Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Mother of A Sauce

I didn't know why at the time, but all last week I got home from work craving comfort food (obviously, I was experiencing the beginnings of the massive cold that has kept me out of commission until today). Fortunately, I was able to get a few dishes out before my fever took hold completely. One of my favorite dishes to make when I'm feeling less than stellar is not surprisingly, a riff on something my mother used to make for me when I was little. She'd make a big batch of spaghetti and bathe it in a creamy béchamel sauce topped with small pieces of Spanish ham. Then she'd bake it in the oven until a light brown crust formed on the top. Back then, just hearing the serving spoon crack through the golden crust was enough cure any illness.

Because my oven should really have the words "easy bake" printed on the side, I decided to forgo the baking part and simply toss the sauce with the pasta. Spanish ham is sadly, way out of my budget, so I went with pancetta and peas (for a bit of sweetness) instead. As for the sauce, I did stick to béchamel, one of the five classic French "mother" sauces, along with Espagnole, Hollandaise, tomato, and velouté. It starts out with a roux, which is nothing more than warm butter thickened with flour. Then you slowly add in milk and whisk until you get exactly the thickness you're looking for. You would use exactly the same method to make mac and cheese from scratch, only you'd add in handfuls of cheese. Or you could substitute the milk with broth and make a mean gravy (which, p.s., you should always make from scratch--the stuff in the packets and jars is chock full of sodium).

The nice thing about béchamel is that it welcomes pretty much any flavor you throw at it, sweet or savory. I generally find that mixing a little bit of both gives you the best, most complex flavor. A little bit of nutmeg, a pinch of cayenne, and several grinds of pepper lend just the right amount of piquancy to what would otherwise be a smooth but bland sauce. You do want to be careful when salting though, since it takes a while for flavors to develop and distribute in creamy sauces. And speaking of creaminess, it has to be said that this sauce does not work with reduced fat milk. You must use whole milk or it just won't get the right body and consistency, and will ultimately fall flat. Also, I will personally show up at your house and give you an earful. Now, with that out of the way, here's how to make it for yourself:

Spaghetti with Béchamel, Pancetta and Peas

1/2 package spaghetti or capellini
1/2 cup pancetta (you can use bacon as a substitute)
2 1/2 Tbsp butter
2 1/2 Tbsp flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk (you may not need all of it)
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup frozen peas

1. In a medium sauté pan, cook pancetta until crispy. Remove from pan and set aside. Add butter to pan (you can leave the pancetta drippings) and melt on medium low heat.

2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta.

3. While the pasta cooks, add flour to sauté pan with butter and whisk until it thickens and browns a bit, about 2-3 minutes (make sure it does not burn). Once the flour smells nutty and loses it's raw flavor, slowly whisk in the milk, a half a cup at a time until you reach your desired thickness. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne pepper. Cook for a minute so flavors develop.

4. Add peas, pancetta and pasta to pan and cook until everything is combined and warmed through. Enjoy!



Gloria said...

Glad you're feeling better. This dish sounds AMAZING!

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