Foodie Tuesday: Bechamel Mucho (Songs for a Saucy Character)

photocollage + textI love sauce. Saucing a great dish properly is a little bit like creating the right music to shape a fine piece of text: suddenly this new dimension brings out a whole range of new and beautiful textures and nuances that were lying there in wait all along but are awakened by the new partnership into something even deeper and lovelier. Words and music. Food and sauce.

Sing along with me, if you will. Bésame Mucho! Glorious things happen in the kitchen, love is brought to light, when the sauce is a-simmer. It’s enough to make a clodhopper like me sing and dance. (Sensitive readers, please avert your eyes, or you’ll end up wanting to evert them.)

One of the best things about saucing is that it doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult to have a great impact on a dish. The prime example of this, natürlich, is a simple deglaze–one additional ingredient that brings a lot of happiness to the dinner party. It’s nothing more than a way to rinse the pan with any fitting liquid that will loosen all of the good fond, or browned goodies and drippings, left in the pan in which the dish’s main ingredients were cooked. It can be kept nice and thin and loose or further reduced to thicken, either easy without adding a single other ingredient, or it can form the friendly base for yet more monkeying around. All good!

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Sometimes all it takes is a nice loose juice to deglaze the pan . . .

Which brings me to another great and lovable thing about sauces. There are such an enormous number of possible combinations of ingredients, proportions, and techniques that I’d bet any cook worth her salt (never mind all of the other ingredients) could cook her way through a long and delicious life without ever repeating a single sauce precisely. Almost frightening, that, but really quite exciting and encouraging in its way. A restaurant chef’s career depends on just the opposite, that she be able to reproduce to a virtually molecular level the same sauce over and over, meal by meal, dish by dish, once it’s on the menu. Patrons will rebel if given any surprises or disappointments. But the home cook, if his family is the least bit adventuresome or just plain ravenous, has the possibility of playing with his food and, if he’s lucky, discovering in the process the next world’s favorite. Or at least his wife’s.

Even the classic sauces offer incredible opportunity for invention, if you can master the basic form. Bechamel, salsa verde, Bolognese, hoisin, barbecue sauce, mole, tartar sauce. Me, I’m not such a master of basics. But I eventually figure my way around things, with enough expert guidance from my various kitchen muses in person or through recipes and other forms of fabulous foodie folklore. I try a whole bunch of different versions and variations and mess around, I read up, I lick the spoon, I experiment on all of my friends and loved ones (and I sincerely apologize for whatever culinary atrocities I may have perpetrated over the years against any undeserving parties), and I work my way around to sauces that I’m willing to try repeating, or that I even get asked for again. Sometimes it’s a long, puzzling path of kitchen adventure that leads to a complex and subtle sauce. Sometimes it’s just the joyful re-creation of a straightforward childhood favorite, and no less welcome on the plate or on the tongue.

So in closing today, I commend to you my very favorite variation on perhaps my very favorite sauce. I am mad for Hollandaise. In particular, my lifelong love is the Hollandaise version I learned from my mother, who learned it long ago from Queen Betty Crocker. It’s not an old-school French version with vinegar or white wine, it’s purely eggs, lemon juice and butter. I’m such a down-home bumpkin that I like it best made with [really top quality] butter that is <horrors!> salted. I’ve even learned that I like it quite well if I just hot up a cup of butter with two tablespoons of lemon juice until nice and sizzly, pour it into a blender, and spin it while I drop a couple of pretty whole farm fresh eggs right in, and watch it whiz while it quickly cooks the eggs just enough to thicken into a ridiculously delicious “instant” whole-egg Hollandaise that I will happily eat on fish, on pasta, on pork, on sautéed greens, on (sure!) Eggs Benedict, on sweet fresh fruit, on a shortbread, on a spoon. What can I say, I have a lemony Hollandaise <ahem!> problem. Thankfully, there’s not yet a twelve-step program to cure me, so I can keep on indulging my addiction as long as I like.

That, my friends, is sweet music to my ears.

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Sing along with me again . . . shall we have a little Monteverdi this time?