Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cooking Poor:
White sauce variations

In my last post, I discussed creamed vegetables, which are a delicious way to make your vegetables go further. Flavour is everything when you’re living poor because ill-prepared or tasteless food has a dampening effect on one’s spirits. The difference between living poor and living in poverty is that the former emphasizes living, while the latter emphasizes deprivation. Attitude is everything. Whether you’re poor by choice or circumstance, extracting the best from everything you buy brings satisfaction, pride, and even joy.

Once you’ve mastered white sauce—and mastered is really too strong a verb for something so easy—you have at your disposal a foundation for endless variations to accompany meat, poultry, and fish. Overall, when living poor, flesh is a terrible economy and should be avoided. However, when you do come across specials in the supermarket freezer, it makes a wonderful treat, even if the quality is usually not Grade A. That’s where the art of saucing comes in.

You’re really only limited by your imagination when it comes turning white sauce into a delicious partner for other foods. The French have all sorts of fancy names for the variations: Mornay for cheese sauce, Forestière for mushroom sauce, etc. I prefer the common, descriptive English names, which make the sauces sound more down-to-earth and accessible to home cooks. There’s probably a bit of reverse snobbery involved, too.

Here are four suggestions for things you can do with white sauce to get you started.

Cheese Sauce: Add 3/4 - 1 cup of full-flavoured, grated cheese(s) to 1 cup of white sauce. Season with a pinch each of cayenne pepper and dry mustard. White sauce brings out the flavour of cheese and lets you get the most out of those plastic-wrapped rectangles sold in supermarkets.

Aside from being a classic accompaniment to cauliflower, which is inexpensive and can be grown locally throughout most of North America—two qualities always to watch for in your food—cheese sauce is fabulous over meat loaf.

Mushroom Sauce: Also called mushroom gravy. Add 3/4 cup of chopped raw mushrooms to 1 cup of white sauce and heat gently over low heat for 10 minutes. Season with generous gratings of nutmeg; mushrooms love nutmeg.

Mushrooms have practically no nutritional value, so they’re best kept off the menu when you’re living poor. However, the deliciousness of mushroom sauce justifies their occasional purchase, especially since the quantity is small. Also, I'm not sure why raw mushrooms produce a better flavour than cooked—it seems to break culinary common sense—but they do.

Mushroom gravy is the perfect sauce to serve with oven-broiled chicken (recipe below).

Egg Sauce: Increase the quantity of milk in the basic white sauce recipe by 1/3 cup. Add two chopped, hardboiled eggs and season with a splash of Tobasco. The Tobasco adds no heat, and its flavour is essential to the sauce.

Egg sauce is one of the great comfort foods, and is the sauce of choice to go over salmon loaf (recipe below), an oft-overlooked traditional poor-man’s food.

Parsley Sauce: Add 1/3 -1/2 cup chopped curly parsley to the white sauce and let it warm for a few minutes. Aside from being excellent with fish, parsley sauce over plain, boiled potatoes is a real treat.

Curly parsley should be part of every economical kitchen. It’s inexpensive to buy, and can even be grown in a pot indoors. It keeps for ages in the refrigerator, and is a great herb for rounding out the flavour of dishes that “seem to be missing something”. Plus it’s loaded with iron.

Don’t make the foodie mistake of thinking Italian flat-leaf parsley is superior to curly parsley. Italian parsley has a pepperiness that’s works with some dishes, but is entirely inappropriate for others. Both are delicious, but real cooks, as opposed to Food Network junkies, know when to use which.

Oven-broiled Chicken

3 - 4 lb chicken
3 tbsp oil
freshly cracked pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cut the chicken into parts. Lightly oil a shallow baking dish; glass is best, I find. Rub the chicken pieces with the remaining oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the chicken skin side up in the oiled dish and bake until just done, approximately 30 - 45 minutes. Do not under any circumstance overcook.

For whatever reason, this simple way of doing chicken is the best. I find it preferable to roasting a whole chicken. The skin is crispy, the flavour rich and honest, and the flesh nice and moist.

Salmon Loaf

3 tins salmon, drained
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
4 tbsp soft butter
1 tbsp chopped curly parsley
1 onion, diced fine
salt and pepper
Worcestershire sauce
2 eggs, slightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl with your hands. Pat into a buttered loaf pan (again, I find glass is best). Set the loaf pan in 1 inch of hot water in larger pan and bake 30 - 35 minutes. Let the loaf rest a few minutes before slicing.

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