Sauces can be formal and historical, such as the French “mother” sauces: velouté (white stock-based sauce thickened with flour), béchamel (milk-based white sauce), Espagnole (brown stock-based sauce), allemande (velouté augmented with egg yolk and cream), and emulsion sauces like Hollandaise, mayonnaise, and vinaigrette. Sauces should enhance the flavor of the dish, not overwhelm it.
Often, a quick and simple sauce can be created in a pan of sautéed chicken, pork chops, or fish with a squeeze of lemon, splash of white or red wine, slightly reduced and served at once. Vary the sauce by adding finely diced tomato or sliced mushrooms, minced garlic and/or chopped onion, sliced olives or capers just before stirring in the lemon or wine, cooking the vegetables until just tender. Or add ¼ cup cream after the lemon and wine. Add “heat” with a pinch of dried red pepper flakes, sautéed or roasted and minced chiles. Balancing the flavors is important, so we need to pay attention to the acid-salt-fat balance when creating a dish. Use balsamic or raspberry vinegar instead of wine. We’re limited only by our imaginations and taste buds when creating sauces.
Thicken a sauce with a “roux:” one tablespoon of butter melted until foamy, with one tablespoon of flour stirred in and cooked a few minutes to eliminate the raw flour taste. For Cajun or Creole recipes, the secret is to cook the roux for 30-40 minutes until dark brown, rich and nutty, adding incomparable flavor to their traditional étouffée and gumbo.
2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. flour
1 cup heated milk
salt and white pepper
freshly ground nutmeg
Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook to a white roux. Stir in the heated milk, and cook until the sauce boils, at which point it will thicken. Season with the salt, pepper, and a little nutmeg. Makes about 1 cup of sauce. I’m a big believer in adding vegetables wherever possible, so I soften minced carrot, celery, onion, and garlic, perhaps tomato, in butter before stirring in the flour. This makes a delicious sauce for any lasagna, but especially spinach or butternut squash lasagna.
Spinach Au Gratin
1 tbsp. butter
1 minced clove garlic
¼ cup chopped onion
salt and pepper
1 pkg. frozen spinach or 2-3 bunches fresh spinach
1 cup béchamel sauce, with the sautéed vegetables
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese (substitute Cheddar and Parmesan, if you prefer)
Melt the butter and cook the onion and garlic with pinches of salt and pepper until the vegetables are softened. Stir in the spinach and wilt, if fresh, or until thawed and blended with the onion and garlic if frozen. Stir in the béchamel with ¾ cup cheese. Grease an au gratin dish, fill with the spinach mixture, and top with the rest of the cheese and a sprinkle of seasoned bread crumbs. Bake in a preheated 375° oven until the sauce is bubbly and the top is golden. Serve at once.