Being Creative with White Sauce

Like the author of this site I learned how to make a basic white sauce in a home economics class more years ago than I care to count.  Can’t say I was much impressed then.

But when I began to realize how variable this simple recipe can be and what a scope for creativity it offers, it became very interesting indeed.

Every part of the recipe can be modified for different uses.

The fat component can be melted butter, lard, shortening, margarine or any sort of oil. Gravies are a “white sauce” in which the drippings from the roast form the fat component.

The starch component is usually wheat flour, but can be potato, soy, barley or rice flour.  Corn starch and amaranth flour are the choices for making a clear sauce.  They have more thickening power than other flours, so use half as much per cup of liquid.

The liquid component is usually milk, but can just as well be water, broth, tomato juice, or fruit juice or a blend of several of these.  A touch of white wine is great in a sauce for seafood.  A clear sauce using fruit juice as the liquid makes a nice pancake topping. A clear sauce made with chicken broth and soy sauce often completes an Asian stir-fry dish.

Then there are all sorts of things one can add to a white sauce: vegetables, meats, cheese, tomato paste, peanut butter, a whole assortment of herbs and spices, and ,for sweet sauces, fruit, chocolate, sugar, honey or other sweeteners.

So, where do you use white sauce?  Virtually everywhere.

  • Cream soups (celery, mushroom, potato, squash, broccoli, whatever takes your fancy)
  • Cheese sauces for macaroni and cheese, to pour over vegetables.  Include beer in the liquid and you have Welsh rabbit.  (Which most people now know as Welsh rarebit.)
  • Curries (basically a curry sauce is a white sauce with the appropriate spices added)
  • Creamed chicken, tuna, etc. to be served over toast, polenta, or rice
  • Casseroles (substitute your own white sauce for canned soup)

Whatever the additions and modifications, a white sauce is basically a combination of fat, starch and liquid cooked to get a thick sauce. With that in mind, many apparently daunting recipes, like Bean & Noodle Casserole, resolve themselves into “Make a white sauce and ….”
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Some philosophical musings on eating meat

It may seem strange that, as a meat-eater, I have and recommend vegetarian/vegan cookbooks.  Or that, sympathetic as I am to that mode of eating, I still eat meat.  So a bit of background and philosophy.

My parents grew up as farmers.  My grandparents were all farmers, and the farm I remember was an old-fashioned, Norman Rockwell-type family farm, where, for the most part, animals roamed free in pastures or had generous-sized pens. As I noted in my other blog, one of my own experiences as a two-year-old was feeding pigs from the back steps of our farmhouse. Eating meat from animals we had raised was a perfectly normal experience for us.

On the other hand, I have great ethical objections to the cruelty visited on most animals raised for slaughter in modern “factory-farm” agribusiness.  I appreciate that many people choose a vegetarian/vegan diet to avoid being complicit in this cruelty. I would seriously consider eliminating all meat consumption if this were my only source of meat.

So I am thankful that I have access to meat from animals raised in more natural conditions. Not far away is a Rowe Farms outlet. And once a week I can get to the farmers’ market sponsored by the West End Food Coop.

I am also conscious that most of us eat too much meat.  The average North American eats more meat than kings of medieval times.  The planet cannot sustain a global population that demands so much meat.  In most eras of human life (including hunter-gatherer societies) meat supplemented a diet consisting mostly of fruit, berries, roots, nuts and grains.  Until the 20th century the average European had meat only on festive occasions. In Asia, the tradition has been to use small amounts of meat as flavouring in dishes consisting largely of rice and/or vegetables.

During the the World Wars I & II, in addition to rationing, governments promoted “Meatless Mondays”, and this was observed not only in many homes, but in hotels, restaurants and diners.  Today there is a move to revive this tradition to help us with a different problem: the struggle to maintain a sustainable planet.

“More greenhouse gasses can be prevented by going meatless one day a week than by eating locally seven days a week.” Nancy Callan, member, Board of Directors of Earthsave

Going meatless just one day a week reduces your carbon footprint by 28.5% for the whole week.

So although I haven’t eliminated meat from my diet, I have shaped my diet more and more along the following principles:

  1. Eat less meat.  Currently fewer than half my main meals of the day include meat.  It is even more rare for other meals. And of the meatless meals at least half are fully vegan.
  2. Most of the time, use meat as flavoring rather than as the focus of the meal.
  3. Use meat from naturally (preferably organically) raised animals.

I have found that by following these principles, I have a dish like Pork Chops and Brown Rice, very seldom, but really appreciate it when I do.  Pork chops is, for me, a favorite comfort food and a special treat now that I have them so rarely.

The stats

Altogether my 11 current cookbooks contain 2,744 recipes, not counting variations.  If I try at least one new recipe every day without fail, it will take 7 ½ years to try them all. Of course, there will be days I won’t try a new recipe.  So probably it will take closer to a decade.  Should have started when I was 20.

I have sorted the recipes into 10 categories:

Good Breakfast Food (240 recipes)

Salads—including salad dressings (224 recipes)

Soups (239 recipes)

Meals with Bread or Pastry (275 recipes)

Meals from the Oven (361 recipes)  almost a year’s worth of main dishes right there

Meals in a Pot—stove top meals prepared in a Dutch oven, kettle or saucepan (288 recipes)

Meals in a Skillet—more stove top meals but the sort one makes in a frypan or wok (253 recipes)

The Staff of Life—recipes for all sorts of breads and crackers—also noodles and dumplings (232 recipes)

Desserts (291 recipes)

Extras—everything else (341 recipes).

Each of these is further sub-divided into five or six categories, because I can get obsessive about organization and classification. But the point is to try recipes and enjoy good food.

The recipe quest

I am a fairly adventurous eater.  I like trying new dishes, new ingredients, new styles of cooking.  Naturally, I have accumulated a number of cookbooks—and lost quite a few too.  Adelle Davis’  Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit is gone and Mother’s in the Kitchen, my first La Leche League cookbook.  Also a little gem called Easy Gourmet Cooking in 30 minutes.

In fact, that was the book that set me on cooking adventures in the first place.  I was a young teacher, living for the first time on my own.  Not far into the semester, I realized that many evenings I was having nothing more than toast and coffee while grading papers.  Not a good way to keep up one’s energy.  But how to work cooking into a schedule that seemed overwhelming—especially good cooking.  So a book that promised dinner on the table in 30 minutes—and good food at that—was a godsend.  I even learned to like liver, one dish I had always rejected as a child.

The second thing that started me on this quest was a brush with cancer a few years ago.  For several months after having a colorectal tumour removed I had no appetite at all. I had to re-introduce myself to food like a baby, trying small portions of one thing at a time. Low energy levels meant I couldn’t produce complicated recipes either. Yogurt and fruit became a standard breakfast; simple one-vegetable soups prepared at home a typical lunch or supper. It was a real achievement to get something as substantial as an egg or a muffin down.

 Then one day I realized I was enjoying my food again and I pulled out the cookbooks. My first thought was to start at the beginning of each one and try one or two recipes a week.  Soon I realized that was impractical.  For one thing,one book starts off with a hundred or more recipes for a sauce, dip, sandwich spread or salad dressing.  I could end up with four or five in the fridge and nothing to use them on. Another begins with more than two dozen recipes for bread.  I love baking my own bread, but I can’t live on bread alone.  No, I would have to roam through the recipes in another way.

 By the time I had worked out what I was doing I had already tried a good many recipes.  Then I began wondering how many there were to try—altogether—from  all the books.  So I made myself a grand catalogue of all the recipes, noting which ones I had already tried and which were still to be sampled.

 Will I ever get to try them all?  Short answer: probably not. Not unless I am still preparing my own meals on my hundredth birthday.  Meanwhile, however, I thought it might be interesting to jot down some of my adventures with food.