The French refer to White Sauce, which I wrote about here, as a “mother sauce” because it provides the foundation for a host of variations. If you’re living poor, it’s a miracle for stretching food that costs only pennies. Your grandmother knew it. If you’re lucky, your mom knew it, too.
These days, white sauce isn’t something home cooks whip up regularly for weekday meals. More’s the pity. So-called creamed dishes—meats, leftovers, and particularly vegetables added to a basic white sauce—make great comfort food. They can be served as a side, or as a main dish spooned over rice or slices of toast. Excellent “living poor” food that makes your leftovers and vegetables go twice as far.
Unadulterated white sauce has a particular affinity for cooked vegetables, which reveal unexpected flavours when the two come together. Root vegetables like carrots or turnips become less aggressive and develop a pleasant sweetness. Scalloped potatoes (sliced potatoes and onions baked in white sauce) are their own brand of delicious. Equally good, if less fancy, are cubed, cooked potatoes added directly to the sauce—useful to know when you’re down to just a few shrivelling spuds. Green and yellow vegetables like peas, beans, celery, corn, and squashes undergo subtle transformations that reveal new sides to their character. Spinach and chard loose any residual bitterness and turn comfortingly rich. Anything in the cabbage family can be creamed, including broccoli, as can boiled white or yellow onions.
All that’s required for creamed vegetables is a quantity of white sauce and a quantity of cooked vegetables. The basic recipe for white sauce gives one cup, but it can be doubled endlessly. The vegetables should be cubed or sliced, not too thinly, and cooked simply by steaming or boiling. Combine the two in the pot you use to make the sauce and keep warm over low heat so the mixture doesn’t boil.
It often happens that when you add the vegetables, the sauce becomes a little too thick. Thin it with small amounts of milk, which can be cold, to bring it to the desired consistency.
A favourite creamed dish of mine is cabbage. Cabbages are a vegetable of choice when you’re living poor, at least here in Canada, because they’re inexpensive, filling, and nutritious. What’s more, they grow everywhere, ship easily, require minimal refrigeration, and keep for ages—qualities we should look for in our supermarket produce in order to slow the destruction of planet Earth. Reducing the harm done when money exchanges hands is one of the guiding principles of living poor.
Here’s my gussied-up version of creamed cabbage, the one I use when serving guests.
4 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
1-3/4 cups hot milk
1/2 tsp salt
freshly cracked pepper
1 small or 1/2 large head cabbage
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Shred cabbage, place in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, add a little water, and steam, covered, for 20 minutes. Drain and transfer to a casserole.
Make a white sauce of the butter, flour, milk, salt, and pepper. Season well with freshly grated nutmeg. Pour over the cabbage, cover with buttered breadcrumbs, and bake until bubbly and golden brown.
Next: White Sauce variations