Last week, I wrote that you can cook a variety of meals with just a few basic techniques. This week, I might as well let you in on one of my secrets. If you can make a white sauce, you can use the same process to make all kinds of other things.
The French call it béchamel sauce. They use it in lots of dishes, but I’m not going to get that complicated. I will show you how to make a variety of sauces and gravies you can pour over something. As a bonus, I’ll show you a couple of soups. You can look up béchamel yourself if you want to try more sophisticated French dishes.
The basic white sauce
For each cup of white sauce, melt 2 tablespoons of butter (or heat 2 tablespoons of oil) over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of flour, stir it into the butter or oil, and let it brown a little. Use regular white flour, which is a better thickener than whole wheat flour. French cookbooks call this unappetizing mixture “roux.”
Add one cup of milk a little at a time. After each splash of milk, stir until the roux absorbs the milk. Once you have added all the milk, keep stirring it until it boils and thickens. Salt and pepper to taste.
To make a meal of it, add stuff. Whenever my mother fixed ham, she made creamed ham with the last little bit she could pry off the bone. Peas and mushrooms rounded it out. You can use any leftover meat or a can of tuna. You can use different vegetables.
If you use frozen vegetables, I suggest adding them to the oil just before you add the flour. If you use canned mushrooms, drain the liquid into the cup before you measure the milk. That way, you get all the vitamins.
Experiment with adding various herbs for a different taste. As you learn to cook, try things. You’ll like at least some of what you do. All you need to do is remember what you liked and what you didn’t so you can do the tasty spices again in the future.
Serve it over toast, mashed potatoes, biscuits, rice, noodles, or whatever else suits your fancy.
Here’s a video that shows how it’s done. This recipe makes twice as much as mine and uses proportionately less flour. The cook uses a whisk. I used a spoon long before I ever saw a whisk. None of that matters.
Make a curry sauce by adding 1 teaspoon of curry powder to the butter or oil before adding the flour and let it brown for a minute or so.
Make a cheese sauce by adding 1 cup of shredded cheese—whatever kind of cheese you have around.
You can call your cheese sauce Alfredo sauce if you use parmesan cheese. In that case, you’ll probably want to use half and half instead of milk—especially if you use skim milk for the basic white sauce. You’ll probably serve it over some kind of pasta.
Make chop suey sauce by using chicken broth instead of milk.
Make pan gravy by using drippings from fried (or baked) chicken or pork chops instead of butter or oil. Or for breakfast, if you have time, cook some sausage and use 2 tablespoons of the fat. Otherwise, it’s just pan gravy. Serve it over biscuits.
While I’m on the subject of gravy, you can make kettle gravy with the liquid from a pot roast or something. For every cup of broth, mix 2 tablespoons of flour and seasonings in a quarter of a cup of water. Pour that mixture into boiling broth while stirring.
And now for the promised soups
For potato soup, either cut potatoes into cubes and cook them or use leftover potatoes from another meal. Make the white sauce with only 1 tablespoon each of butter or oil and flour. Add some chopped onion and minced garlic to the oil before you make the roux with the flour.
Add a can of clams, juice and all, to the potato soup and you can call it New England clam chowder.
Now, that’s not the best clam chowder recipe, and I have found a better potato soup recipe. But they taste just fine. And you make them using the exact same procedure as the basic white sauce. See how many different meals you can make without learning any other techniques?