Monday, March 17, 2008

Culinary Improv & Cream Sauces

Learning to "wing it" when you cook is an important skill. Not only can it cut down cooking time, but when done properly, it also requires you to master the finer principles of cooking - pairing flavors, learning basic culinary techniques, thinking creatively about food. I'm not very good at it myself but I'm learning. Rarely does the resulting product warrant praise, so I want to share one of my few improv victories - a tasty cream sauce with artichokes and lemon pepper.

The inspiration for this concoction? 45 minutes to make a meal, a bag of penne in the cupboard, and two lemons about to spoil in my fridge. Nothing especially poetic. Let's also toss in the fact that it's citrus season and I'm generally a fan of making food with seasonal relevance. And that sauces, I've discovered, are quick and easy and can make a boring meal delicious and elegant. They're a fast way to jazz up frozen meats or pasta into a meal worth eating at a proper table with a glass of wine.

So on to this delicious cream sauce. I can't claim it's healthy, but it's pretty tasty. The recipe is below. But first, a few of my observations on sauce making technique. For one, shallots and butter and maybe a touch of garlic or other bulby flavors (like onions or leeks) are a good starting point to just about any sauce. Especially if you're making one with cream, where the flavors are often pretty light and delicate, this first step can add a nice depth of flavor. Next, simmering your cream is important but don't let it simmer for two long or you can seriously over-thicken your sauce. I actually like to cut my cream with low fat milk, which helps make the sauce thinner.

Ingredients
2 tbspn butter
1/4 pint heavy cream
1/4 pint low fat milk
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
3 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 can artichokes, drained and diced
2 tbspn thyme, finely chopped
1 tbspn sage, finely chopped
lemon zest from 1 large lemon
1-2 tbspn capers
5 tbspn grated parmesan cheese
2 tbspn crushed black pepper
salt to taste

Directions
1. Melt butter over medium heat, add shallots and brown. 1 minute later, add garlic.
2. Add cream and milk and raise to a simmer, stirring constantly
3. Add diced artichokes, sage and thyme, and pepper
4. After 1-2 minutes, add lemon zest
5. Continue simmering for 6-7 minutes, stirring often so sauce does not stick and burn
4. Add capers and parmesan cheese. Reduce heat.
5. Continue simmering until sauce reaches your desired thickness.
6. Salt to taste and serve over pasta, chicken breasts, etc.

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