It has been said that one of the most subversive things you can do these days is grow your own food. Supermarket chains, and the food processing and shipping conglomerates that support them, don’t want you raising your own crops. They can’t make money from it. Heaven forfend consumers should also be producers. With a small plot of land—say, the size of a suburban backyard—your beets, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, tomatoes, beans, squashes, and herbs cost virtually nothing but the time devoted to their cultivation. A kitchen garden deprives global food corporations of the only crop they harvest: money.
Living poor, especially in the city, you probably don’t own a patch of arable land despite being a person far more likely to cultivate it than the urban landowners who do. The kitchen garden “movement” is a great conscience-easer for the middle-class and wealthier, but is meaningless and insulting to the poor.
A more attainable way to give the finger to greed is to learn to cook your own food from scratch. Not the “seared Kobe beef with pancetta lardons and tarragon-balsamic vinegar reduction” cooking worshipped by pretentious urban foodies, but real home cooking, whose foundation is economy.
As with most of what used to be called the domestic arts, basic cooking skills are viewed as optional by many foodie dabblers. They either mistake expensive ingredients and exotic products for solid technique, or protest that learning somehow interferes with creativity, or are simply undisciplined frauds wearing the borrowed colours of a professional chef.
I’m alarmed at times by the number of people I know who don’t know how to mash potatoes, cook rice, steam vegetables, roast fowl, make stock, and a host of other fundamental kitchen skills. Without those skills, you wind up paying to have someone else prepare your food, either by purchasing processed approximations of the real thing or by supporting the hugely wasteful restaurant industry.
I’ve been preparing my own food and feeding households on a limited budget for years. I’ve already written a few food-themed articles in this blog, and am now beginning to realize I should incorporate more. Living poor and eating well is something I’ve spend decades practising. The time has come to share the fruits of my experience.
Good, practical cooking is largely a question of creating variety out of a small number of staples combined with fresh, unprocessed ingredients. One of the essentials to achieving this is knowing how to make White Sauce.
Foodies balk whenever I say White Sauce, preferring the la-dee-dah term, béchamel, unless, of course, they’re so far misguided by snobbery that their noses crinkle at the very thought of pre-nouvelle cuisine. They’re wrong in any case. Béchamel is a white sauce variation, not the thing itself.
White Sauce is a combination of milk, butter, and flour that produces a medium-thick, pleasantly mild sauce that serves as a sort of culinary blank slate for all sorts of foods and flavours. For budget-limited cooks, it is the “extender” par excellence, and for that reason alone deserves its place as one of the foundations of home cooking.
White Sauce Recipe
1 cup of milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt*
*If your butter is salted, reduce this quantity by half
Begin by heating the milk, either in a double-boiler until steam starts to rise off the surface, or for 1 minute in the microwave.
While the milk is heating, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Do not let the butter brown.
When the butter’s melted, reduce the heat to low and stir in the flour and salt. Let the roux, as the flour and butter mixture is called, cook for 1 minute, then remove it from the heat until the milk is ready. Do not let the roux brown.
Return the heat to medium and set the saucepan back on the burner. Using a whisk, incorporate the hot milk into the roux a little at a time, whisking constantly so the two blend together smoothly.
Continue cooking and stirring until the sauce achieves a medium-thick consistency. Do not let it boil, as this imparts an unwanted sweetness. I use a wooden spoon for the last bit of stirring because it’s easier to keep the sauce from sticking to the bottom and sides of the pan.
Season with a few twists from the peppermill and, for a wonderfully pleasant flavour that marries beautifully with all sorts of foods, a small grating of nutmeg.
That’s it. Perfect white sauce, ready for whatever use you can think of.
In my next food-related article, I’ll discuss some of the things you can do with our marvellous culinary blank slate.