Back in the vintage era the home cook always knew how to make a sauce that would be the perfect accent to any meal. This has becomes something of a lost art in the modern world as we have been indoctrinated over the years by the wood be health gurus that sauces are bad for us because of their richness and fat content. Poppycock! A well chosen sauce is perfect for making a dull uninteresting piece of meat sing with renewed vigor. You may think that making sauces at home is time consuming but I assure you it will become second nature with practice. Indeed, sauce making from scratch is rather easy once one knows the tricks of the trade and after a few times of doing it yourself you will wonder why you ever used a shortcut sauce like the disgusting concoction above. To learn the whole array of sauces available to chefs would be a lifetime of work and take up volumes on the bookshelf but the vast majority of sauces available are really only attainable by professional chefs. So for the purposes of this article we will be dealing with 1 mother sauce and it's daughter sauces. With these you will be able to put the topping on any meat desired.
First let's talk about our thickening agent. I grew up in a household where gravy was consumed on the holidays and usually thickened with cornstarch. Not the best idea and the cornstarch usually leaves an aftertaste. It wasn't until later when I was studying to be a professional chef that I learned about the French method for thickening sauces, Flour and butter in equal parts. This is called either a roux (roo) if starting off with the flour and butter or a beurre manie (burr man-YAY) if used to thicken a sauce after heating. All mother/daughter sauces involve a roux since we are purpose building the sauce.
The mother sauce we will be dealing with is Bechamel (besh-a-mel) since this is the easiest for the home cook to deal with. To make it you need hot milk, salt, pepper and a roux of 2T butter plus 2T flour for each cup of hot milk. This makes a sauce of typical gravy thickness and is typically the consistancy I want my sauces to have. You can make a more pourable sauce by using 1T each butter and flour. Here's how to make your bechamel sauce:
Heat a saucepan over medium high heat and add butter. Whisk until melted and it starts to sizzle. Add flour and whisk continually for 2 minutes, don't brown the roux. Add your hot milk, a dash of grated nutmeg and salt & pepper to taste and whisk until thickened. Remove from heat and serve immediately.
There, easy enough right? Here's a listing of daughter sauces and possible pairings:
Bechamel - Light seafood, Chicken (roasted or fried), Chicken Fried Steak, Biscuits, Pork Chops
Mournay - Add 1/4C each shredded gruyere & Parmesan cheeses, Seafood, Vegetables, Pasta
Veloute - Substitute double strength stock for the milk and omit the nutmeg. This is the base for every holiday gravy and by adding some pan drippings adds to the flavor.
Mustard Sauce - Omit nutmeg and add 1tsp Coleman's Dry Mustard Powder. This is good with fish, Chicken and Ham.
Later on I will cover one of the more complicated sauces, Hollandaise which is in itself a mother sauce. It is a bit time consuming but can be mastered quickly if you follow the right recipe.