What's sauce for the goose . . . may be a mystery to the cook.
Who, me? Prepare a sauce? Are you kidding?
But there is something about sauce on a dish -- be it a simple white sauce for a seafood gratin or a rich, classic, brown Madeira sauce for meat or a chocolate ganache for dessert -- that says, "This is special." Sauces can make family meals memorable or give a touch of luxe to home entertaining.
Yeah, but those things take a lot of "special" preparation, too, don't they?
Sauces are perfect for the way folks cook today. How about a beautiful mint and cilantro yogurt sauce for that grilled chicken? Or a hot hazelnut and parsley vinaigrette for braised fish? Or a perfectly simple blueberry coulis to dress up vanilla ice cream -- in March?
Wait a minute. Yogurt? Vinaigrette? Those are sauces? And what's this coulis? It sounds like a ballet step.
"What a sauce is, is to take the essence of flavor that you want and transform it to a medium that feels good to the mouth," says Mark Henry, chef at the noted Milton Inn in Sparks. For instance, he said, if you were going to make a chicken dish in cream sauce, you start with a chicken stock -- the flavor of chicken and vegetables in water -- and evaporate the water.
"It's the same concept as freeze-dried coffee," Mr. Henry says. "Take this massive amount of stock and cook all the water out of it, and you're left with the essence. You take that essence and transform it to cream -- now you've got cream that tastes like the chicken. You can add herbs or shallots or garlic, or brandy or sherry wines. You can flavor it with different vegetables -- leeks or tomatoes. That's basically what we're doing in making a sauce."
That's easy for a chef to say -- he's got a kitchen full of help. I've got a kitchen full of dogs and kids and leftovers. Why should I bother with sauces?
Cookbook author Deirdre Davis considers the issue perfectly simple: Food can be plain, or it can be . . . saucy. There's hardly a dish on the table that can't be dressed and lifted right out of the ordinary with a striking sauce or stirring condiment.
"Food can be boring, or food can be 'embellished,' " says the chef, cooking teacher and writer, whose latest work is "A Fresh Look at Saucing Foods" (Addison Wesley, $25). Sauces make food more interesting, she says. "If I come home and throw a chicken in the refrigerator to fix later, I think, what can I do to make this more interesting?"
Ms. Davis, who lives in Lincoln, Mass., outside Boston, says when she was growing up in New England, "eating wasn't fun." Then she took a class with legendary cooking teacher Madeleine Kamman, who prepared a champagne supreme sauce, and it was a revelation.
Ms. Davis went on to cooking school, and worked with Ms. Kamman for 10 years. "My favorite thing was to make sauces," she says. A favorite recipe is for duck with rhubarb and leek sauce. "That's really yummy," she says.
Well, sure, but she's had training. I can hardly tell a whisk from a whisk broom.
"Sauces really enhance a dish," Ms. Davis says. They may have (( fallen out of favor in recent years -- "People think they're fattening, or hard to make" -- but even the classics, like veloutes and mayonnaises, "aren't as hard as you think they are. You don't have to be a chef of 30 years before you can do this."
In her book, she offers recipes for all kinds of sauces -- light, heavy, complicated and simple. "I want to show people how to think about sauces in a new way."
I didn't understand the old way.
Sauces are even getting a new look from some of the bastions of tradition. In his book "Sauces" (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992, $39.95), James Peterson, a teacher of French cooking at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, writes: "Until 20 or 30 years ago, it seemed that the history of sauce-making and cooking was complete. If asked about the future of classical cooking, a typical French chef would likely have replied glibly that all the dishes had been invented by the end of the 19th century and that there was no room for the development of new combinations or techniques. In the United States, the situation was even worse: in that era of processed and frozen foods, few would have predicted the sophistication and enthusiasm for cooking that exists today."
Sauce-making began to change in the '60 and '70s, he writes: "Chefs began to eliminate flour from their sauces (used since the Middle Ages), . . . sauces were served in smaller quantities and were lighter-textured. . . .
"Both French and American chefs have borrowed largely from ethnic and regional cuisines to devise new techniques and flavor combinations. . . . American chefs are finally beginning to use regional American cooking as a source of inspiration."
Mr. Peterson's book, a textbook on the history and preparation of sauces both old and new, won the 1992 "Cookbook of the Year Award" from the prestigious James Beard Foundation. It begins in the classics but it concludes firmly in the 1990s, with salsas, purees, and vinaigrettes.