Hitting The Sauce

Alchemy For The Everyday Cook.

WHEN I FIRST witnessed a wine-based sauce being made entirely from scratch I was amazed. If I recall correctly, it was demi-glace au vin rouge. The chef began using the traditional base of Espagnole sauce, and though we only needed enough for about a dozen customers, he proceeded with two bottles of wine and a half-gallon of veal stock. Thinking that he was making an incredibly large amount of sauce for 12 people and being too intimidated to question his judgment, I watched in silence. At the time I knew nothing of the fine art of reduction.

Throughout the course of the day the wine simmered slowly in one pot and the stock and Espagnole sauce simmered in another, until a mere one-fifth of the original amounts remained. As the liquids evaporated, the chef tended to them as if he were nurturing a child. "The sauce," he said "makes itself, you simply guide it along." He then combined the two liquids in a clean pot and continued to "guide" the sauce for another hour or so. He also told us that a superb sauce simply could not be rushed, and that patience was of utmost importance.

In a divine moment of clarity it all began to make sense to me. By reducing the liquids separately the flavors became extremely concentrated--the water content decreases through evaporation and any existing flavors grow stronger. In the case of a meat-based stock, such as veal, as it reduces, or evaporates, the remaining liquid becomes somewhat viscous, almost syrupy. With wine, not only do the flavors become concentrated, but the harshness of the alcohol is dissipated as well.

A few years ago while studying with the famed author and culinary educator Madeleine Kamman, she showed the class how to make an essence of guinea hen. While doing this she instructed us to take a sip of wine and then a sip of the sauce that was cooking; after which, we took another sip of the wine. The change in the flavor of the wine after tasting the sauce was remarkable; it seemed much easier to balance the flavors of the sauce. When we seemed astonished by this, Kamman remarked to the class that the winemaker puts so much of his or her life into the wine that we should give the sauce, in which we use the wine, at least an equal amount of respect and attention. Somewhat stunned by many "sips" of wine, we all concurred. Winemaking dates back more than 5000 years; its relationship with food and cooking--particularly sauce making--is only natural.

Not all wine-based sauces need an entire day for production, such as one of the more recent newcomers to the sauce category, beurre blanc (white butter). Though the fundamentals for this sauce have been around for quite some time, beurre blanc was relatively unknown outside the Loire Valley region of France before the early 1960s. When the flourless sauces of cuisine nouveau were all the rage, beurre blanc took Paris, and the rest of the world for that matter, by storm. This sauce is said to have evolved from a method that is often used in rural France when poaching fish: a pat or two of butter is swirled into the poaching liquid towards the end of the cooking process to form a crude sauce. This method was later adapted and refined by chefs and is still the norm in restaurants today. There are, though, two schools of thought on this classic sauce: with cream, or without. While adding cream to beurre blanc will stabilize it to a certain extent, I personally prefer the creamless method; each flavor in the sauce seems to be more distinct. The method for making beurre blanc is about as simple as sauce making can get. White wine and/or vinegar are simmered with minced shallots and freshly cracked white pepper, and then pats of chilled butter are swirled into the scant liquid directly before service. Though there has always been somewhat of a mystique surrounding this sauce, it's not as difficult to produce or as fragile as its reputation makes it out to be. The most important and basic rule to remember when making beurre blanc is this: after whisking in the butter do not boil the sauce. Unless you've tasted this sauce made properly, the resulting silkiness and simplicity of this classic is indescribable. Sauces like this enforce my theory that sauce making is nothing short of alchemy.

Some of these sauces have pretty fantastic histories; a good example is the classic Salsa Fra Diavolo from Italy. It's made by quickly simmering red wine, garlic, hot peppers, anchovies and herbs, then adding tomato puree. The resulting sauce is often paired with seafood or tossed with pasta. The name, Fra Diavolo (short for Fratello Diavolo), translates to English as "Brother Devil." It is said to have been named after a 17th-century monk who went astray. It seems this particular monk was caught in an uncomfortable circumstance with a local prostitute. He was soon after expelled from the monastery and in his honor his fellow monks created this sauce. All of the ingredients are relevant to the situation: the red wine is what the disgraced monk was drinking at the time, the anchovy signifies the prostitute, and the hot pepper is to resemble the devil himself, to whom his fellow monks attributed their brother's fall from grace.

Salsa Fra Diavolo Yield: 2 1/2 quarts

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 5 anchovy filets
  • 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
  • 2 teaspoons minced parsley
  • 1 teaspoon basil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 8 cups tomato puree
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepot. Add the anchovies and hot pepper; sauté for two minutes, breaking apart the anchovies with a wooden spoon. Stir in the parsley, basil, salt and wine, bring the liquid to a boil and lower it to a simmer. Cook the wine for approximately 10 minutes over medium heat, or until the wine has reduced by three-fourths.

Stir in the tomato puree, bring the liquid to a simmer. Cook the sauce for a half-hour stirring often. If the sauce becomes too thick, thin to a desired consistency with water or stock.

Beurre Blanc Yield: 1 1/2 cups

  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallots
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/4 pound chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes
Combine the white wine, white wine vinegar, shallots, salt and pepper in a small heavy skillet. Bring the liquid to a boil, then lower it to a simmer. Cook the reduction until approximately 1 tablespoon of the original amount of liquid remains.

With the skillet still over the heat, add the cubes of butter a couple of pieces at a time. Shake and stir the pan constantly while the butter is being added to encourage emulsification. As the pieces melt and emulsify into the sauce, add another piece or two until all of the butter has been added.

When the last piece(s) of butter have been added to the sauce, and are almost melted, remove the pan from the heat. Continue to stir and shake the pan until all of the butter has been incorporated into the sauce. If desired, strain the sauce through a fine mesh or muslin colander and serve at once.

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