The Larder TM_TL_BECHA_FI_001

So many of my foundational food lessons came from family members. My grandma Bunny taught me about meringues, while my other grandmother showed me how to shove slivers of garlic into roast beef to enhance the flavor. My mom is responsible for my everyday food knowledge (along with my basic canning skills) and my dad shared everything he knew about fried eggs, pancakes, waffles and the art of the chocolate chip cookie.

I wish I could tell you that I learned to make béchamel and cheese sauces from an aunt or a kindly neighbor, but sadly, the truth is that all the credit for that particular skillset goes to Rachael Ray, circa 2002.

In recent years, it has become popular to malign Rachael, but in the early days of her show, when I was hungry to learn more about home cooking, her easy teaching style was just what I needed. One of the most valuable lessons I took from her was how to make béchamel sauce.

Béchamel is one of the classic French “mother sauces.” It has a number of variations, but in my experience, it works best to begin with equal parts butter and all-purpose flour. You melt the butter and then whisk in the flour. This combination is known as a roux. You allow the roux to cook for just a couple of minutes, until it puffs and is on the verge of developing a very light golden color (béchamel is also known as white sauce, so you don’t want to let it get too dark).

Once the roux is ready, you add small amounts of milk, whisking each addition in until absorbed. Once all the milk has been incorporated, you have a thick, velvety blank slate that is ready to lend its smooth texture to any number of recipes.

It is what makes vegetable gratins taste sweet and creamy. It can transform pureed vegetable soups into something luscious without a drop of heavy cream. For homemade mac and cheese, whisk grated sharp cheddar into the sauce. And, if you happen to have a member of your household who longs for the melty qualities of Velveeta, stir yellow cheddar in béchamel for a cheese sauce that drizzle over chips just like the fake stuff.

Pasta and Cheese

Ingredients

  • 8 ounce short pasta, like cavatappi, rigatoni or macaroni
  • salt for pasta water
  • 1/2 onion, minced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 4 ounces grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese

Instructions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it well and cook the pasta until it is tender, but still has a slight bite.

While the water heats and the pasta cooks, place a small frying pan over medium-high heat and add olive oil. When the oil shimmers, add the minced onion and reduce heat. Cook until onions are soft and golden brown.

When pasta is finished cooking, reserve one cup of the pasta water and drain. Place pasta in a two-quart ovenproof.

In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add flour and whisk to incorporate. Let the butter and flour mixture cook, whisking regularly, until it has browned slightly and becomes slightly puffy after each round of stirring. Add a small amount of milk and whisk to combine. It will thicken rapidly. Continue adding milk and whisking to combine until all the milk is incorporated.

Add onions, grated cheese, salt, and nutmeg and stir until combined. Remove cheese sauce from the heat and pour over the pasta in the baking dish. Carefully stir a few times to ensure that all the pasta is coated with the sauce.

Stir the bread crumbs and parmesan cheese together and spread evenly over the top of the sauced pasta. Bake at 350° F until the top is browned and the cheese sauce bubbles at the edges.

Serves 4-6 people as a side dish.

Nachos

Ingredients

For the cheese sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3 ounces grated yellow cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup drained chunky salsa
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Makings:

  • 1 bag sturdy tortilla chips
  • Salsa
  • Pickled jalapenos
  • Black beans
  • Sour cream

Instructions

In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add flour and whisk to incorporate. Let the butter and flour mixture cook, whisking regularly, until it has browned slightly and becomes slightly puffy after each round of stirring. Add a small amount of milk and whisk to combine. It will thicken rapidly. Continue adding milk and whisking to combine until all the milk is incorporated.

Add grated cheese and stir until it is melted. Remove from heat and add salsa and salt and stir until just combined.

Fill a medium-sized serving dish with a layer of chips. Pour nacho cheese over the top. Garnish with more salsa, pickled jalapenos, black beans and sour cream. Serve immediately.

Note: For parties, I like to double this recipe and put the cheese sauce in a small Crock-Pot to keep it warm. Place on the buffet alongside a bowl of chips and invite your guests to dip.

Cauliflower Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 large onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 head cauliflower, chopped
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Instructions

In a medium soup pot (4 quarts or larger), heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add onions and cook for 4-5 minutes, until they start to brown slightly. Add the garlic and chopped cauliflower and stir. Once you smell the garlic, add the stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and place a lid on the pot. Let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender.

While the cauliflower cooks, prepare the béchamel sauce.

In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add flour and whisk to incorporate. Let the butter and flour mixture cook, whisking regularly, until it has browned slightly and becomes slightly puffy after each round of stirring. Add a small amount of milk and whisk to combine. It will thicken rapidly. Continue adding milk and whisking to combine until all the milk is incorporated.

Remove from heat and add salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Once the cauliflower is tender, puree until smooth (an immersion blender is the easiest, because it doesn’t require that you transfer the soup). Add the béchamel and blend again, to incorporate (this makes for an extra smooth soup, because you’ve ensured that any lumps in the béchamel are removed). Taste and adjust seasoning.

Makes 8 1-cup servings.

Comments

  1. Cathy says:

    My mom used bechamel in her lasagna and my dad used it for chipped beef on toast. That pretty much sums up my entire childhood.

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