I hope I never lose my sense of wonder. If that makes me naive, then so be it.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

saucy: a culinary project

I've been learning so many things from the Daring Kitchen challenges. The more I've learned about food, the more I've realized I don't know. While it's a typical thing for me to realize that as I learn about anything, in the case of food it's gotten me very curious. So a while back, I decided to take on a little project of my own. Nothing nearly so daunting as a Julie/Julia Project, but something more methodical and directed than many of my cooking ventures.

I want to learn the French sauces, learn the technique of each and try a few variations on each.

"Sauces are the splendor and the glory of French cooking" - Julia Child

Sauces make such change in a meal. The meat or vegetable is there, cooked. Along comes a sauce to add layers of flavour, ideally accenting but not drowning or overpowering the dish. They may be thickened by addition or reduction, the flavours of herbs, wine, and stock melding to make something more than the mere sum of the parts. I've made several over the years, but have never made a progression through the different types.

"He drank poison? Well. Erm. This is awkward"
A brief history: they've been used for millenia, literally. Some of the earliest ones were of the fermented-fish variety called garum (and before you think 'ewwww', think Worcestershire, a sauce that owes its beginning to those) and very complex. The champions of great cuisine back in the Greek and Roman days occasionally seemed to prefer ending their lives at elaborately staged feasts where they'd have a massive blowout of a party, then drink poison. Quite a way to go, I guess, but you're really sticking someone else with cleaning up the dishes and that's just not fair to one's guests.

Enter Charlemange, and the feasts of the Middle Ages where quantity, not quality was the thing, and spices were often used to cover the fact that food preservation in those times was not the greatest. Some early versions of a sauce de grané, a thickened sauce that we know better today as gravy, started to appear in the 14th century. Catherine de Medici brought Italian influence to the French court in the 1530s, bringing along innovations such as the fork (yes, really). The mid-1600s brought the first systematic cookbooks and the use of roux in thickening, and by the late 1700s French cooking was becoming more standardized, and the sauces established enough that Antoine Carême classified them into four groups (espagnole, allemande, velouté, and béchamel).

The modern sauce organization comes to us from Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), known as the 'King of Chefs, and Chef of Kings' (a title he seems to have shared with - or perhaps was the next to inherit from - Carême). He simplified the methods of French food preparation, and his reorganization of the sauce categories is the one most often seen today.

So. I find myself with five mother sauces. Each of these has many, many variants, so I plan to try a couple of each. The five are:
  • Espagnole - roux brun, brown stock, and aromatics
  • Béchamel - roux blanc, milk, and aromatics
  • Velouté - roux blonde, white stock, and aromatics
  • Tomato sauces - 'nuff said.
  • Hollandaise - egg yolk and butter. Some would put mayonnaises and aïoli here, the main difference seeming to be hot versus cold. 

And in the midst of this I'll be figuring out demi-glaces, mirepoix, and other assorted odd terms. Two books are my main resources in this: the aptly-named Sauces, bu Michel Roux, a sweet little book I picked up at the book shop in Carleton Place, and The Sauce Bible: Guide to the Saucier's Craft, by David Larousse, kindly loaned to me by a friend of D's from work. 

I'd say it's like school again, but majoring in Biology really never gave me a chance to eat many of my studies.

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