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Tuesday, May 21

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He's much maligned among the foodie community, but I'll always have several soft spots in my heart for Emeril Lagasse. Ten years ago when I first got the Food Network, I would delight in coming home from work and watching his cooking show while I ate whatever boring dinner I could cobble together. I cooked vicariously. And I actually learned quite a bit through osmosis.

I've since tired of his routine of frequently repeated phrases and have moved on to other cooking shows. But there were a few things I learned from him which have been invaluable to me. One of them is that I learned how to make roux, which is pronounced "roo." It's such a basic template for sauce-making and so easy to experiment with -- to a degree.

Essentially a roux is just equal parts oil and flour that are cooked until they reach the darkness you desire. The most basic is to take a 1/4 cup of vegetable oil, pork drippings, olive oil, or butter and melt it in a skillet. Sprinkle a 1/4 cup of flour over top of it and stir to combine. The darker it gets, the richer its flavor. However, the darker it gets, the more chance you have of having the fat separate from the oil, too. And once that happens, it's trash.

If you just combine it and cook for a few minutes over medium heat, you'll get a white roux. Keep cooking and you get a blonde roux, then a caramel roux, then a milk chocolate roux, and if you're really lucky you can get a dark chocolate roux. And while the flavor does change as the roux gets darker, it remains fairly bland. Which is the wonderful thing about it. You can create a thick sauce and have plenty of room for experimentation and flavoring options.

If you couldn't guess by the spelling of the word, roux is French. And in the grand French tradition it should be made with butter, of course. There are five "mother sauces" in French cuisine. These five sauces are the basis for all traditional French sauces. The oldest one is béchamel (bay-sha-male); it's also the easiest. It starts with a roux. And while the French tradition calls for unsalted butter to be mixed with flour, vegetable oil can be substituted, although it's less flavorful. Once the white roux is created, to get a béchamel you simply add milk or heavy cream to the mix. I admit that I haven't had success with using soymilk as a substitute, but I found several links that say it might be used instead of milk.

There are two different types of béchamel sauce. There is the quick sauce (which is what I'll give instructions for) and there is the more original version. With this you heat the butter, add in the vegetables, remove from the heat, add scalded milk, stir quickly, simmer for a long time, and then flavor. That was the first version of béchamel that I made. And it was a huge pain in my keister and I threw it out three times before I got it to work. After watching Emeril make a basic roux and then add stuff to it, I realized that I could make a béchamel sauce using the roux method instead.

Basic Roux
4 tablespoons of butter or oil
4 tablespoons of flour

In a heavy skillet over medium heat melt the butter or warm the oil. If you're using butter, you'll want to wait until it foams and then stops foaming before adding the flour. Once the oil is warm, or the butter is foam-free, whisk in the flour. Stir constantly for about three minutes. If you plan to make a béchamel sauce, do not let the roux brown. If starts to brown remove it from the heat. The reason you want to cook the mixture for at least a few minutes is so it removes the floury, pasty flavor. And that's it. You've got a basic roux that can be used to thicken anything from gravy to stew or to make béchamel sauce.

Béchamel Sauce
1 cup of milk for a thick sauce or
1 1/2 cups of milk for a gravy-like sauce or
2 cups of milk for a thin sauce
1 large dash of ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
Large pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Pour the desired amount of milk into a receptacle with a spout that will permit you to pour it into your skillet. Keep the container of milk in one hand and a whisk in the other. You'll be stirring constantly for several minutes. Pour a tablespoon of milk into the skillet and whisk quickly until it is combined. You'll notice that the mixture changes texture quickly. Stirring quickly will keep it from separating and looking like curdled yuck. Add another tablespoon of milk and repeat until all of the mixture is combined. Now add the spices and stir continuously for a minute or until everything is combined. You now have basic béchamel sauce.

Taste it. Doesn't seem like much, does it? It's sort of like a primed canvas. It's full of potential and has a certain level of elegance all to itself, but it's rather boring. It's supposed to be. Here are a few things you can add to the sauce to make it more interesting.

  • Use 1 1/2 cups of milk and stir in a cup of shredded cheddar cheese and you've got basic cheese sauce for pouring over noodles, sliced potatoes, broccoli, or anything else you wouldn't eat if it weren't drowned in cheese.
  • Let the butter foam or the oil warm. Add two minced shallots, two tablespoons of horseradish, and 1/2 teaspoon of dried yellow mustard to the oil. Now stir in the flour, cook while stirring for several minutes before combining 1 1/2 cups of milk slowly. Once the milk is incorporated, add 1 tablespoon of sherry and 1 tablespoon of vinegar (balsamic, red wine, white wine, anything but plain white vinegar). You've just made Sauce Albert. It goes great over beef, vegetables, fish or potatoes.
  • Use either 1 1/2 cups of milk or 2 cups of milk to create the basic sauce above. Now add two tablespoons of tomato paste and two tablespoons of sherry. This goes great over chicken, or pork, or vegetables. You've just made Sauce Aurore.
  • Use 2 cups of milk to create the basic sauce above. Stir in 1/2 cup of shredded Gruyere cheese and 2 egg yolks. You've just created a Sauce Mornay. It goes great with fish, crab (especially crab cakes), and vegetables.

All of these sauces are simple variations of a common few ingredients that are combined using a very basic technique. Any herbs, spices, or liquids can be combined to create a wide variety of sauces. Just because I say to use milk doesn't mean you have to. Stock and broth can also be used. Even tomato juice can be used. This is more of a technique that cries out for experimentation. The only rule is to begin with equal parts oil and flour and then to use 4-8 parts liquid, depending on how thick you want it. Just keeping adding liquid until your sauce is the consistency that pleases you. Once it seems right, stop adding liquid to it. It's as simple as that. If you've added 1 1/4 cups of liquid and it seems right, then stop.

When making sauces this way, you must taste it before taking it off the heat. Add salt, pepper, more sherry (or whiskey, or even vermouth) before you remove it from the heat. Maybe a little garlic powder is needed, or maybe you decide that you like the hint of nutmeg so much that you add lots more. Or maybe you don't have nutmeg so you substitute with some mace or some cinnamon. Or maybe you leave it out.

Like I said, this sauce is like that blank canvas. It all depends on what you add to it. And just because you don't get a masterpiece the first time, doesn't mean that you should stop trying. Keep trying. It does get easier, and more impressive, with each attempt.

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