Simple and assertive, a new generation of sauces is commanding attention at the table.
This article first appeared in the 1 December 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
Today, however, Briwa, a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus in St. Helena, Calif., believes that although classic French sauces-béchamel, velouté, espagnole-provide a historical context that is crucial in culinary education, students also need to become fluent in global cuisines in which curry, vinaigrette and salsa verde play leading roles.
"The model of sauce making is turned on its head when you consider world cuisine," Briwa says. "We're not always] looking for refined texture. We're looking for something more rustic, satisfying and honest."
As American chefs glean ideas from Europe and far beyond, they're not only adopting ethnic sauces as their own but also reinterpreting recipes for classic sauces. By doing so, they are opening up dishes to bolder, more assertive flavors.
The following examples-mayonnaise, chimichurri, vinaigrette, barbecue and romesco-demonstrate some of the ways in which sauces are being showcased on contemporary menus. Served by the spoonful, not the ladleful, these sauces add dimension to dishes by imparting acidity or texture, sweetness or saltiness. But their best asset might be their ease of preparation: Many can be made in a matter of minutes.
"What has happened is that cooks have gotten better and ingredients have improved," Briwa says. "The role of a sauce is no longer to mask something that's not that good or to fix something that's wrong. Instead, [a sauce is] an expression of creativity."
|[Herbed Mayonnaise >>](http://www.rimag.com/recipe/1979-Herbed_Mayonnaise.php?q=Herbed+Mayonnaise) [Chimichurri >> ](http://www.rimag.com/recipe/1978-Chimichurri.php?rssid=20716&q=Chimichurri)[Salted Black Bean and Lime Vinaigrette >>](http://www.rimag.com/recipe/1980-Salted_Black_Bean_and_Lime_Vinaigrette.php?q=Salted+Black+Bean+and+Lime+Vinaigrette) [Beet Tzatziki >> ](http://www.rimag.com/recipe/1782-Beet_Tzatziki.php?q=Beet+Tzatziki)[Piquillo Peppers with Lemon Aioli >>](http://www.rimag.com/recipe/126-Piquillo_Peppers_with_Lemon_Aioli.php?q=Piquillo+Peppers+with+Lemon+Aioli) [Blackberry Barbecue Sauce >>|
Long relegated to the role of sandwich spread, classic mayonnaise-a French emulsified sauce of oil, egg yolk and vinegar or lemon juice-and its garlicky cousin, aÁ¯oli, now are being spooned over plates, accompanying everything from roasted baby beets at The Publican in Chicago to grilled swordfish and squid at Scampo in Boston. For chefs, the sauce has plenty to offer: It's creamy; it's easy to make, and-unlike hollandaise-it holds its emulsion.
Although Mark Fuller, chef and owner of Spring Hill in Seattle, doesn't use a large number of sauces on his menu, he puts house-made mayonnaise to work in multiple ways. "It's about adding richness and fat to something that might not otherwise have it," he explains.
Spiked with chiles, a thick mayonnaise accompanies Spring Hill's Dungeness crab as a dipping sauce. Seasoned with chervil, chives and parsely, a thin mayonnaise is drizzled over Manila clams in a stew made with tomatoes and housemade razor-clam sausage.
Both renditions are straightforward: Fuller blends neutral-flavored rice oil with egg yolks, Champagne vinegar, lemon juice and water. For the thinner sauce spooned over the clams, he uses less oil. GET THE RECIPE
Whether the mayonnaise is thick or thin, Fuller exercises restraint when using it-or any other sauce-on his menu. "We never have more than one [sauce] on a plate," he says.
Classic French derivative sauces, such as béarnaise, are core menu items at BLT Steak in Washington, D.C. But Chef de Cuisine Victor Albisu's personal preference veers more toward rustic, ethnic sauces, like Argentinian chimichurri.
Similar to parsley-and-caper-filled salsa verde, which hails from Italy and Spain, chimichurri imparts brightness to meat, fish and vegetables via a combination of fresh and dried herbs and olive oil plus vinegar or lemon juice.
Chimichurri recipes also can be changed easily to suit personal preferences. Whereas more-traditional recipes combine chopped parsley with olive oil, vinegar, garlic and oregano, Albisu's also incorporates cilantro, piquillo peppers, minced Spanish onion and lime juice for a more-piquant flavor. If Abisu wants to add richness, he stirs chopped, rendered bacon, prosciutto or Serrano ham into the sauce.
Sean Brasel, executive chef of Meat Market in Miami Beach, Fla., includes chimichurri among 10 steak-sauce choices he offers guests. "It's a lighter sauce and a healthier approach to [serving] steak," he says.
Like Albisu, Brasel puts his own spin on chimichurri, swapping out standard parsley for a paste made from dark-red Peruvian aji panca peppers for one rendition and using mint, basil, paprika and shallots with oil and vinegar for another.
It's also a far cry from the sauces he made as a line cook. "In the '80s and '90s, you could reduce anything down, whip in butter and you had a sauce," he says. "Now everything is about pure, concentrated flavors."
In its most basic form, vinaigrette is one part vinegar to three parts oil. Yet for years chefs have taken liberties with the ratio and the ingredients, conjuring up flavors that span the globe, from a Mediterranean-inspired marjoram vinaigrette drizzled over orzo salad at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Conn. (a Sodexo account), to a Southwestern corn-and-lime vinaigrette paired with a cactus-poblano salad served by culinary students at The Dining Room, Kendall College's public restaurant in Chicago.
It's a tribute to the sauce's ease and accessibility. "With a vinaigrette, people think ‘light' and ‘refreshing,'" says Chris Rendell, chef de cuisine of Double Crown, a Euro-Asian restaurant in New York City.
At Double Crown, Rendell finishes an appetizer of seared yellowtail with salted black-bean-and-lime vinaigrette. To make it, he soaks plain (rather than seasoned) fermented black beans in water for 10 minutes to cut their saltiness and then mixes the beans and a bit of the soaking liquid with lime juice, vegetable oil, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, scallions and red onion. "It definitely adds zestiness," Rendell says of the vinaigrette. "The black bean gives it an earthy depth." It's also hearty enough to take a little heat if simmered briefly in a sauté pan. "It could easily transpire into a warm pan sauce," Rendell says.
Comprising almonds, bread, tomatoes, peppers, vinegar and garlic, this tangy rustic Spanish sauce is making inroads across the country. In Los Angeles, it complements chorizo-stuffed roast chicken at Lucques; at select units of Richmond Heights, Mo.-based Panera Bread, it accompanies turkey sandwiches. At Michael's Genuine Food and Drink in Miami, it is served in generous spoonfuls atop dry-roasted short ribs.
- "It's an Old World sauce that is really versatile," explains Michael Schwartz, chef and owner. "The ribs are smoky, subtle, but very rich, even without braising liquid. The romesco cuts through that with its acidity."
To make the sauce, Schwartz separately roasts beefsteak tomatoes, red peppers and Vidalia onions until tender. He combines them in a food processor with soaked, seeded guajillo chiles, Sherry vinegar, lemon juice, sourdough bread croutons, almonds, hazelnuts, a spoonful of harissa paste and black pepper. As the mixture purées, Schwartz drizzles in olive oil until the romesco is nearly smooth.
"We use lots and lots of olive oil," Schwartz says. "You achieve a creamy consistency when it's done right."
Be it Asian, Latin or all-American in flavor, barbecue sauce-traditionally a sweet, tangy basting sauce made with onions, garlic, tomato, sugar and vinegar-resonates with consumers. From 2007 to 2009, it jumped from sixth to fourth place among operators' top 10 most-menued sauces, placing it just below mayonnaise, meat sauce and tomato sauce, according to Chicago-based market-research firm Mintel.
Ted Stoner, director of strategic product development for Wheat Ridge, Colo.-based Qdoba Mexican Grill, realized the power of the term two years ago, when he rechristened Qdoba's underperforming mole sauce as Ancho Chile Barbecue sauce. Interest in the condiment-which is made with chiles, chocolate and sesame seeds and featured on the Ancho Chile BBQ burrito and sold as an add-on-grew dramatically.
At upscale Asian hotspot Buddakan in New York City, barbecue sauce has a benefit beyond flavor: ease of use. "You can make it ahead of time, and it's going to be consistently good," says Lon Symensma, executive chef.
Symensma employs several Asian-style barbecue sauces, from a basic hoisin-based rendition to a sweet-sour tamarind sauce, to do everything from marinate meat and glaze ribs to season lo mein noodles. He also likes to drizzle barbecue sauces into red-hot woks to give slices of thin, Asian-cut short ribs an even, caramelized sear.
The key to creating a knockout barbecue sauce, Symensma says, is to strike a balance of spice, salt, bitterness and sweetness. For example, for the tamarind barbecue sauce that he uses with a crab noodle dish, Symensma cooks shallots and garlic until they are nearly burned for a toasted, bitter flavor and then blends them with several additional ingredients: palm sugar for sweetness; Chinese red vinegar, lime juice and tamarind for bitterness; soy for saltiness; and coriander seeds, cloves and bird's-eye chiles for spiciness.
"Building sauces in Asian cuisine is less about foundational cooking and more about being a mixologist," Symensma says. "You can decide: Do you want it sweeter? Spicier?"