I am obsessed with Sandra Lee. I hate her, but I can't stop watching her terrible shows, reading what nasty things other people say about her, and making sarcastic posts to her unofficial fan site. (The site, as it turns out, is a brilliant joke perpetuated by like-minded Sandra-phobes, with the occasional sincere-yet-confused, and eventually angry and betrayed, real fan.)
If you're not familiar with this Botoxed, underweight kitchen cuckoo, she is the semi-homemade Food Network "star" who makes all of her dishes with a surfeit of store bought, processed, MSG-loaded, frozen, unhealthy junk. Think Cool Whip, frozen pre-chopped onions, Cheez Whiz, Kraft anything, taco seasoning packets, cake mixes, and garlic in a jar. It's not that I have an inherent problem with shortcuts - everyone gets pressed for time - but not only is her food usually stomach-churning, she promotes the kind of self-satisfied laziness that revels in mediocrity and smirks at true effort.
That said, there are perversely entertaining aspects to her show, particularly "Cocktail Time," the only segment where she regularly (and copiously) tastes her own slop. In this segment, she dumps as much booze as she can find into a pitcher, gives the drink a name like Swamp Water or Hula Girl (for real) and sucks it down like she's a dehydrated Bedouin at the last desert oasis. This hopped-up harpy lives for cocktail time, and it's clear she's nearly always drunk. (Though on this point I must admit I live in a glass house.)
But as much fun as I have detesting her, lately my natural paranoia and self-doubt have begun to rear their ugly heads. I mean, it's fairly obvious I have no culinary training. I just like to cook. And while I don't rely on processed crap, (though I do have a weakness for Quorn brand vegetarian chicken products, as you'll see) and I'm pretty sure my dishes taste good, I second guess myself constantly and wonder: Am I as bad as Sandra Lee? Am I just a hack who's trying to pass herself off as a real cook?
I certainly can't afford culinary school, so I decided that I should attempt to teach myself some old-school skills, French style. I'm talking mother sauces, people. These are the sauces from which hundreds of other sauces can be concocted, and they require patience and technique - things I generally don't possess in abundance. The most basic mother sauce is a bechamel, a simple white milk-based sauce. From this, you can make a ton of yummy sauces, including a cheesy mornay sauce, which is typically served on fish and vegetables. Perfect! I figured, if I could pull off this relatively simple classical French cooking technique, I could quit worrying and go back to mocking Sandra Lee with a clear conscience.
It turns out, this sauce is totally do-able - the key is to practice it in a quiet kitchen with no distractions, when you're not trying to make anything else. You just need to concentrate and go into the zone. It also helps that I've made a roux for gumbos before, so that technique wasn't completely alien to me. I'm not saying that Jaques Pepin would give me a gold star for this, but for a first attempt I think my mornay sauce really turned out well: rich and creamy, with subtle notes of onion, gruyere cheese, and cheddar. It was the perfect complement to my steamed pattypan squash, but it would be great on just about any vegetable or mild fish such as sole. I'm already planning to make it again with more cheese and toss it with some gnocchi.
In doing recipe research, I learned that there are some variations in technique and ingredients - whether to use clove or nutmeg, when to take the sauce off the heat, whether or not to heat the milk, etc. - but this is what worked for me.
(yields about a cup and a half)
2 tpsb all purpose flour
2 tbsp organic unsalted butter
1 cup whole milk
1/2 small white onion (Note: many recipes call for either a clove-studded onion or a dash of freshly-grated nutmeg; I unfortunately had neither. Now I can really see how either one of these flavors would add an interesting note to the sauce. Next time!)
1/2 cup of grated hard cheeses (I used a combination of gruyere and sharp cheddar; parmesan is often used with gruyere. It definitely needs to be a hard cheese or it won't melt correctly and you won't get the right consistency.)
First, warm the milk in a saucepan (don't let it boil). Cover and set aside.
Melt the butter on low-medium heat.
Slowly add the flour, and whisk (with a wire whisk) constantly to integrate the flour and the butter. This is your roux. Here's the important part: you want to cook the roux just long enough that you've cooked off the raw flour taste, but not so long that your roux goes past the blonde phase and darkens. A few minutes should do the trick.
Turn off the heat (or, if you have a hideous evil cooktop like I do instead of a glorious gas stove, take the pan off of the heat altogether).
Add a very small amount of milk, whisking constantly. Add about half of the milk very, very slowly, and whisk constantly to avoid lumps.
Put the sauce back on low heat, continuing to add the milk slowly, while whisking constantly.
Place the onion in the liquid, but keep stirring.
Let the sauce come to a gentle simmer, until it's thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon.
Take the sauce off of the heat and whisk in a pinch or 2 of salt and a pinch or 2 of white pepper; taste to make sure the seasoning is balanced.
Remove the onion and place the sauce back on low heat. (If you stopped right after you removed the onion you'd have a bechamel sauce. The addition of the cheese is what turns it into a mornay.)
Begin adding your grated cheese one tablespoon at a time, whisking continuously and making sure that the cheese melts completely before adding the next batch.
Once all of your cheese has melted, allow the sauce to simmer gently for a few moments, but keep stirring.
Eh voila! Mornay sauce!
If you're not going to serve it right away, pour it into a bowl and put plastic wrap or wax paper right on the liquid to prevent a skin from forming.
And that's it. If you burn it, just try again. If it tastes like flour, it means that you didn't cook your roux long enough. It's worth working on this until you get it right - it's a truly versatile sauce and it's really pretty simple once you get the hang
of it. I drizzled mine on steamed pattypan squash because we got some in our CSA haul that week. I cooked them in a steamer with a little tarragon, salt and pepper, and sliced them horizontally so you could still see their cute flying-saucer shape. I served them with wilted arugula tossed with olive oil and garlic. On top of the arugula, I plopped a Quorn brand vegetarian "chicken" cutlet that was stuffed with goat cheese and cranberries, but if fake meat isn't your thing, some goat cheese and cranberries on top of the arugula would have been plenty good in place of the vegetarian vessel.