Monday, March 28, 2011

Sweet and Savoury

One of the tricks I use in keeping my menus varied is to think of ingredients and dishes as basic building blocks. So everyone is surprised when I come up with new twists on old dishes, simply because I've changed them from sweet to savoury, or vice versa.

I suppose this started from my love affair with French food. When I was a child my parents usually took me out to dinner for my birthday, and I got to choose (within reason) the restaurant. From the time I was a child, I wanted grown-up restaurants, and often chose French restaurants, where instead of sweets, they would bring cheese for dessert. I suppose it was about then that I started to think of food as pliable in its interpretation, but did not commence experimenting until much later.

As we saw from the example of French toast, the basics were eggs, milk and bread. Take away the bread, and we are left with custards, for sweet dishes, and custards, for savoury dishes (think quiche). This is why learning the basics and patterns of cooking is so important; you can turn just about any recipe into just about anything, depending on your available ingredients, taste, and your imagination!

So this week, I encourage you to experiment. Take that noodle dish, and turn it into dessert. Take that cake recipe and turn it into a savoury quickbread. Anything is possible with a little imagination and determination. Even the great chefs go through some catastrophic failures before they finally create their signature dishes. And no matter how bad the result turns out to be, usually one of the children will like it, and the dog will almost always eat it!

Monday, March 21, 2011

What Can You Do with a Roux? Part 2

A few weeks ago we discussed what a roux is, and how to make one. One of the famous "mother sauces" (sauces upon which other sauces are built) is the Sauce velouté. (Velouté is the French term for "velvety.") This sauce is made by heating the roux, then adding room-temperature chicken, veal, or fish stock. The proportions should be two parts roux to one part stock. This may be either reduced or thinned, and salt and pepper added. As with Sauce Espagnole, there are so many variations it would take an entire cookbook just to list them all and give instructions!

When cooking with roux, it's important to remember to keep the roux hot and the liquid room temperature, and to whisk well. The key to velouté sauce and all its "daughter sauces" (of which there are many!) is the velvety texture.

If you use chicken stock, try a velouté sauce over a light chicken dish, or over vegetables, potatoes or rice accompanying chicken. If you are using fish stock for your velouté, it makes an excellent accompaniment to fish plates as well.

Monday, March 14, 2011

French Toast -- Not Just for Breakfast Anymore!

In keeping with the goal of Food, Face First, where we take the basics and learn to free ourselves from recipes, here's an idea for revamping that old classic, French toast. In France, it's known as "pain perdue" or "lost bread." So how can you redo French toast to make it more versatile?

To do that, we need to revamp our thinking. We assume French toast is for breakfast, and is sweet, because that's what we've been accustomed to thinking. But instead of sweet, what about savoury flavours?

French toast is, at its most basic, eggs, milk and bread. What you do with the French toast after that is more important. So rather than fry it up and serve it with cinnamon sugar, powdered sugar, or syrup, what would happen if you took eggs, milk and bread, and combined them with something else that goes well with those basics? For example, you could top it with cheese, as a start. What else goes with those basics? How about some peppers, or some fresh herbs from your garden? Get a little more adventurous, and add some fresh chevre. How about an Asian-style French toast? Tex-Mex? What happens when you substitute olive oil, walnut oil, hazelnut oil or avocado oil for your regular oil?

In fact, when you break it down, eggs, milk and bread are the basis constituents of soufflés. So any formulation that would work well in a soufflé will also work in French toast. (And vice-versa!). What happens if we chop the bread into small pieces and bake it rather than fry it?

Now what happens when you substitute some other starch for the bread? Potatoes come to mind, and then you have a casserole. What about pasta? And let's not forget rice and yes, tapioca! In fact, using the French toast base, you can create hundreds of wonderful dishes for your family.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What can You Do with a Roux?

Some time ago, I covered making a roux. Today we're going to look at what we can do with roux, to make sauces.

One of the most important bases in French cooking is the sauce espagnole. This sauce is the basis for many, many other sauces and is one of the five French "mother sauces," sauces that are the starting point in making other sauces. With a stock of sauce espagnole in your refrigerator, you will have the basis for numerous sauces that go with red meat.

2 parts onions
1 part celery
1 part carrot
1 part butter

This is called the mirepoix, and is the basis for a number of French dishes. Simply put all these ingredients in a heavy pan and brown well.

Add: 1 part tomato puree and mix well, cooking until well-reduced. Add 1 part flour and sprinkle over the mirepoix, stirring until it is well-incorporated. Since the flour is used only as a thickening agent, you are free to substitute any kind of flour as the gluten in wheat flour is not vital to this recipe. You should end up with a thick, limp mass.

At this point, you may wish to freeze some of this for later.  Fill a glass jar (the acidity of the tomatoes will eventually eat through plastic) about 7/8ths full and seal.

To continue with the sauce espagnole, add veal or beef stock to thin. Reduce, reduce, reduce until you are left with a thick, intense flavour. Now you can either use this as is, or keep and use as the basis for other French sauces.

Aha! Now you know why I had to stress so much technique: this one recipe has used almost every post I've made so far in my blog. That's why technique is so darned important!