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A successful stew, stew/cook, or solo stew understands food preparation and presentation. As a stew, our relationship with the chef and guests is improved when we know the basics of cooking techniques, ingredients and timing.
Anyone who has worked in a restaurant understands the importance of timing and correctly describing the plates set in front of guests. The chef depends on us to describe the food and answer questions the guests may have. On a yacht, we are the eyes and ears for the chef once the plates leave the galley.
My first job on a yacht was as crew cook. I cooked for 12 crew and when the owners came or when we chartered, I became the sous chef. I had the opportunity to work with some fantastic chefs and learn classic cooking techniques. I cleaned and peeled tons of produce, washed a gazillion pots and pans, and swept and washed the floor at least twice a day. I helped with provisioning and prepping. I also stirred a lot of sauces.
Many of the dishes prepared on yachts today rely on fresh ingredients and flavors without much reliance on sauces, but it is good to understand what the classics are and why they are important.
Sauces add flavor, texture and visual appeal. For example, a rich, creamy veloute complements a delicate chicken dish, rounds out the flavor, and adds velvety texture. Certain herbs and spices enhance the flavors of foods, too. Tarragon works well with pork, and the peppercorns in a classic Steak au Poivre dish deepen the overall richness of the beef.
Sauces add moisture to lean meats, fish and poultry dishes. They replace liquids lost using techniques that dry food out, such as grilling and sautéing.
Presentation is everything, as they say, and the proper sauce can really add visual appeal by adding elements of color that accentuate the food and make it look more appealing. They enhance a dish with complementing or contrasting flavor and adding different textures.
Traditionally, there are five mother sauces and three techniques in French cooking. They serve as the starting point for many other classic sauces. Simple ingredients (butter, flour, and liquid) and three easy techniques (a roux, a reduction and an emulsifier) are the building blocks.
Besides adding flavor, sauces should be thick and stable so that they will cling to the foods with which they are served. Many rely on a roux, which is formed by cooking equal parts of butter and flour over medium heat before adding liquid. The longer you cook the butter and flour, the darker the sauce becomes.
A béchamel or veloute uses a white or blond roux to keep the finished product light-colored. The mixture boils, then thickens, and becomes the base of the sauce. Here are the basics of the five main sauces:
* Béchamel is a roux with dairy as the liquid, usually milk or cream. This is the base of macaroni and cheese, and lasagna. It can be altered with variations such as different cheeses, soy or miso, for example.
* Veloute is a roux with white stock, traditionally chicken, vegetable or fish. It is not considered a “finished sauce” but is the starting point for some gravies, dishes such as chicken pot pie and soups such as seafood bisque.
* Espagnole is a darker roux with brown stock such as beef or veal. Beef stock and deglazed bits from beef bones are used. Tomato paste and spices are then added. The famous French brown sauce, demi-glace, adds more beef stock, and can be used to create a Bordelaise sauce that contains red wine with herbs.
* Tomato is technically roux combined with tomatoes, but for many, our first contact with a tomato sauce is with marinara, a tomato reduction that contains onions and garlic and is served over pasta. Let’s not forget Creole sauce, pizza sauce, mole and enchilada sauces, along with good old ketchup.
* Hollandaise is made with egg yolks and clarified melted butter plus acid, such as lemon juice. The egg yolk acts as an emulsifier to bind the butter and lemon juice together. The classic Eggs Benedict sauce is time consuming, and preparation is meticulous. The mixture must be “tempered” to keep it from curdling. It can really throw the chef off guard when someone orders it unexpectedly. (Note, this does not apply to the Hollandaise sauce that comes out of a packet.) Aioli and mayonnaise are close cousins.
These classic French sauces might seem outdated to some, but you have undoubtedly consumed them often. They are versatile and can form the base for many flavor combinations. Other types of sauces combine different liquids and thickeners. Romesco sauce is made with red peppers and almonds, kormas uses yogurt and spices, and curries combine fresh ingredients and spice with chili paste. Fruit and vegetable coulis add a burst of flavor and color.
Understanding sauce ingredients, structure and the care that goes into them will help stews present food to guests in a more professional manner and increase their dining pleasure. And this knowledge will endear us to most chefs.
Alene Keenan is lead instructor of yacht interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale. She shares her experience from more than 20 years as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht”, available at www.yachtstewsolutions.com. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.