Sunday, January 8, 2012

Epiphany! and Eating Omily: Bechamagic

Today is the Feast of Epiphany in the Catholic Church: the day the Magi found the infant Jesus (actually, he was about two years old at the time) and paid him homage with gifts symbolizing his kingship, his divinity, and his ultimate destiny as a sacrifice. In most faiths and spiritual path, the Feast of Epiphany is more than a once-a-year recognition of wise men; it is a daily quest to be in the presence of and offer our gifts to the Divine. Are we living as wise, and benevolent leaders, in touch with the Divine, and ready to give of ourselves for others?

An epiphany is a light-bulb moment, when things suddenly fall into place and make sense, bringing forth a startling new revelation. It may feel divinely inspired to you, or just awe-inspiring in itself. The frequency with which we experience such beautiful moments of understanding is surely related to the frequency with which we open ourselves to them, and invite our many observations, lessons, experiences, and intuitions to mingle and mix, allowing for fresh perspectives and insights. Today I drew the 4 of Cups as my Tarot Card for the day. It is a card that suggests meditation, checking in with your feelings and intuition, considering your next step very carefully, instead of jumping right in, or grabbing for what you think you want. Such an approach may indeed lead to an epiphany...
With that in mind, please take a moment (perhaps after you finish this blog post...) to read my dear friend and healer Rebecca's, tumblr post for the day. It is both inspiring and practical, with a great recipe for a meditation practice! She offers many beautiful services, and to check those out, click the third link down on the left.

I'm switching gears now, to a little Eating Omily lovin', because I have been inspired by one of my favourite cooking magic tricks the last few days, and feel I absolutely must share it with you, even if it does throw my lovely delineation between "Eating Omily" and "rambling, navel-gazy, reflective" posts all to pants.

So, in the last few weeks of my farm share, I was receiving, of course, a lot of root vegetables. I love me some potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and sweet potatoes, but get me much beyond that and I'm just not sure what to do. So the celery root and turnips sat around my crisper looking sadder and sadder until my hatred for food waste finally outweighed my ambivalence toward these unusual visitors. I sliced and peeled, steamed, and pureed them with butter, milk, and salt. I have never had this go wrong, but I underestimated the willfulness of turnips to be bitter and watery. Perhaps if they weren't quite so old, they wouldn't have been quite so stubborn. The husband and I made a valiant effort at eating them with our dinner, but there were plenty left over when the plates were cleared. I put it in a Tupperware in the fridge, and resolved not to think about it. After Thanksgiving (yes, the saga goes back that far) I had a baked sweet potato left over, so I stirred it into the puree, thinking it would help to disguise the turnip taste and texture. It did, but not enough. It sat in the fridge even longer. After the fourth attempt at talking the husband into bringing the mush back out for a second round, I threw it, in desperation, into the freezer, thinking time might somehow intervene positively. We went away for the holidays, and returned to a nearly empty fridge and pantry. Hunger is the best spice, or so they say. I put the puree into the fridge to thaw, determined that it would get eaten. It occurred to me that forming the fridge-firmed puree into patties and frying them in butter would inevitably up their desirability quotient...but ultimately they would still taste like turnips...how to mask that? Of course! GRAVY! A rich, creamy sauce is just the thing for turning an "eh..." into an "Mmmmmm..."! In this case my gravy would not be the thickened pan drippings of cooked meat, because I wasn't cooking any meat, but would instead be a bechamel sauce. Unfamiliar with bechamel? Prepare for a culinary epiphany...this will rock your world!

Bechamel is not related to chameleons, or camels, but rather, to French mothers.
Sorry, couldn't resist!

I mean, it is one of the French mother sauces. In the school of French cooking, there are five 'mother sauces' which form the basis for the hundreds of sauces out there used in French recipes, and likely the basis for just about any sauce you could possible make. In case you're wondering, they are: bechamel, veloute, espagnole, hollandaise or mayonnaise, and vinagrette. If you'd like to learn more about the rest of them, this may be a good place to start. I may get back to the others later myself, but bechamel is far and away the one I turn to the most, and represents, I think, the greatest ratio of ease of use to impact of use. So...

Bechamel is commonly referred to as a "white sauce", and is, basically, roux-thickened dairy.

You start with fat, oil or butter, and usually garlic and/or onions for flavor, and some dried herbs. When those are softened and delicious, you add flour, carefully sprinkling and stirring, so it is evenly dispersed in the fat, and no dry lumps of it are left. You cook this mixture, the roux, for a bit to remove the raw flour taste, and then you add milk, and likely more salt and pepper to flavor the quantity of milk. The heat is turned up, and the sauce is stirred until it begins to boil. The instant it begins to bubble, the sauce will begin to transform from milk to rich, creamy, thick delicious bechamel sauce. Honest! Works every time!

Basic rules of thumb:

for a result too thick to be a soup base, but too thin to spread (Think gravy; just perfect for pouring over meat, potatoes, veggies, anything!) use just a bit more than one tablespoon flour (and at least that much fat) per cup of milk.

Adjust from there for a thicker or thinner result: the more flour, the thicker, the less flour, the thinner.

Keep in mind that the sauce will thicken considerably more as it cools. If after dipping a spoon in it, you can wipe your finger across, and the sauce doesn't run down to fill in the empty space, it will be fine. Another test I like to use is a test traditionally used for testing jellies and jams: dip the spoon into the sauce, and hold it up. Watch the drips falling off the bottom edge. If two drips run into each other to form one big drip before falling off, I turn the heat off immediately.

It's easy to get paranoid that the sauce won't be thick enough, especially the first few times you make bechamel. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO ADD MORE FLOUR AFTER YOU'VE ADDED THE MILK! It will lump up in all that liquid, instead of dispersing nicely for even thickening, and it will taste like raw flour, even if you can get it dispersed. It will also have too much thickening power since it is raw, and you'll have a mess on your hands. Trust that using the correct ratio, and those two tests for thickening, you'll get the result you want. Keep in mind that no thickening whatsoever will occur until the sauce reaches the boiling temperature.

This does bring up another good point: the longer you cook the roux, the more flavor it will contribute to the final sauce, but the less thickening power it has. I tend to only cook it for maybe a minute, and trust the aromatics, herbs and spices I add to provide the flavor. In a classic New Orleans's gumbo, the flavor of a roux that is, literally, cooked for hours until it is brick-red in color, and basically no good as a thickener is quintessential to the final product.

Keep in mind, also, that if you're mixing the sauce with something very starchy, like potatoes, or pasta, that starch will also additionally thicken the sauce. The starch in the flour is what is thickening the sauce in the first place, by popping just like popcorn (another starch!) once it reaches a certain temperature, tangling up with its fellow starches to ensnare liquid, resulting in a thicker mixture.

Some uses for this master recipe:

to-die-for mushroom sauce: Cook the mushrooms until they release all their juices, and start to suck them back in, with garlic, onions, salt and pepper, then continue with your sauce according to the master recipe.

Mac and cheese: Once your basic sauce is thickened, turn off the heat, and stir to allow it to cool a bit. After a minute or two, add between a half and a whole cup of grated cheese per cup of sauce, depending on how thick and cheesy you like your sauce, and how strongly flavored the cheese is. Toss with cooked short-cut pasta. I like to eat it right away, but you can put it in a casserole, and bake with breadcrumbs in a hot oven if you like.

Sausage gravy: Brown the crumbled sausage first, remove it and reserve to the side, and use that fat to cook your roux. Proceed with master bechamel recipe, and after it's thickened, add the cooked sausage back in. Please serve with biscuits, and die happy.

Vegan Bechamel: some brief internet research suggests that you can make this recipe substituting soy or rice milk for the dairy, and a vegan fat choice to make the sauce vegan. Follow the same recipe, but be extra aware of what's going on with your milk substitute. It will likely be a bit more temperamental as it gets hotter. If you use a vegan cheese substitute that melts and disperses similarly to dairy cheese, the mac and cheese version may work, and the sausage gravy may work with veggie-sausage. The mushroom sauce, obviously, is a great way to get that savory, satisfying flavor without meat, and with these substitutes, no animal products at all!

Basic delicious sauce you can pour on anything to make it compulsively edible, even your own arm: Follow the basic recipe, with garlic, onions, and dried thyme, and at the very end, grate in some fresh nutmeg. Pour. On. Everything.

Including fried patties of sad pureed root vegetables.
Full disclosure: after this glamour shot was taken, I added about twice that much sauce. Actually, browning the patties in butter helped to transform the turnip's bitterness into a pleasant and smooth nuttiness, and the gravy made it...well, compulsively edible. Also, the greenbeans look odd because they are still frozen. It was one of those days.

Give this a shot, and don't hesitate to troubleshoot with me if it doesn't seem to make the magic it's supposed to. Who knows? After a rich, and satisfying meal like this, and some time spent in quiet meditation, an epiphany seems almost inevitable...

Live Omily
~em

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