A Chef's Greatest Test……Sauce!

Day 7 of the 31 Day Challenge

Day 7 of the 31 Day Challenge

Asparagus with Roasted Red Pepper Coulis

Asparagus with Roasted Red Pepper Coulis

Preparing a great sauce often requires technical expertise. Some sauces (think Hollandaise!) can be extemely difficult to do well and are often the measure of a chef's skill. Pairing a sauce with a food shows a chef's technical skill as well as food knowledge in terms of what sauce will complement the food in terms of texture, flavor and color.  Sauces are used to add moisture or succulence; to introduce a complementary or counterpoint flavor; to improve appearance or make a dish look more interesting; or to add texture. The French have truly mastered sauces.  In French cooking there are 5 "mother sauces" which are the main categories of sauce that can each be changed to create other sauces.   

Pan Fried Tofu with Vegetarian Espagnole Sauce

Pan Fried Tofu with Vegetarian Espagnole Sauce

The 5 mother sauces are:

  1. Espagnole: a thick brown sauce made with mirepoix (carrot, celery and onion at a 1:1:2 ratio), bones, and tomato paste, cooked with dark stock and then thickened with a roux (butter and flour combination) that is cooked to a dark brown. You can also make it without the bones. 
  2. Bechamel: a white sauce made with hot milk steeped with herbs and thickened with a just-cooked (blond) roux.
  3. Tomato:  just what it sounds like!  Roux or additional thickener is not needed as the tomatoes will cook down and thicken.
  4. Hollandaise: a warm butter sauce made with butter, egg yolks, and an acid like lemon juice or white wine vinegar.  It is very fussy to make as you can easily scramble the eggs and it often separates before you can serve it. 
  5. Veloute: a nice stock thickened with a light colored roux.  (like Bechemel but made with stock instead of milk.)  

You can add ingredients to each of these sauces to change them into another variation. For example Mornay or cheese sauce is made by adding cheese to Bechamel; Alfredo sauce is also from Bechamel with added nutmeg and Parmesan cheese; mushroom sauce is made by adding mushrooms and flavorings to Veloute; reduced Espagnole sauce makes a demiglace. 

There is a great scene in the movie The 100 Foot Journey in which the aspiring Indian chef takes the young French chef on a picnic where he demontrates his skill to her with his version of the 5 mother sauces. I couldn't find a clip of that scene but if you haven't seen the movie I highly recommend it.  Just plan on going out to a nice dinner afterward.  The food all looks delicious -  you'll want to eat!

Fortunately for us, the French don't have a monopoly on good sauces.  Think about delicous coconut curry sauce in Thai food, the deep rich moles of Mexico, the salsas in Mexican and Tex-Mex cusine, and the soy-ginger-garlic creations in China.  All are delicious. We made a Salsa Verde that is out of this world.  It is a combination of cilantro or parsley with nuts, garlic, capers, olive oil, salt and pepper.  It is great as a dip with chips, on steamed carrots to perk them up, on pan fried tofu.  I am sure it would be fabulous over grilled fish or even for you meat eaters on roasted chicken.  It's a delicous way to eat some greens, sort of like tabouli without the grain. Clearly not all sauces need to be laden with butter which is not the healthiest choice.  A little butter in a sauce is a great way to make food special for an occasion but probably not for every day.  Fresh salsas, and sauces like the red pepper sauce shown above are a nice way to add some flavor and nutrition to a dish. Here is my version of that Salsa Verde. 

Salsa Verde with Mary's Gone Crackers

Salsa Verde with Mary's Gone Crackers

Salsa Verde

by Catherine Craig

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: none

Ingredients (2 cups)

  • 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans (walnuts, almonds, cashews would all be great)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 Tbsp finely chopped red onion
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped (use leaves not stems)
  • 1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, finely chopped (use leaves not stems)
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped capers that have been rinsed and drained
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • big pinch of salt, 8 or so grinds of fresh pepper


Add all ingredients into a bowl. Stir to combine. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper as needed.

Delicious served on steamed carrots, mixed into cooked brown rice for a side dish, over grilled fish, shrimp or vegetables, or on a tortilla chip.

Note: The variations are endless. The original recipe from The Natural Epicurean calls for walnuts, 1 cup of parsley, omit the red onion, and add 2 Tbsp chopped tarragon. I think adding some mint or basil would be really good. Play with it....it will all be good!

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