Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Art of a Good Sauce

In my years of cooking professionally, I have had the chance to work with some really great chefs and cooks, in many different restaurants. I have taken from them a lot of different tips, styles, and techniques. By far the one that had the most impact on me was an instructor from College, Gilles Syglowski. Gilles was a French guy from the Alsace region, and taught the most meticulous class: “Soups, Stocks and Sauces.” He had the knack of just looking or smelling your sauce, and knowing exactly what it needed. His stocks were things of beauty. Thick, rich, and gelatinous. His consommés were as clear as spring water. He taught me so much of the nature of these principles. As a result I have a very high opinion and expectations about my employee’s sauces, and my own. Here are some tips that I have learned and taught my cooks over the years to make their sauces. As always, there are exceptions and addendums to these rules to great to list them all here. Just use better judgment and a little common sense to adjust these rules to your recipe.

1. Use a heavy bottomed saucepan. You will be able to control the heat much better, and your sauce will not stick to the bottom during a long period of simmering.

2. Heat a little bit of fat (bacon fat, olive oil, vegetable oil, etc.) at the bottom of the pan and add your aromatics first. Aromatics include hearty herbs, onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, etc. If garlic is being used, add this to the fat first, allow it to quickly roast to a golden brown. This will take away any acridity of the garlic and sweeten and round out its flavor. If using hearty herbs (thyme rosemary, oregano, sage), add them here very briefly, and allow the oils from the herbs to mix with the fats in the bottom of the pan. This will help to distribute the flavor to the entirety of the sauce. (Never use fragile herbs in this step (basil, cilantro, parsley), as the delicate oils are likely to burn out before having any advantage.

3. Onions or shallots are next, and again, allow to slightly caramelize before adding other ingredients.

4. Add wine, beer or liquor at this point, if required in the recipe, and scrape the bottom of the pan. All those little brown bits stuck to the bottom are pure, concentrated flavor. If there is no alcohol listed in the recipe…..get some. Remember: “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker”

5. Make your own stocks if called for. The steps and idiosyncrasies of a good stock are too numerous to mention and explain. (Maybe another post in the future) Check out this link at There’s a lot of good information about making a stocks, and even a couple of videos.

6. Reduce that stuff. Let the liquid simmer for an extended period of time. The length of time varies on how much liquid you’re working with, how concentrated your stock is (if used), and some other variables, but reducing will allow the flavors of your ingredients to blend together and also concentrate the flavor and texture. It is also very important to stir the sauce as it reduces.

7. Use roux and slurries sparingly. They both ultimately change the texture and, sometimes, the flavor of your sauce. Reducing is the best way to go, as you get a smoother, more refined sauce. If you can reduce until thickened, that is always the best procedure.

8. Roux for cream based, cornstarch slurry for broth, fruit, or vinegar based. Clarification: Cajun cuisine usually uses a roux (blond, brown, or dark roux) to thicken most of their sauces, gumbos, soups, etc. Go with it. It is essential; to the flavors of Cajun cuisine. Always remember: The darker the roux, the less strengthening power, but fuller the flavor. Dark roux is a necessity for gumbo.

9. Add additional herbs at the very end. When you are using more fragile herbs, the very end is the time to put them in. After you turn off the heat, and are ready to serve, mix these in at the very last minute. The fragrances in the herbs are from the oils, and any long term amount of cooking will make them dissipate into the air before you can even taste them. Hearty herbs could be added again at this time to, to give it a little extra flavor.

10. Season to taste. The difference between a good cook and a great cook is the ability to season properly. Salt is not just an ingredient to add salinity, it also enhances the flavors in everything you cook. You are not going to be able the taste the herbs, vegetables, beef, chicken, etc properly if they are not enhanced by the salt. But, this is also a very tricky thing to master. Too little and your not going to get the right flavor. Too much, and there’s not a whole lot you can do to tone it down. This step takes a lot of practice and experimentation. My advice: add a little bit at a time, until it tastes just right.


12. Mounting at the end means to add a little bit of cold, unsalted butter to the sauce. This is not a necessity; however, it adds a great shine, and smoothes out the texture of the sauce.

13. Ultimately, you have to use high quality, fresh ingredients.

Will these tips help you to become the next great saucier? Probably not, but your sauces might be better for it. There are so many variables involved, that it would take a volume of Blumenthal proportion to properly touch on this subject. Plus, it would probably be quite a boring read.

Other chefs and home cooks feel free to comment and add your own 2 cents on the subject if you wish. Or if you have questions, feel free to post here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Gnocchi, not Gnyucky

Sorry for not posting in a while. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with lots of new developments. More on those in the weeks to come.

I was prompted by an old post written by my friend Nick at “Foodie at Fifteen” (This kid is quite remarkable. If you haven’t checked him out yet….do it), and it dealt with a classic preparation for potato gnocchi, of course, as prepared by Thomas Keller.

Gnocchi are little pillow (or shell depending on your specific Italian region) shaped dumplings made with mashed potatoes, flour, eggs and salt. The name "gnocchi is litterally translated into " a stupid person," but for the life of me I can't find any reason or explanation why. Gotta love those kooky Italians. Sometimes, there are the additions of extra virgin olive oil, asiago, parmesan, or other various, regional cheeses, herbs, etc, and there's always the heated debate of whether it should have grooves on the outside or not.

When I started working for the new and upcoming, Sotto Sopra back in ’96, the chef, Riccardo, was from a town near Milan called Bergamo. He taught me to make the ricotta gnocchi that, I guess, is the Northern Italian counterpart to the potato variety. In this recipe, you drain ricotta cheese (very important step) and combine it with eggs, flour, salt, parsley, and of course, grated Parmigiano Reggiano. The result is a light and airy pillow, which can be served with just about anything. At that time, we were serving the dish tossed in a lightly browned butter with sage, and lightly drizzling them with a red bell pepper crème (fonduta). As described in one of our first restaurant reviews,

“The house made gnocchi is the stuff of dreams, feather light and interestingly sauced.”

- Baltimore Magazine…… Best of 2007

Damn right, the stuff of dreams.

Draining the ricotta is the most important step in making the dough the right consistency. Too much moisture will have you putting too much flour in the mix, and as a result, too heavy and dense. On the reverse, too little flour will allow the gnocchi to disintegrate into the pasta water, leaving you with a gloppy, salty goo. Our pasta maker, Carmen, was an expert at knowing just how much flour to put in without turning my pasta water into runny pâté a choux. We usually let it strain in a fine chinois or tamis for at least 12 hours, if not more.
After years of trying to perfect this recipe on my own, here it is. I converted the recipe to a small batch, so some of the home cooks could do this at home without buying a large amount of ricotta cheese from their local Costco. For my chef readers that would like to make a larger batch………. you should know how to convert this, what’s wrong with you.

Classic Ricotta Gnocchi
Serves 4-6 depending on appetites

1, 16 oz tub whole milk ricotta cheese (for the love of god, do not get the part skim)
1 large egg
½ c. grated parmesan
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tbsp fresh, chopped, Italian flat leaf parsley
2 cups all purpose flour, (for mixing the dough and for flouring and rolling purposes)
4 oz unsalted butter (1 stick) Hey, I didn’t pull this one out of “Cooking Light Magazine”
1 bunch fresh sage (dry is not okay….do you hear me?...Not okay)

1. In a chinois, tamis, or a strainer lined with cheesecloth, allow the ricotta to strain, refrigerated overnight or for a minimum of 8 hours.

2. In a large bowl, (an electric mixer is preferred) whip the ricotta to break it up, add the egg, and mix until combined. Add the grated parm, and a pinch of kosher salt. (I say Kosher salt because iodized salt adds a unfavorable flavor, and any other finer salt is too hard to control the amount used) Taste and adjust seasonings.

3. Add the flour, about ¼ cup at a time, until pliable, and unsticky enough to handle. (3/4 cup is the maximum amount you should be working into the dough. Reserve the rest of the flour for rolling and cutting)

4. Take the completed dough out of the bowl and roll into strands about 3/4 inch in diameter, being liberal with the flour, to keep them from sticking together.

5. Using a knife or pastry cutter, cut these strands into 1 inch lengths, and dust, liberally again, with a more flour. Transfer to a wax paper-lined cookie sheet or sheet pan, and refrigerate for at least one hour. They can be frozen without much harm being done, despite what the gnocchi critics say. But, as always, fresher is better 95% of the time.

6. In a large saucepan or stockpot, bring a good sized amount of salted water to a boil. (taste the water, damn you, taste it)

7. Drop gnocchi into the boiling water, and turn heat down to medium high setting. The gnocchi will float to the top and be slightly firm to the touch in about 3-4 minutes. Remove using a slotted spoon or spider strainer.

8. While you’re waiting for the gnocchi to cook, melt the butter in a medium to large sized sauté pan and add sage. Continue to cook the butter until the milk solids have lightly browned (browned not burnt), and remove from heat.

9. Transfer the gnocchi into the hot, browned butter and toss to coat.

10. Eat as is, with a little grated or shaved parmesan, or serve with your favorite sauce (marinara/ pesto/ beurre blanc/ roasted red pepper crème/ etc.)