Monday, October 19, 2009

Vegetable Sauces

Taking a picture of a sauce without a protein is like taking a picture of lingerie without a woman. This roasted red pepper and smoked paprika sauce was actually served with seared bluefish. But at dinner time, the light was terrible, and there was no hope of taking a picture. The next morning, the light was great and there was still a bit of the sauce left, but by then all the bluefish was eaten. Luckily, this post is not about a fish. It's about a sauce. So the somewhat bare pictures seems almost appropriate.

I am in the middle of re-designing my sauce class. We do two pan sauces in that class (a red wine reduction for steak and a porcini sauce for chicken). Both are keepers. They are yummy and loaded with techniques that are easy, but not necessarily familiar to home cooks. We do a bechamel because it has many uses and is a good demo of how to work with a roux thickener. We do a vinaigrette because it's hard to live without it (unless you want to rely on store bought dressings and what fun would that be?!). The other two sauces I've been losing a lot of sleep over. Usually, it's a cilantro lime butter and a salsa verde (the Italian kind). While they are yummy and extremely versatile, I feel like I am not really teaching my students anything interesting with them. We are just executing recipes that any 10 year old is perfectly capable of following.

My criteria for choosing dishes we cook in class is their screw up potential. If not much can go wrong, I feel like it's a wasted opportunity. For this Saturday's sauce class, I am going to try something different. I'll try replacing cilantro lime butter and salsa verde with a pureed vegetable sauce to serve with our seafood dish.

Pureed vegetable sauces mostly appear in upscale restaurants that charge $25 and up per entree, but they are nothing more than good pureed vegetable soups served as sauces. In fact, I often do that at home when I have soup leftovers. Plop a piece of seared fish into some leftover asparagus soup and voila -- it's fine dining. Of course, these sauces are only as good as your soup making skills and there is a lot to learn when it comes to soups.

Instead of writing up a roasted red pepper sauce recipe, I'd like to write some general guidelines for creating vegetable puree sauces. This will free you up to improvise with whatever vegetables strike your fancy.

Choosing the vegetable
One way to choose a vegetable to use for sauce is to pay attention when you eat out. If you see a sauce you like, try recreating it at home. Another way is to check whether this kind of vegetable is commonly used for pureed soups (you can do that by googling). Here are some examples of vegetables that work well and produce beautifully smooth and rich purees:
  • asparagus
  • sweet peppers
  • cauliflower
  • celery root
  • salsify
  • parsnips
  • butternut squash
  • green peas
  • carrots
Here are some examples of vegetables that wouldn't work because they don't puree well:
  • swiss chard
  • kale
  • cabbage
Choosing the cooking method
At some point during this sauce making process your vegetable will be simmering in the flavorful liquid that you'll create, but some vegetables might benefit from being roasted first to enhance their flavor. I find that cauliflower and butternut squash come out very nicely when roasted first. Red peppers are great charred under an open flame until black and then peeled. That's what I did for my red pepper sauce. The easiest way to char a pepper is to cut off the flesh around the seeds into 4 flat pieces and put them under the broiler skin side up until they are black. Move to a bowl, cover, and let them steam for 20 minutes of so. They'll get softer and easier to peel just by rubbing with your hands. Once they are peeled and cut into medium dice, they are ready for simmer. Green vegetables, like asparagus and peas don't benefit from roasting and should be added to the simmering liquid raw to preserve their green color.

Start with the onion family
Like all vegetable soups, vegetable sauces need an onion to give them that wonderful sweet savory balance. My favorite onions to use are shallots. Leeks are also very nice paired with green vegetables. If you don't have either on hand, just use plain old yellow onions. Any onion is better than none. For 1 Lb of vegetable, you'll need roughly 1/4 to 1/3 cup of finely diced shallot (or leek or onion) sweated in 1-2 Tbsp olive oil or butter. Sweating means that you cook the onion on very low heat stirring often until it's completely soft and translucent, but develops no color. At this point, you are ready to add your main vegetable and liquid.

What liquids to use and how much
First let's get out of the way what not to use. Don't use boxed stocks. They make mediocre soups and sauces. Believe it or not, water works extremely well. If you happen to have some home-made vegetable or blond chicken stock (made from raw, not roasted chicken), you can use it in any vegetable sauce. If you have some brown chicken stock (made from roasted chicken), you can use it with anything but green vegetables. You'll also need a splash of dry white wine (use a ratio of about 5 parts stock to 1 part wine). This will give your sauce the necessary acidity. But if no wine is on hand, you can adjust acidity in the end by adding lemon juice to taste. When cooking green vegetables, I like to add some lemon juice to the cooking liquid to help preserve color.

Now the question of how much total liquid to use. I find that it works best when the liquid just barely comes to the top of the vegetables. Keep in mind that it's always easier to thin out the sauce in the end than to thicken it, so don't get carried away with liquid.

Don't forget the salt. Season, taste, and adjust.

Here is where you can let your imagination take over. Any sauce can benefit from a bay leaf and a few sprigs of thyme that you'll fish out before pureeing. There are also aromatics that pair particularly well with certain vegetables:
  • asparagus and lemon zest
  • salsify and orange zest
  • sweet peppers and smoked paprika
  • cauliflower and truffles (though it's best to add the truffle oil in the end rather than add it to the cooking liquid)
  • celery root and vanilla bean (don's use the extract)
  • carrots and ginger and/or oranges
How long to cook
Once your pot is assembled, simmer it gently until the vegetables are tender. Err on the overcooking side for root vegetables. Err on the undercooking side for green vegetables. But even those should not be crisp. They are lovely crisp when served as a side dish, but not in a soup or sauce. This can take as short as 5 minutes for green vegetables or as long as 25 minutes for root vegetables (maybe even longer if you chopped them rather large). Check the green ones often.

Pureeing, Straining, and Thickness Troubleshooting
You'll need a blender. An immersion type is my favorite since it makes the clean up easy. As tempting as it is to leave your sauce in the pot when using an immersion blender, I find that I get a smoother puree if I move it to a 2 cup pyrex measuring cup of some other tall container that fits the immersion blender snugly. Start on low speed until all the chunks are gone. Then puree on high speed for about 3 minutes unless your sauce is silky smooth before that. This might seem really long, but it will result in a much smoother sauce. Take a look at what you've got. It should look thicker than the sauce you were hoping to get because the straining process will thin it out.

If you are wondering if it might be smooth enough, stop wondering, and start straining. The texture difference between home-made soups and restaurant soups often just boils down to straining.

Set a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and pour the sauce into it. When using a fibrous vegetable (like asparagus, particularly white asparagus), it's helpful to let it sit in the strainer undisturbed for 5 minutes to shed excess liquid since it will be a lot thinner after straining. Pour the liquid that accumulates after 5 minutes into another bowl and reserve it for thinning out the sauce if necessary. Then force the sauce through a strainer by rubbing it with the back of the ladle in circular motion. Discard the fibers that didn't get through the sieve. Rinse out the sauce pot and return the strained sauce to it. If too thick to your liking, you can thin it out with reserved cooking liquid or more stock/water.

I know -- this does sound like a lot of work, but the good news is that you can make your sauce up to this stage a day in advance. Cool, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use. The only thing you'll have to do last minute is warm it up and enrich it with a little butter or cream.

When ready to serve, return the sauce to a gentle simmer. To enrich with cream, whisk it in and wait for the sauce to return to a simmer for about a minute. Make sure to use heavy cream (also sold as "heavy whipping cream," not half and half or light cream. But you are welcome to use as much or as little as you'd like. To enrich with butter, first take the sauce off heat. Then whisk in 1-2 Tbsp of butter per pound of vegetables. Since I only serve 1/4 - 1/3 cup of sauce per person, I make my sauces a lot richer than my soups.

Don't even think about pouring this sauce onto someone's plate without tasting it first. It might need more salt or a squirt of lemon. Taste and adjust until you are happy with it.

Phew -- you are done!

As far as protein/sauce pairing goes... Most of my vegetable sauces end up with seared and pan roasted seafood because making a pan sauce with the fond left over from searing seafood doesn't work (too fishy).

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Understanding Ricotta, Yogurt, Farmer's Cheese, etc.

Last night I got the most insightful e-mail from Diana at Off the Bone that answered the questions I had about making ricotta, yogurt, farmer's cheese, and other fresh cheese variations. I asked Diana if it would be ok to share her explanation with my readers and she graciously agreed to be my guest blogger.

Here is what she wrote...

There are two things that need to happen when you make cottage cheese

1) the milk needs to curdle - i.e. proteins need to coagulate and separate from water in the milk
2) lactic fermentation needs to occur

1) gives it the texture / consistency you want, and 2) gives it the tang.

The two are related, in that lactic fermentation will make the milk curdle, but they do not inevitably go together - milk can curdle without lactic fermentation. This is what happens when you add lemon juice to warm milk - it curdles, but does not become tangy. You can curdle the milk with anything acidic - vinegar, wine, citrus juice, hibiscus tea, whatever. But curdling, as I mentioned, is not the only thing we are after. We are also after lactic bacteria.

Lactic bacteria, of course, are everywhere. So, if you let the milk sit without refrigeration they find it, and curdle it. That's how Russian grandmothers make cottage cheese.

Your Russian friends are absolutely right in that supermarket milk is really hard to get to curdle. In fact, I find that it spoils before it curdles if you just let it sit at room temperature (and trust me, the difference is very obvious by smell - clean + acidic vs disgusting). Lactic bacteria just don't like it. So what you should do is introduce some lactic bacteria and give them a head start (by creating conditions they like). Once lactic fermentation begins - i.e. lactic bacteria begin breeding - other bacteria are very unlikely to breed in the same environment, because lactic bacteria outcompete them. You get lactic bacteria from buttermilk or "live cultures" plain yogurt (they are different strains, so the taste will be a bit different, but probably not different enough to care what you use for the first batch), and they like it warm. Like, 120F or so (they slow down below 98 and start dying above 130).

So, start them off warm - heat up the milk, add yogurt / buttermilk, take the pot off heat and wrap it in a blanket or something to keep it warm for a while. As it naturally cools the fermentation will slow down, but that's ok - the milk at this point is pretty safe from all the other bacteria, and you aren't racing the clock.

The fermentation is done when the milk sets - wobble the pot, or look out for a thin film of whey on top of the set "jelly."

That's it. Strain it. The more you break up the curds, the rougher / grainier the texture of the cottage cheese. If you are super gentle, though (spooning the curds into the strainer sort of thing), you'll end up with no texture at all - basically a greek yogurt.

I haven't experimented with it very much, but I'd try cutting the curd like you do when you make cheese. Take a butter knife or a chopstick, cut in a cross pattern (like you're drawing a grid on top of your pot, except the chopstick goes all the way to the bottom), and then stir a bit with a spatula to get the curds to start releasing whey and forming tighter chunks. Then strain.

A good solution in terms of milk is to get Shaw Farm milk (it's sold in Kickass Cupcakes in Davis Square, in Wilson Farms in Lexington, possibly elsewhere, too). It's noticeably better than the supermarket kind. They even sell unhomogenized, I believe, if you're into that.


Thank you, Diana, for such a good explanation. I'll give it another shot and hopefully will end up with farmer's cheese.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Is home-made ricotta worth making?

Last week, I did something most food bloggers have done years ago -- I made my own ricotta. To tell you the truth, it wasn't ricotta I was after. What I really wanted to make was Russian farmer's cheese. But many of my Russian friends who have tried it said it was really hard to get supermarket milk to curdle. It could take as long as a few days at room temperature which sounded a bit disturbing to me since I don't know the difference between good curdled and spoiled curdled. So, I've never tried making my own farmer's cheese. Considering the fact that I love to cook, my preservation skills are non-existant. Anyway, where were we... That's right ricotta.

I saw a recipe for it in Sept/Oct issues of Cook's and it looked like a fun thing to try. Since ricotta and farmer's cheese are cousins of sorts, I thought it can't hurt to learn to make whatever Cook's was giving me straightforward instructions for. It turned out well, but I can't say it was a revelation. Sure it was head and shoulders above most store bought ricotta, but not any better than Calabro, which is my favorite store bought brand.

Farmer's cheese is a whole other story. I want to learn to make it not because it's fun in a science project sort of way, but because I am not crazy about the store bought products. The one I see in most stores is Friendship brand. It's ok in fillings, but not great on it's own. Any advice on how to do it? I've seen lots of recipes on-line, but I'd like to understand the science behind it and none of them explain it. Here are some specific questions that I have:
  • The ricotta recipe I used, said to heat milk to 185F and then stir in enough lemon juice to make it curdle. The resulting product doesn't have much tang. This is appropriate for ricotta, but farmer's cheese is supposed to have a good bit of sourness. Does this come from letting it sit for a while and curlde on it's own at room temperature?
  • What's the difference between using lemon juice and buttermilk as souring agents?
  • How do you know if the milk curdled in a good way (like it's ready for cheese making) or in a bad way (like it spoiled)?
In case it's ricotta you are really after, here is the recipe.

Heat 1 gallon whole milk and 1 tsp table salt (or 2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt) to 185F over medium-hight heat. Cook's recommends using a Dutch oven, but I don't see why it wouldn't work in any heavy bottomed pot if you stir occasionally. Remove from heat and slowly stir in 1/3 cup lemon juice.

Allow mixture to stand undisturbed for 5 minutes. If the milk hasn't curdled, stir in more lemon juice 1 Tbsp at a time until the milk curdles (let sit a few minutes after each addition).

Set a collander in a large bowl and line with 2 layers of cheese cloth. Dump the curdled milk in and wait for it to drain. Make sure your bowl is big enough to catch all the liquid or keep an eye on it and dump out the liquid as it accumulates in the bowl.

After an hour of draining, move to the fridge and let it sit overnight. Cook's said not to press or disturb the ricotta, but I found that collecting the edges of the cheese cloth and tying them up didn't hurt.

Now if only I could get my hands on some raw milk. My guess is that would indeed produce a ricotta superior to anything from the store, but the closest place I can get it is Foxboro, and I am not sure I am up for driving that far.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


There is something immensely satisfying about working with ugly ingredients. Making a strawberry taste good doesn't really do it for me (where is the challenge in that?!), but making a celery root or monkfish taste good makes me feel like I have a magical power to tame scary ingredients.

Do you know what that is in the picture? That's salsify. Have you ever worked with this little beast? Neither did I until yesterday. It has recently occurred to me that it's one of those ingredients I've eaten in restaurants, but never cooked myself. I didn't even know what it looked like in its raw state until a few days ago.

On my weekly trip to Russo's I read the name tags of every unusual looking vegetables in search of salsify with no luck. Finally, I asked one of the employees where they kept it. He said they only get it for wholesale and don't put it out, but happily offered to go in the back and get me a bag.

After remembering the beautiful white sauces made with this mystery vegetable, I wasn't prepared for a bag of dirty black sticks. That's what raw salsify looks like. A bit of googling and reading instructions on the bag helped me figure out that I needed to peel it and keep in a bowl of acidulated water until ready to cook to prevent it from discoloring.

Somehow no one mentioned that in the end of the peeling process your hands will get black and very sticky. I avoid rubber gloves like the plague and do almost every kitchen job barehanded, but this is one of the few times I wished I had gloves on. After 5 minutes of scrubbing my hands, board and knife, everything was restored back to normal, and I had lots white salsify pieces ready for cooking. Some of them got a few brown spots during peeling and rinsing, but it wasn't a biggie.

I imagine salsify would be wonderful many ways (particularly roasted and braised), but for my first experiment, I wanted to recreate a salsify sauce I had on my recent trip to Philly. I braised my salsify in a vegetable broth (infused with lemon grass), pureed, strained, and warmed up with some heavy cream. Look how tame it looks now. Salsify is the white puree under the scallop.

This vegetable makes an incredibly smooth puree with a rich mouthfeel. Someone on the web described it as having the flavor of oysters. I wouldn't say that. It definitely has it's own taste, but since I don't like tastes-like-chicken analogies, I'll hold off on any comparisons. I am thinking it would go well with orange. Next time I make this sauce, I'll add a little orange juice and orange zest to the braising liquid.

Salsify Cream Sauce

For 8 servings

2 lb salsify root
1 Tbsp butter
1-2 cups homemade vegetable or chicken stock (or water)
1/4-1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Prepare a large bowl of cold water with a squirt of lemon juice or vinegar (use about 2 tsp acid per quart of water). Peel salsify with a vegetable peeler and trim the ends, rinsing each stick under cold running water as you are done with it and placing it into acidulated water.
  2. Cut salsify into 1 inch chunks and place in a medium saucepan with 1 Tbsp butter and a sprinkle of salt. Cover and cook on medium heat stirring every couple of minute.
  3. When just a hint of color is starting to appear, in 5-8 minutes, add enough stock to cover salsify and bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat to med-low, and cook covered until salsify is completely tender when you pierce it with a fork, 15-20 minutes.
  4. Take off heat and puree with a blender until completely smooth, 2-3 minutes. Force through a fine mesh sieve using a ladle in a circular motion.
  5. Return to a sauce pan, add the cream and more stock or water as needed to get the desired thickness. Season with salt to taste. Can be made in advance and warmed up over med-low heat stirring often.