Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Mother Sauces

In anticipation of Mother's Day this month, I wanted to write a little about Escoffier's "mother sauces." The topic of sauces has been on my mind as of late as I consistently come back to them as a way of adding flavor to my meals. As referenced in a few posts back, I have developed a list of traveling destinations based on the locale of certain restaurants. Recently, I've developed a hankering to visit Bar Tartine in San Francisco but have sufficed upon visiting their website for the time being. It is there that I stumbled upon a recipe for tonnato sauce, a glorious mix of tuna, capers, anchovies and olive oil (I omitted the mayonnaise 'cause mayonnaise sucks). Upon discovering this concoction which ended up as a dip for my french fries (heaven) I was reminded of how much I love sauce both as a condiment and a challenge (which combination of ingredients can I use to form the perfect mixture?).  However, to really begin my re-acquaintance with sauces, I decided to begin at square one.

In 1903, George Auguste Escoffier published Le Guide Culinaire, a veritable compendium of French cuisine. In it, he referenced what he called the five "mother sauces" or sauces which served as the base from which many variations could be derived. Just as we see mango salsa and salsa verde as a variation of the original "red" salsa, Escoffier identified bechamel sauce, veloute sauce, hollandaise saucetomate sauce, and espagnole sauce as the basic sauces which could "beget" an almost infinite list of daughter sauces. Featured in classic French cooking (more on international sauces later) such sauces shared a number of both similarities and differences.

Cooking definitions are somewhat ambivalent, I have found. One often roasts a turkey and bakes a cake but when it comes down to it, the definitions for roasting and baking are generally the same.Similarly, what separates a sauce from a stock can be equally as vague, however, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a sauce is, "a thick liquid that is eaten with or on food to add flavor to it." While, in my experience, the thickness of a sauce can vary from a thin pan sauce to a thick barbeque, Escoffier's mother sauces fit the bill of containing: 1. a liquid 2. a thickening agent 3. flavorings. Each of these elements will be explained further in the following paragraphs.

The liquids featured in Escoffier's mother sauces are often what distinguish one sauce from another. In a classically prepared bechamel sauce, for example, milk is used as the base to which a thickening agent and flavorings of nutmeg, cloves and onion are added. In a veloute, a white stock made of veal and/or chicken bones serves as the liquid base. The list below contains the liquids dominant in each of mother sauce. (Note: the links offered to recipes for each sauce are often variations of the original recipe.)
Bechamel Sauce: milk
Veloute Sauce: White Stock (made from veal or chicken bones)
Hollandaise Sauce: Clarified Butter
Tomate Sauce: Stock (since brown stock often includes tomato paste, use the brown stock link below.)
Espagnole Sauce: Brown Stock (made, traditionally, from beef bones)

Thickening Agents
Like the liquids featured above, thickening agents impart a unique flavor to each sauce. In tradition French cuisine, a roux, an equal mixture of fat and flour, is used to thicken each sauce, however, not all mother sauces use this agent. In a hollandaise sauce, for example, egg yolks are used to thicken clarified butter while in a tomate sauce, a roux is traditionally used but is often discarded in lieu of using only tomatoes. As above, so below (are the thickening agents used in each sauce...) One note, the "fat" used most in a traditional roux is clarified butter. The color of a roux, ranging from light to dark, depends on how long you cook the flour/fat mixture. To this end, the same link is attached for all roux recipes.
Bechamel Sauce: white roux
Veloute Sauce: blond roux
Hollandaise Sauce: egg yolks
Tomate Sauce: roux or tomatoes
Espagnole Sauce: brown roux

Flavorings, while serving as the base for many dishes, are more of an afterthought when it comes to sauces. As long as you have a liquid which is thickened, one can then think of flavorings based on individual tastes if you are cooking for yourself or your family. To some extent, the flavorings one chooses may be best if paired with liquids used for each sauce. For example, if one is using a white stock in a veloute sauce seasoned with parsley and thyme, one may want to add similar ingredients as flavorings to their sauce. However, below, I have provided the traditional flavorings for each sauce. (Note: in traditional French cooking, mirepoix or aromatic vegetables are used to flavor many dishes, thus, wherever you see mirepoix, use diced onions, carrots and celery.)
Bechamel Sauce: onions, nutmeg and cloves
Veloute Sauce: salt and white pepper (more flavor will come from the white stock)
Hollandaise Sauce: lemon juice, salt and pepper
Tomate Sauce: mirepoix, salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, parsley
Espagnole Sauce: mirepoix, ham bone, tomato puree

I remember reading in The New Yorker's Secret Ingredients that a French meal can set you back a lot both financially and in the dietary sense. Many French meals are robust in flavors and in calories. While somewhat the godfather of Western cooking (and with good reason) I have often found myself straying towards foods that are a little less dairy and a little more vegetable. In this sense, I've ended up somewhere "south" of the culinary border to a land that is just as flavorful (and a little more healthy). To this extent I have come to place a few "sauces" (or essentially liquified solids- same thing as thickening liquids, right?) into heavy rotation. A few to note...
Chimichurri Sauce: An Argentinian blend of parsley, salt and oil; amongst other things.
Curry: Essentially the "mother sauce" of India.
Harissa Sauce: spice up your life with this mix of spices and oil.

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