So there I was, just a sittin’ indoors aboard Great Northern, melding with my laptop, fingers floating above the keys, waiting for thoughts to swirl lazily out of the void. Outside, there was a peaceful misting sprinkle of rain making an unhurried leap of faith from the lowering clouds all the way to the bay. That had to be, what, 1000 meters or so. Quite a leap of faith. Their final nose dives created tiny divots on the surface of the water surrounding my warm and dry perch. I was wondering, from a purely metaphysical assessment of course, if they were surprised when they hit the water or just relieved that they’d finally made it home. They were just rain drops after all, no anthropomorphism necessary really, but it does make one wonder when contemplating life through a holistic lens. I was just happy to witness their return to the sea from whence they came, somewhere NW of the Hawaiian Islands. Where had they been before that?
Les was sitting by the diesel stove with Kai sleeping in her lap, and I had just read an email from a friend of mine. She is a fabulous cook whose many course meals I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying. If we lived close to her, we would be pesky perpetual invites to sample her culinary creations. Her offerings rival any chefs that I have had the good fortune of tasting. Anyway… she asked for a sauce I had squawked about making and had enjoyed decanted over steamed broccoli. I was pleased, really. Recipe you say?
Well, first I have to admit that I’m pretty bad at following a recipe… because as I go through one that has been written down, I almost always ask… now why did you do it that way. That’s so bohh…ghus… as Click of the Click and Clack Tappet brothers was so fond of stating whenever he had the chance. I hearken back to spectral memories of studying late at night, and 0700 morning labs in Chem 100, 110, 210, P Chem, medicinal organic chemistry and so on… where I was compelled to follow and memorize the chemical recipe being discussed. And, that was after discovering that I could not pour acetone into a Styrofoam cup and make it all the way back to my lab station before it streamed through the melting bottom of the cup and leaked all over the sacred floors of Bagley Hall. Well… you know… chemistry, humble origins and all that. Of course, I finally learned enough about chemistry to be able to predict reactions or manipulate them to good effect. Back to recipes…
Cooking is the same. In the beginning you really don’t understand the chemistry associated with cooking, so you read, follow and memorize. As more is understood about the interactions of the ingredients, it is possible to look at a recipe, predict the chemical reactions that the final product will place on your taste buds and modify the process to create the taste that you prefer. There is an undeniable freedom to be able to ignore the paint by numbers approach and paint outside the lines. What lines? Anyway, I’ll look for about 5 other recipes of the same thing to get the general idea, then merge it all into an amalgam that makes sense to me.
So… I drift aboot, eh? Pursuant to her request, I decided to write it all down and create a two-for recipe based on one easily modifiable cheese, garlic, mushroom sauce, and broccoli… which could also be substituted with… fresh green beans or cauliflower or a combo. Whatev ya want matey. The world is your onion… er… oyster.
The cheesey sauce:
- 2-3 slices of thick cut bacon… chopped up into little pieces. Small because it’s a sauce. I just freeze my bacon and chop off what I need when I need it. Easy peasy.
- ½ red onion finely diced. I almost always use red onion over others for its stronger onionishy flavor. Shallots would work nicely too.
- 2 large cloves garlic smashed under a nice battering ram knife, then finely diced. 3, if like me you happen to be fond of garlic.
- 8 to 12 ounces of cremini mushrooms. 2 ways to do this. Finely chopped or just sliced. Finely chopped if you like the flavor to render more into the sauce or chunkier if you like the texture of the shrooms… or a combo to get the best of both worlds.
- 3 tablespoons of all purpose flour or spelt flour
- 3 tablespoons of butter. You may use clarified butter, or ghee if you so desire.
- 1 cup heavy cream. Yes Virginia, use heavy cream just this once…
- 1 cup chicken broth
- ½ cup sharp (extra old if in Canada), white cheddar cheese finely grated…
- ½ cup parmesan or asiago cheese finely grated (Depending on the essence you want to experience tumbling past your little taste buds… you could use swiss / ementaler, smoked gouda, gruyere… or… even cream cheese
- ½-3/4 teaspoon sea salt (remember, the cheeses are salty so go light and adjust later)
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black or white pepper if you happen to have issues with little black specks in your sauces
- Interesting additions to think about: smoked paprika, Slap Ya Mama, garam masala, cayenne pepper
The How To:
In a big enough sauce pot on medium heat:
- Melt a dab of butter or pour in a bit of olive oil. Then, throw in the chopped bacon. The dab of fat keeps the bacon from burning and sticking to the pan in the beginning). Yeah, I know there are other ways to get around this, but this is the fast and furious. Anyway, the sauce pot walls keep the greasy little festering spicules of fat from ending up all over the place. Like… duh. Just cook it to crisp the edges and cook the flesh… not to the state of char… which I’ve done and had to start over… perhaps because I became distracted whilst pouring myself another tot of cab. Remove the bacon, set aside, and retain some of the rendered fat, 1-2 tablespoons, or remove it and replace with olive oil if you must
- Toss in the diced onion, stir, and cook a couple of minutes
- Toss in the mushrooms, stir and keep cooking.
- To get the onions and shrooms to a nice soft and translucent state, I will add 1-2 tablespoonfuls of chicken broth and turn down the heat a bit, put on the lid and let it simmer-soften for a couple of minutes
- As the shrooms wilt and their cell walls break down, the water released keeps the onions moist. But… check it often and don’t let it dry out. Add a bit of broth every once in a while if you need to keep going until they are just where you want them. You can be chopping broccoli or…
- Towards the end… probably no more than 5 minutes all told, throw in the garlic and pepper, stir and let cook for an additional minute.
- Transfer your nicely fragrant, oniony, shroomy translucent results to the same bowl where the bacon has been quietly minding its own business. No reason to dirty another bowl
- In the now emptyish pot, toss in the 3 tablespoons of butter to melt and slowly add the flour and whisk to form a nice roux.
- Cook it up a bit to make sure the flour is no longer “raw”, or to a nice light brown color, then start adding the heavy cream. As soon as you do, and the additional fat in the cream hits the roux, it will clump. An “Oh crap”… may utter from your clenched lips, but all is well. Sincerely. Keep slowly adding cream and whisking and all will smooth out. Keep stirring a bit, then add the broth while continuing to stir and let it all thicken up a bit. You may have a better way of doing this, but the steps I’ve suggested do work for me and it seems easy enough to replicate. One could add the broth before the cream I suppose… In the end you have a nice suspension. Chemistry in action.
- Turn down the heat and add the cheeses a bit at a time and continue stirring until all is incorporated. Don’t boil the cheese emulsion as it will break and we don’t want it separating out into its composite parts
- Add the bacon-onion-garlic-shroom combo back into the pot and let it all simmer for a bit.
- Taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed.
The sauce is ready to pour over steamed broccoli, green beans, cauliflower, roasted Brussel sprouts, braised portabello mushrooms, or a combo of… here it is again… wait for it… whatev
Now… if you want something a bit more casseroley… and filling, the sauce can be used to create a nice broccoli, mushroom, cheese rice dish.
- Broccoli cut into florets size depends on what you prefer but no larger than an inch or so.
- 1 cup of basmati rice cooked to perfection to yield 2 cups or so. Oh God. Stop worrying. You can use brown rice or quinoa if you want. Anyway, with my rice, I use broth instead of water…
- Quartered mushrooms lightly sautéed in a bit of olive oil to soften. I prefer chunks rather than slices.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F, that’s somewhere around 165 degrees C for all you Canadians out there.
- Place broccoli florets, lightly sautéed quartered mushrooms and enough rice to fill a casserole dish, or a nice cast iron Dutch / French oven. I usually make too much rice which is just fine, because we have that for breakfast topped with a couple of poached eggs, and our Chihuahua gets some with his breakfast and din-din. How nice for him, being the Mexican oligarch that he has become traipsing about the Salish Sea in his very own yacht. “Oh Lovey, I’ll have another martini please?”
- Pour the cheese sauce over the whole mess and mix it up
- Now… couple of things. You can add cashews if you like that taste… or sautéed chicken to add more protein, chopped celery or, as the sayin goes, whatev matey…
- You can also top off the whole thing with French’s Crunchy Topper Onions with some finely grated asiago cheese on top of that. Or just do the cheese…
- Place uncovered in oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or so. Check on it every once a while to keep it honest
The possibilities are nearly endless with this one, but the sauce… the sauce…
Some ideas from a friend of mine who we will call “Le Carcajou”… which can be translated as wolverine or gourmand which is her true calling: “Also I had thought about increasing the amount of mushrooms, adding ground pork, ginger, and green onions, reducing the cheese and rolling the little filling into won ton wrappers and then cooking in a hot wok to make gyoza or little won tons. Then drop the wontons into broth or just eat like a wild wolverine, they’d be so good. These basic ingredients are incredibly versatile. Even a basic Welsh rarebit!”. See what I mean… a gourmand.
Maybe, “Le Alchimiste” might be better knick knack name than “Le Carcajou” for her, but Le Carcajou roles off the tongue so much better.
So… what are your ideas? Write em down and send em out… it’s fun.