and you’ll cut your life short based on butter consumption alone, but in just the right amount I swear you’ll see an uptick in your “once over twice” count. The rewards for showing someone else the way? Even greater. So, put the blender away, and let’s get to it:
Adapted by yours truly from Alton Brown
- 1 sauce pan
- 1 medium bowl
- 1 whisk
- 1 1/2 sticks butter (clarified is best but not 100% necessary – if not clarified, cut into 1/2″ pieces)
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 tsp. lemon juice
- 1 tsp. water
- 1 tbsp. water
- 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper (or hot sauce of your choosing)
Make a bain marie by simmering about an inch of water in the saucepan. The pot should *just* fit your bowl. Too small and you’ll give yourself a nice steam burn. Too big and you won’t get an even heat on your egg yolks and your sauce won’t come together. If you are like me, and throw caution to the wind like a Gunny Sack prom dress, you can skip the bain marie altogether and just make the sauce in the saucepan, but you absolutely cannot leave it unattended for even a second and you will need to play with your burner’s intensity so as not to cook the egg before it becomes sauce. It’s more like taking a bath over taking a shower, if that helps at all.
Place egg yolks and 1 teaspoon water in the mixing bowl and whisk until mixture lightens in color (don’t worry, you’ll see it) which takes about 2 minutes (don’t skimp on this, you’re adding air to your emulsion which you need to make the fat and the other fat become friends).
Place the mixture over the simmering water and whisk constantly for 3 to 5 minutes, or until there is a clear line that is drawn in the mixture when you pull your whisk through, or the mixture coats the back of a spoon.
Remove the bowl from over the pan and gradually add the butter, 1 oz or one piece at a time, and whisk until all of the butter is incorporated. Place the bowl back over the simmering water occasionally so that it will be warm enough the melt the butter if unclarified. Whisk in the salt, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper, and don’t forget to taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
Spoon, nap, push under, pour over, drape, dip, and enjoy on anything even vaguely reasonable.