Mother Sauces, Part Deux

The last installment of my mother sauces series was so long ago you probably didn’t guess that this was going to be a series.  However, I use this béchamel base all the time and it seems criminal not to share how easy and useful it is with those who are not already aware.  Again, exact ingredients can vary slightly among the greats, including a particularly complicated version by Escoffier which recommends adding veal bits then straining them out, but the very basic details are straight forward:

White roux

In a saucepan, add 1 part white flour to 1 part melted butter (e.g. 2 Tbs. butter, melted, plus 2 Tbs. flour).  Stir over low heat until combined and thick, about 1 minute [this is called making a roux].  Whisking constantly, add approximately 16 parts milk (i.e. 1 cup milk to every tablespoon of butter) in a slow stream until fully incorporated.  If you like, you can warm up the milk with aromatics before blending with the roux – for example: nutmeg, bay leaf, thyme, or onion.  This will infuse your sauce with a great depth of flavor; just be sure to strain the solids out before mixing the milk with the roux.  Let sauce simmer over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce coats the back of a spoon (i.e. the sauce doesn’t slip right off of the spoon, and when you drag your finger through it, the trail stays put).

Bechamel thickenedThis has so many incredible applications, including recipes such as:  Cauliflower Gratin, Baked Potatos with Gruyere & Broccoli Sauce, and Wild Mushroom Lasagne.  I have used it too as a base for my creamed spinach (which is really a mornay sauce), and for my macaroni and cheese (though I may be replacing that recipe with this one as my new favorite).

Bechamel squash puree

From the béchamel base you can add cheese to make a cheese sauce, cream to make a cream sauce, or any sturdy vegetable to make a gratin.  I often boil and mash winter squash then stir in a sage-infused béchamel to thin it out a bit and make for a more flavorful puree.  A thin béchamel with lots of garlic aromas (like a Soubise sauce) can make for a killer shrimp pasta or the perfect topping for fresh mushroom ravioli.  Let your imagination be your guide, but do try this to find out how easy and versatile it really is.

Magazine Review: “Fine Cooking” and Delicata Squash

Food MagazinesI have taken on a new mission – you know, to keep things interesting here at “From My Table.”  Since I am a confessed food magazine addict and self-proclaimed connoisseur, I have decided to begin a series of reviews of popular cooking magazines.  To make it as fair a contest as possible, I will be comparing Thanksgiving issues – the one issue of the year where every food mag worth its weight in gravy will pull out all the stops.  In theory, the November issue of an epicurean publication (the issue with the highest sales for the year) will feature the best recipes, photos, and informational articles while showcasing any editorial biases in clear relief against rival periodicals.  When the basic building blocks are the same – turkey, cranberries, pumpkin, squash, and stuffing – one cannot help but notice if a particular magazine adheres to strict traditional techniques or, at the other extreme, commits blasphemy by defiling our American heritage (vanilla-cranberry foam?  Bread-less stuffing?  Come on, people!)

Here are my objective criteria:
• Ratio of the # of magazine pages (not including covers) to the # of full-page advertisements
• # of Recipes
• News-stand Price
• Price per Recipe
• # of “advertorials” – those ads that pose as articles or recipe sections to get you to buy their product.  Sometimes it is very difficult to tell they are not part of the magazine.
• Is a recipe index supplied?  How are the recipes sorted?

And here are my subjective criteria:
• How good is the photography?  How plentiful, mouthwatering, and informative is it?
• What are some of the unique or particularly good sections or features this magazine provides every issue?
• What is the take on the Thanksgiving classics: modern? drastic? traditional? boring?
• What recipes from this issue do I most look forward to trying?  What recipes look particularly unappetizing?

*I will also be making one recipe from my “Can’t wait to try” list exactly as directed, and will report on my results.  I hope this gets everybody into the November spirit – can you hear the Jingle Bells?

The first to contend is FINE COOKING – one of my favorite magazines of all time (no bias on the part of this judge):

• 98 pages total : 23 pages of ads (23%)
• 35 Recipes
• News-stand price: $6.95
• Price per recipe: $0.20
• # of ads pretending to be articles: 0
• Recipe Index?
Yes, sorted by type (i.e. side dish, dessert, poultry, fish/seafood, etc.) and labeled by special interest (i.e. quick, make-ahead, mostly make-ahead, and vegetarian).  Also includes a nutritional index in the back of the magazine, which is a great addition…if you like reading that sort of information…

Photos: absolutely excellent, often giving multiple viewpoints (cut pie/uncut pie; preparation/finished product) and most certainly mouthwatering!  Every recipe is photographed at least once, which is a huge bonus.

Best Sections:
• Cooking Without Recipes (one master recipe is featured each month and several pages explain the different steps of the method – in this issue, how to make a potato gratin – as well as the many ways it can be adapted to your taste – e.g. bacon, leek and Gruyere or artichoke and Comte)
• Quick and Delicious (self-explanatory, no?)
• Food Science (this section explains the “Whys” behind cooking results – how to fix a pie crust that isn’t flaky or that is too crumbly, for example)
• Menus – the editors mix and match the recipes from the issue into different menus, such as “Sunday Supper” or “Casual Dinner Party”

Best Features:
• Recipe Variations are provided with many of the sections, such as “try replacing red wine vinegar with balsamic for a sweeter flavor” or “try leftovers from this recipe cold in a pasta salad with green beans and feta”
• No advertisements are placed in the central recipe section of the magazine.

Thanksgiving at the Fine Cooking house:
• “Seven of the country’s best chefs share seven new takes on holiday classics” – Roasted Turkey with Juniper-Ginger Butter and Pan Gravy; Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Shallots; Maple-Tangerine Cranberry Sauce; Sugar and Spice Pumpkin Pie with Ginger Cream.  Ruling?  Classic with a twist.

Particularly Unappetizing:
• Orange Crème Caramel
• Rosemary’s Pink Diamond Fizz
• Vietnamese Tilapia with Turmeric & Dill

I’m looking forward to cooking:Delicata Squash Recipe
• Sugar and Spice Pumpkin Pie with Brandied Ginger Cream
• *Delicata Squash with Caramelized Shallots and Sherry
• Cauliflower with Brown Butter, Pears, Sage, and Hazelnuts
• Steak au Poivre with Cognac Sauce

*Delicata Squash with Caramelized Shallots and Sherry
Serves four.  You can assemble this dish up to 2 hours before baking.

1 1/4 lb. delicata squash
2 Tbs. olive oil
1/4 c. dry sherry (such as fino)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 c. thinly sliced shallots (2 to 3 large)
4 tsp. finely chopped fresh sage

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Peel the squash, leaving the skin in the crevices (it’s tender enough to eat).  Trim the ends.  Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds.  Slice the halves crosswise 1/2 inch thick.Saute of Delicata squash
Heat 1 Tbs. of the oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat.  Add half the squash in a single layer and cook without moving until the slices begin to brown, about 2 minutes.  Flip and cook until the second side begins to brown, 1 to 2 minutes.  Transfer to a 9×13 inch baking dish. Sprinkle with 2 Tbs. of the sherry, 1/2 tsp salt, and a few grinds of pepper.
Heat the remaining 1 Tbs. olive oil and the butter in the skillet over medium heat.  Add the shallots and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the shallots turn deep golden brown on the edges, 3-5 minutes.  Take the pan off the heat and immediately add the sage and the remaining 2 Tbs. sherry, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of pan.  Scatter the shallots over the squash.
Cover the pan with foil and bake until the squash is tender when pierced with a fork, 25-30 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

The squash tasted excellent – the caramelized shallots were sweet, and the sherry gave a contrasting nutty flavor.  As you can see, it looked very beautiful and interesting too!  Though I said I would follow the instructions meticulously, I did use Amontillado sherry rather than the suggested Fino – I’m not sure what difference this made, but fino is lighter in both color and flavor.  I should have put the squash in the oven a bit longer – closer to 30 minutes than 25 – so that it melted a bit more in my mouth; with that change I would definitely make this again.  Delicata squash has a slightly less sweet and slightly more vegetal flavor than butternut – very close to yellow-fleshed acorn squash.  I bet that this recipe would work well with either of those two types as well.

Delicata squash recipe

A Meal Fit for Company

Today I bring you a full menu rather than one dish.  This meal is simple, delicious, quick and relatively healthy.  It can be multiplied to serve a crowd without much more effort or additional funds, and thus it is also a recent addition to my running list of “dinners fit for company costing less than $20.”

I thank Whole Foods, as much as anybody, for the idea.  I had been given the opportunity to shop there due to an overnight stay in Cambridge, MA and I was awed at the prospect.  For a girl that lives way, way up on the North Shore, the visit to this shopping Mecca where the peppers are never bruised and you can choose from 8 flavors of wood-smoked salmon was a treat indeed.  Thus, it took me about an hour and a half (no joke) to get through all the aisles.  There was a lot of internal dialogue involved, wherein I argued my need for fancy organic granola (“it has currants! Not raisins, currants! And coconut flakes!”) against the persistent reality of my checking account balance (“no you do not need Plugra butter”).  Plus, I had to decide what form of protein I was least likely to get at my home grocery, either because they don’t carry it or my husband won’t eat it.

I finally settled on a balanced, colorful meal of panko-crusted flounder, creamy Spinach, and roasted butternut squash with cranberries.  As the outline of the menu unfolds below, you may initially cringe at some of the flavor combos but let me tell you, these dishes really did work well together.  I would make this meal again in a heartbeat – or at least in 24 hours, if you promise me a ride to Whole Foods.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Cranberries

1 large butternut squash, peeled and scraped of seeds
3/4 c. to 1 c. fresh cranberries

Olive Oil
Maple Syrup

Preheat oven to 400˚F.   Cut butternut squash into medium-sized chunks, approximately 1 1/2 inches square.  Add them to a large mixing bowl toss with olive oil to coat.  Spread squash in a baking dish large enough to fit the squash in a single layer, not overlapping but not inches apart either.  Next, pour the cranberries (as much as you like, really) into the mixing bowl and coat with another tablespoon or so of olive oil.  Scatter the cranberries in and around the butternut squash pieces.  Sprinkle the whole pan with salt to taste, and then lightly drizzle with maple syrup, making sure that every bite of squash gets at least a couple drops.  Roast for about 1 hour – test the squash by stabbing a piece with a fork.  If you pull the fork back the squash should easily slip off the tines.   If it wants to follow with the fork, return the squash to the oven and roast for another 10 minutes before checking again.  When done, some of the cranberries will be blackened and shriveled – I think they’re yummy like this.  If you prefer your cranberries all to be juicy and full, add them halfway through the cooking rather than with the squash at the beginning.

Creamy Spinach and Mushrooms (sauce adapted from the Joy of Cooking)
3/4 c. milk
1/4 onion or 1 clove crushed garlic
bay leaf
pinch of nutmeg
3 Tbs. butter, divided
2 Tbs flour
4 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 lb. spinach or baby spinach
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1/4 c. grated cheese (gruyere, Jarlsberg, parmesan or some combination)

First simmer the milk with the onion (or garlic), bay leaf and nutmeg in a small pot for about 15 minutes.  Remove the solids (onion or garlic and bay leaf) and then set aside.  In a separate saucepan, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter, then whisk in the flour over low heat until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Slowly whisk in the milk mixture and return to low heat.  Simmer, whisking frequently, until thickened to a soup-like consistency (as you can see from the picture, I didn’t wait long enough…).  In the meantime, melt the final tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add the cremini mushrooms and cook until lightly browned.  Add the spinach and stir gently until the spinach is cooked down.  To the milk sauce, add the mustard, followed by the grated cheese, stirring to blend.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Drain any excess liquid from the mushroom and spinach mixture.  Add the sauce to the cooked spinach gradually until you reach the creaminess level you are comfortable with.  For some, a touch of the sauce is plenty, others want the whole mess of it.

Sun-dried Tomato Panko-Crusted Flounder
3 filets of flounder (or 1 per person)
2 eggs
2 cups of Sun-dried Tomato Panko flakes (mine were courtesy of Whole foods, but feel free to make your own with chopped parsley, minced sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh breadcrumbs)

Here’s a simple one – pat the fish filets dry with paper towel.  Beat the eggs together in a shallow bowl or platter.  Dip the fish filets, one by one, in the egg to coat.  Let the excess egg drip back into the bowl, then dredge the filets in the breadcrumbs, turning to coat.  Over medium-high heat, melt a tablespoon of butter in a nonstick pan.  Lay the filets in the pan and cook about 3 minutes on one side, then flip to cook the other side for about a minute and a half.  Check for doneness – the fish should be opaque, not translucent – then transfer to dinner plates.