Saturday, November 17, 2012

Let's Get Sauced

Once again I am claiming literary license with the title to this post, only we won't venture into homonym land as much as we did with "There's a Seal on My Driveway."   I mean, "let's get sauced" really sounds like a semi is backing up to the garage and cases and crates of alcohol and stuff are getting off-loaded in the driveway just so you and I can get acquainted.

Or it could be that this semi-whacked blogger has changed from his homestead/logging/land-clearing/African Violet and other manly type venues and is writing on a cooking topic?

Well, this blogger gave up alcohol misbehaving a couple decades back.  I had to, otherwise there wouldn't have been enough booze left for the rest of yous.  I'd a drank it all.  They couldn't distill it fast enough.  So it must be sauce.  Some other kind.

OK, OK, OK, so I'm still sporting this dang cam cast thing I first wrote about way back when, like a couple months ago.  And like I'm running out of outdoor things I can do.  And then write about.

I've already gone beyond the Doc's recommended six weeks, but I have had to take the cast off for my real job as well as a couple other things around here (eg "There's a Seal on my Driveway").  I figure I have been wearing it about 80% of the time.  My Achilles tendon is still rather painful and swollen, but both those symptoms are diminishing as time moseys on.  I'll be back to bouncing soon I reckon. 

So, to keep the literary flow going I have decided to offer a few wonderful, simple cooking tips.  I may have alluded to the fact I cook before, and now I'm going to totally come out of the closet.  In an apron and everything.  A manly apron of course, no frills or lace.  It's made of Nomex because I like the heat.

I think we're going to mainly talk about sauces this go round, because a sauce can elegant up any meal.  Put a Mushroom-Madeira or Mushroom-Cabernet Sauce on a ground beef pattie with a sprig of parsley on the side, and wallah, "Sirloin Suave!"

That reminds me of "Spam Surprise", another one of my not-so-famous appetizer recipes.  And no, I'm not talking about unwanted, errant email ya'll.  I'm talking about the canned meat.  At least I think it's meat. 

For an elegant looking "surprise" appetizer, take the Spam out of the can and place it on a serving plate, paper or otherwise.  Spread soft cream cheese (or any other sort of cheese spread-depending on the crowd) all over the block of Spam, covering it entirely.  Place crackers all around the cheese covered Spam, again Ritz or Gourmet, crowd depending.  Then place a few sprigs of Parsley around and you have "Spam Surprise." (By the way, a sprig or two of Parsley always helps to elegant up a dish too.)

Here are two true stories about how a sauce can elegant up any meal.  The first one turned me into a believer thirty years ago, the second one only bolstered my opinion. 

There was once a restaurant called "The Jacks" in Nevada City, CA, a locally famous elegant eatery that was open during the 1970's and 1980's.  The "Jack's" were actually a couple of gay gentlemen whose first names were Jack.  Go figure.  One had a penchant for entertaining, the other for cooking.  They had several different restaurant ventures during a twenty or thirty year period, but the most memorable to my wife and I was "The Jack's".

They lived in a large, third story flat above another bar and restaurant in downtown Nevada City.  They also owned the building.  Several nights a week they opened up their flat to the public, offering a five course Prix Fixe menu.

There was a large, open area on two different levels where they were able to put six to eight dining tables and probably served no more than twenty dinners per night.  Each table had it's own set of fine china, crystal glasses and silverware.  The room was also fabulously designed with artful gay flair, it was quite elegant, tasteful and appealing.  The Jack's was our place to go for a very romantic and intimate dinner.

With the tables towards the windows and sides of the large room, near the center was the sunken kitchen area where you could watch chef Jack ply his trade on a free-standing six burner Wolf.

The appetizers were always wondrous, a flavor, aroma and texture parade across your palate.  The salads an adventure, a waltz among fields and meadows full of lilacs and daffodils and anchovies.  The deserts were always sweet and extreme, like a ski run of cream running through chocolate fondue on the taste buds of your tongue.

The main course though, the reason for the story, was always some sort of roast, either pork or beef.  Or duck.  Maybe some duck.  Or it could have been fish.  Hell, I don't remember because what made the meal was the sauce.  Always of perfect consistency, always an excellent flavor pairing with whatever it was.  The sauce made the main course, and it made the meal always sound so elegant.  Hollandaise, Bearnaise, Madeira, Peanut Butter.  The sauce made the meal.

I'm probably missing a course here.  Maybe the palate cleansing deal with sorbet, melon and Prosciutto.


Back in 2005 my wife and I left Nevada County for a somewhat short walkabout, finally ending up back here in Nevada County, CA in 2009.  She was head-hunted away from her occupation here (in 2005) to a prestigious position in the same industry in Monterey, CA.

While there we had to attend public functions from time to time, and one of those functions was some benefit for women in Africa at Clint Eastwood's golf course named Tehama.   It was hosted by his wife Dina, before she became another dancing diva in the ever blooming spotlight.   

A couple of luminaries were there, including Joan Baez, looking spectacular as she ever so gracefully continues dancing in the sun.  We met a couple other couples there, and it was a tuxedo type affair.  It was a few hundred dollars a plate, or maybe something like nine hundred or a thousand.  I dunno, I was the arm candy in a tuxedo.

As we wandered around socializing prior to dinner I began to wonder, what do they serve at a benefit like this?  Obviously if you're in a tuxedo and paying hundreds of dollars for a dinner, you'd sort of expect a little lobster.  Crab?  Maybe some Filet?  A little Mignon?  Pheasant?  Sturgeon?  Spam?   Everything but the Spam would defeat the purpose of a benefit.  What would they serve?

How about a really, really fatty, gristled snarl of chuck roast.  With a really, really, really good sauce.

I rest my case.

I think I ingested more saturated fat from that piece of meat than I had in the previous thirty years.  I ingested more gristle that night than John Candy did in that steak house scene in the movie "The Great Outdoors".  I think I ingested more saturated fat that night than exists in every hot fried food southern belly on the gulf coast, by golly.   

By the way, there's a steak house just like the one in "The Great Outdoors" up in Chester, CA, on the northern shore of a beautiful Northern California lake, called Lake Almanor.  The scenery is simply breathtaking up there any time of year, and the steak house perfectly melds with the total outdoor ambiance and experience that permeates the local culture and tourist trade.

I usually don't swallow any hunks of fat, let alone half a carcass.  I leave them on my plate.  But when the whole thing was covered with a really, really, really good sauce I couldn't see the knuckles coming.  So then how do you gracefully get rid a mouthful of snarl when you're in a tuxedo and seated at a table with lovely women dressed in lovely gowns and wearing sparkling diamonds?  Gulp.

I should have ordered the fish.  It was probably from Gorton's

Seriously, you could toss together a really quick mayonnaise-based tarter sauce or a ketchup-based cocktail sauce that would make those fish-sticks look like they were wearing tuxedos. And hats.  Painted on mustaches.  Swaying back and forth, rollicking in rhythm to some McCartney tune, like Junior's Farm.  And as you watch them dance you drift back to the Rock Show at the Cow Palace in the mid 70's, staying and straying all too long as your mind really begins to bebop and wander...

Or you could just buy them ready made in the store.

The sauces that is.

Not the flashbacks.  You can't buy those anywhere. 

Store bought stuff works in many instances and for many palates, but sometimes you gotta go stronger and a little more longer than ketchup for a Filet Mignon.  Or a pork tenderloin.  Or a boneless chicken breast, or "Girlfriend Chicken" for all you bachelors out there.  We'll include a recipe and sauce for that a bit later.  

There a lot of different "bases" for sauces, just like there are a lot of different bass's in rock and roll bands.  Sometimes my son goes fishing for bass, but even though it's spelled the same it's pronounced differently.  Base (ball) / Bass (music) would be called a homophone if we ventured into homonym land again.  And Bass (music) / Bass (fish) would be a homograph. And there's your English lesson for the day.  Sorry if you're homonym-phobic. 

There are milk based, water based, cheese based, mayonnaise based, ketchup based, mustard based, egg based, Etc., Etc., Etc., which of course brings to my mind Yul Brynner in the King and I, one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's greatest musicals.  "Shall We Dance",  "Hello Young Lovers", "Getting To Know You", "We Kiss in a Shadow", to name a few for all you true show tune aficionados. 

Some really fancy sauces require boiling down different mixtures and the making of other, different sauces just to make the sauce you wanna make.  But we're gonna keep this essay simple and basic.  We're going to cover a couple favorite egg based sauces in a bit, like Hollandaise and Bearnaise, but right now I want to give you a basic formula that is quite flexible and will harbor the illusion of fancy and gourmet.  Here it is:

Basic Formula: 2 T (Tablespoon) Flour
                       2 T Fat (Butter, Olive Oil, Drippings)
                       1 C Liquid

That's it.  That recipe will give you a nice, medium consistency sauce or gravy that can also be diluted or thickened to taste.  That's all you need to know.  You can toss it all together and be ready to go in fifteen minutes.

The flour is a constant, after that it's quite flexible.  As you can see, the fat can be many things.  If you're doing a beef or pork roast, try to get some of those drippings.  Poultry, same thing.  What about fish?  I'd probably use butter, or half butter half olive oil.  If you are cooking anything that's not creating it's own grease then you go to butter or olive oil.  Or both.

The liquid, ah, that's when we can get really, really creative.  For any of the aforementioned roasted items you can simply use the same flavored stock or broth, eg beef or chicken.  Then essentially you would have a beef or poultry gravy.  For a pork roast, I would use chicken broth, but substitute about 1/4 C Very Dry Sherry for 1/4 C of the broth.  Get the idea?

So, how do you put it together?  Heat the oil over low heat.  Once heated, or butter is melted, add the flour and stir until all the flour is absorbed.  (I usually take the pot off the heat when doing this.)  This is also called making a Roux.  Some roue's require some lengthy cooking and stirring, but we're gonna keep this simple.

Once all the flour is absorbed it will have the consistency of a paste.  Add about a quarter to a half a cup of your liquid.  Then heat and stir the bejesus out of the mix.  I use a wire whisk.  Once you have a lump-less environment add the rest of the liquid and heat through.  Keep stirring, you will get rid of the lumps.  Just whip it.  Whip it good.  It helps to dance sometimes when you're doing this.  If you're so inclined.

Things go south when you try and cook it all too hot and quick.  Once you have incorporated everything and have whipped it good, then you can turn your heat up to medium or so, stirring just about constantly at the higher heat to allow the sauce to thicken.

At medium, your sauce will be ready in a couple minutes.  If you keep the heat at low, it will take a little longer but won't be quite as critical for constant stirring.  Just don't let it go for more than a minute or so without at least a touch. 

When getting fancy, I usually add my base liquid first, like the chicken broth for the pork roast.  Once the 3/4 cup of stock is totally incorporated in a lump free environment, then I'll add the Sherry.

I like to use Very Dry Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Port, Chenin Blanc, and deep dark reds as far as wines go, but most any wine will do, depending on the course, of course.

I will use a full cup of apple juice for the liquid when making an Apple Gravy for apple stuffed pork chops.  It tastes amazing.  Get crazy, it's OK.

I wish I could take credit for the term, "Girlfriend Chicken", but that was gleaned from PJ O'Rourke's hilarious book, "The Bachelor Home Companion".  I love PJ's writing, I owe some of my own writing style to him.  And Brautigan.  And of course Vonnegut

My recipe is different than PJ's though.  Here it is:  Bake a couple boneless chicken breasts at 350 degrees for about 30-35 minutes, more or less, breast size depending.  Drizzle a little olive oil over them before baking, and you can sprinkle a little Rosemary or Parsley over the top.  Sprinkled herbs over something in the oven always gives the illusion you know what you're doing.  Squeeze some lemon juice over them. 

Make the sauce as above substituting 1/4-1/2 cup Chenin Blanc (or other sweetish white wine) for the same amount of broth.  That's sweetish, not Swedish.  I don't think they make decent wine north of the Arctic Circle.

Serve with a box of Rice A Roni and a bag of Birds Eye Vegetables.  (Throw the box and the bag out before she comes over.)  Girls are impressed by guys that cook, and this meal, while extremely simple, can give quite a grand illusion.

For a simple mushroom sauce: Saute three to four sliced mushrooms in butter.  Add flour.  Add liquid, maybe 3/4 beef broth, 1/4 Cabernet .  A lot of recipes tell you to remove the vegetation before adding flour, but I find that an unnecessary step.  Just incorporate thoroughly, whip it and heat through.  Whip it good.

I have a great and simple Scampi recipe.  It was taken from one of those famed restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, with a couple revisions to make it my own.  I saute a few cloves of garlic and several cut up green onions lightly in an olive oil and butter mix of about 1/4-1/3 cup, then add the shrimp, after they've been dredged in flour.  Once pink on both sides, I'll add a cup or so of Chenin Blanc and let it thicken and bubble together.  Squeeze about a half of lemon over the shrimp.  Yum.  Serve with wild rice, rice pilaf or new potatoes.  A green vegetable.  Wallah.

Obviously, you can always increase the amount of sauce you're making by adding more of everything. 

What to do if it's too thick?  Add more liquid, a little at a time.  Slowly.  Heat and stir through.

Too thin?  Get a small cup or bowl.  Put 1-2 Tablespoons of flour in.  Then take 2-3 Tablespoons from the pot and mix that in with the flour in the bowl until you have a paste.  Then add the paste to the mix, about 1-2 teaspoons at a time, stirring until incorporated and heated through.  Give each paste addition a couple minutes to help thicken it up before adding more, otherwise you'll be adding more liquid to thin it down.  And if you don't eventually get it right you'll end up with enough sauce to grace a buffalo. 

Huge Note: DON'T ADD MORE FLOUR DIRECTLY TO THE MIX.  For some reason it does not mix in so well.  Aw, hell, go ahead and try, you will anyway.  And then you'll discover what I just told you and when it happens again, rather then throwing out the entire mess you will do the separate bowl thing.

You can also use milk, or cream for the liquid for a real creamy sauce.

Now let's talk about egg sauce.  My brother and I became quite adept at making Hollandaise sauce back in the day when we would have to have champagne brunches just to feel better from the night before.

We would make up huge trays of Eggs Benedict, usually tripling the basic Hollandaise sauce amount.  And since only egg yolks were used for the sauce, what did we do with the whites?  Why make simply fabulous gin fizzes of course.  Actually, I'm not sure now which came first, the Gin Fizz or the Hollandaise?

Best gin fizz recipe hint: (Frozen Lime aid) I don't know if you've ever had a true old fashioned Ramos Fizz, but they're pretty bland.

Best morning gin fizz recipe:  Add equal parts gin and milk (or cream) to blender.  (EG 1 Cup each)  Throw in 3-4 egg whites.  Add about 2-3 Tablespoons undiluted Lime Aid.  Blend.  Drink.  Repeat.  Have some Eggs Benedict soon before you fall down.

The next two sauces, Hollandaise and Bearnaise retain the same base.  The liquid will change.

Three yolks.  One half cup, or one cube of butter.  Throw them in a medium sauce pot and cook over LOW heat.  Take your time, especially when just getting going.  Stir them as the butter melts, and then is fully incorporated.  Then add your liquid.  2-4 T lemon juice for Hollandaise, and a liquid reduction for the Bearnaise, recipe for which shall follow.

After you add your liquid (flavoring) you cook over low to medium heat as the egg yolks cook and the sauce thickens.  This sauce requires a little more attention than the last one, you can overcook it if it stays on the stove too long.  The other sauce can simmer lightly for a number of minutes before it blows up, this one merely seconds.

If it separates, which will be the usual problem of letting it linger too long, you can still save it.  Make sure you have your trusty wire whisk: Add a tablespoon of water and whip it over low to medium heat.  Whip it.  Don't be shy.  1 to 2 tablespoons of water will usually bring it back.  Just keep whipping it.

Sometimes one may add too much water, and when the sauce comes back together its too thin.  If this happens, and if you make it a thousand times it'll happen at least once, add another egg yolk.  And whip.  You also may want to add another 1-2 t lemon juice to adjust for the other added ingredients.

Here's the liquid reduction for a Bernaise Sauce, a staple if you're having Filet Mignon.

You take 1/4 cup white wine
               1/4 cup white wine vinegar
               2-3 green onions chopped
               2-4 T Tarragon (Depending on if it's fresh or not.  Use more if fresh.)
               1-2 T Chervil

Put all that in a small pot and simmer until it's reduced to about 2-3 Tablespoons.  Strain out the herb and then add the liquid to your eggs and butter.

You'll find that Tarragon is the lead flavor herb with this sauce, and I like it so much there's a nice sprig of it sprouting out in the herb garden.  I'll frequently include it in a beef marinade.

Good luck, happy saucing.  Just remember, when you're putting it all together go slow and easy.  Once incorporated, then turn the heat up to medium and it will thicken up in a couple minutes.  Egg sauces will take longer.

Here's a quick tip that will make ANY coffee cake the best ever: Triple the amount of topping.

And of course, a quick recipe for buttermilk:  Add 1 T cider vinegar to 1 C milk.

Coming Soon: "Burn Baby Burn!", as of yet untold tales of conflagrations of magnanimous proportions.

Chicken Update

The other day I experienced a state of the art, self-sufficient homestead type moment.  I have recently succumbed once again and allowed the dang rootin chickens out to have a festival of a grand howdy doody time getting exercise and eating bugs out in the yard.  We must have a lot of bugs because they're hunting and pecking all the time all over the place.  You'd think we'd run out after a while, but no, that doesn't seem to be the case.  So I'm watching a few of them huntin and pecking on the hill out back when our other cat Joe, youngest of the two at sixteen, ambled by with a mouse in his mouth.

Joe is as solid a panther, same color too.  A little smaller though.  He doesn't eat near as much store bought cat food as Tom, our one-eyed elder statesman.  He's probably got a diet of a rodent a day keeps the dry food away.  He's doing all this without either of his fangs, which fell out a year or so ago due to lack of feline dental hygiene.  I mean, we bought him a toothbrush a while back but he never uses it.  Try to teach a cat anything and they'll just cop an attitude and go smoke cigarettes in the bathroom.