Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Weeknight Meal: A Sauce In Your Pocket...

We've all been there. It's 5:30pm. Nothing was taken out for dinner. You're staring at an empty frying pan, a freezer full of frozen food, and a gaggle of very hungry family members, forks in hand. What do you do?

If there's one thing that's saved my butt over the years, it's sauces. Having 3 to 5 good sauces in your repertoire and the ingredients for them in your pantry can get you out of any fix. What's more, it can make you look like a culinary genius in a matter of minutes. Sauces can be used as marinades, poured over simple sauteed chicken breast, or served with veggies, rice, or pasta. They can take something from "blah" to "wow" easily.

Here are 5 of my favorite sauces:

Teriyaki Marinade
The original recipe for this sauce was jotted-down on scrap paper for my mother many years ago by a Chinese co-worker. I've made a few changes over the years and converted the "a pinch of this" measurements into something more substantial. Store-bought teriyaki sauces are sickeningly sweet and loaded with things like high-fructose corn syrup. This stuff uses pantry items and is healthy and authentic.

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons honey
dash of ground ginger
1 tablespoon corn starch

Mix together everything but the oil. Slowly add oil while mixing with a whisk. Alternatively, add all ingredients to a blender or food processor and process till blended.

Add to meat (chicken, beef, or firm fish such as salmon) and marinate at least 3 hours. Overnight is better. Blot meat dry before grilling or pan-searing. This sauce can also be added directly to meat in a zip-top bag before freezing. The meat will marinate while it defrosts in the fridge or on the countertop.

Honey-Lime Marinade
This sauce was inspired by a recipe for Tequila Lime Chicken from The Barefoot Contessa. It's my go-to sauce for juicy tuna steak without eating it nearly raw it like most chefs recommend. I cube the tuna steaks, marinate, then place them on skewers to grill. Cook them till just a tiny bit of pink remains and they'll still be juicy. Tip: If you don't have a zester, peel the skin off the limes with a vegetable peeler, trying to get as little white part as possible. Throw the peels in whole.

Zest of 3 limes
Juice of 3 limes
2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients except for the oil. While whisking briskly, add oil slowly. Alternatively, use a blender or food processor. Taste the marinade. It should be sweet but still have a punch of lime flavor. Adjust honey if needed.

Add to meat and marinate at least 2 hours, up to 10 hours. Pat meat dry before grilling, roasting, or pan-searing. Works great with chicken, tuna steaks, swordfish steaks, and thin cuts of pork.

Variation: Use 2 lemons in place of the limes for a honey-lemon marinade. One orange and one lemon will work as well but oranges alone aren't acidic enough.

Asian-Style Vegetable Sauce
This sauce was inspired by a recipe for Broccoli with Garlic Butter and Cashews found on AllRecipes.com. I've modified it a bit to suit my tastes. I use this with sturdy green veggies such as broccoli, fresh green beans, or asparagus. Combined with chunks of boneless chicken and served over rice, it makes a complete meal. It also makes a great stir-fry sauce added towards the end of cooking.

3/4 stick of butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 cloves of garlic finely minced or pressed
pepper to taste

Melt butter in a frying pan on medium-low. Once melted, add the other ingredients. Cook 1-2 minutes. Add cooked vegetables (see note). For original recipe, add broccoli and 1/3 cup of cashews. For meal variation, saute chicken ahead of time and add to veggies and sauce, cooking 1-2 minutes so that chicken absorbs the sauce a bit.

White, Cream, & Cheese Sauce
French cooking teaches us of "The Five Mother Sauces." One of these is bechamel or white sauce. While it sounds complicated, it's not and a recipe for medium white sauce can be found in almost every basic cookbook. You can even do it in the microwave. White sauce is one of the most versatile sauces you can learn and it's quick too. Five minutes of work and you have yourself mac and cheese, a "cream sauce" for pasta, or a mock Alfredo sauce.

2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cup of milk

Melt butter in a pan on medium-high. Once the butter melts, add the flour and stir well with a wire whisk. The mixture will get thick and look like it's going to burn but it won't. After about 1 minute, add all of the milk, whisking to get the lumps out. Slowly bring to a boil, whisking constantly so that the thickening sauce doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. Once mixture gets to a full boil (you see bubbles popping), remove from the heat and stir. Add inclusions off-heat as follows:

Mac & Cheese or Broccoli Sauce - Add sliced deli American cheese in 2-inch pieces and stir until each piece melts. Add enough to taste. Pour over cooked macaroni and bake with buttered breadcrumbs on top or serve as-is. For a heartier version, use half cheddar cheese. Looking for that classic orange color? Try orange American or Velveeta.

Mock Alfredo - Add grated parmesian cheese to taste, stirring till all cheese is melted. Thin sauce with milk if it gets too thick.

Cream Sauce - Thin sauce out with milk, cream, or half & half and add pepper to taste. Serve over prepared frozen ravioli, tortellini, or just about anything.

Mushroom Cream Sauce - Before making sauce, saute mushrooms in butter in the pan. Remove mushrooms but leave residue and any leftover butter in the pan. Prepare sauce in the same pan and add mushrooms back in. Thin sauce with milk and cook 1-2 minutes to allow the mushrooms to add more flavor to the dish. Serve over noodles with beef or use as a topping for meats or green beans.

Mayonnaise Sauces
Most people don't realize that the French invented mayonnaise. It's a fancy french sauce that we Americans bottled and now slather on just about anything. Mayonnaise makes a great starter for sauces and salad dressings. Mix it with other items to give it flavor.

Honey-Mustard Dipping Sauce - Mix 3 tablespoons mayo with 1 tablespoon mustard and 2 tablespoons of honey. Taste and adjust to your own tastes.

Tartar Sauce - Mix 3 tablespoons of mayo with 1 tablespoon of sweet relish.

Herbed Mayo - Mix 3 tablespoons of mayo with 1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs. Serve with meat or as a sandwich spread.

Lime Dipping Sauce - Mix 3 tablespoons of mayo with 3 tablespoons of sour cream, 2 tablespoons of lime juice, the zest of one lime, and 2 tablespoons of honey. Taste and adjust to your taste. Serve with cooked firm fish, fried seafood, chicken fingers, or just about anything.

Tuna Salad Sauce - Instead of using straight mayo, mix it with a tablespoon of citrus juice or white wine until slightly thinner. Add salt, pepper, and herbs to taste. Dress your tuna or chicken salad with this instead.

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