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Bert Greene's Kitchen

Easily Made Bechamel Sauce Is Simply Superior to Canned Soup

October 02, 1986

The dirtiest name you can call a dedicated food writer is a snob.

To escape that epithet, I and many other members of my profession will try any number of recipes, eat practically anything set before us without quibble, and willingly test thousands of products on the market--including those that are promised to be calorie-less, time-saving or just plain healthier. Often, I must add, with less than tonic effects on our psyches and taste buds but always with hopes that we will uncover some ingredient or technique that merits honest praise.

That disclaimer stated, I must confess that in certain views I will be construed as snobbish. I absolutely cannot use a can of condensed soup (mushroom, chicken, asparagus) as thickening agent or sauce even when the recipe in which the ingredient is called for seems exemplary in every other way.

My reasons for that are neither aesthetic nor historical. The truth of the matter is, I was reared on those scarlet-topped convenience tins. And, like most of my generation at the stove, I held the can opener in high esteem, particularly if a tuna casserole or a dish of creamed leftover turkey was to be on the menu.

You may ask, when and how did I become so highfalutin, as my late mother would have put it. The answer is: I never did. I simply bartered a little leisure time away from the stove for a great deal of culinary pleasure behind it.

A Kitchen Conscience

Learning to cook well, I also outgrew food additives that seemed to mask real flavor. Along with skills, I developed a kitchen conscience and it became apparent that a 10 3/4-ounce container of condensed soup with a mile-long ingredient list per can is neither particularly good to eat nor good for one's health.

I have no desire to wean America away from condensed soup; I've even been known to sample a spoonful on occasion when I am too sick to cook a meal. But that stuff is simply no substitute for a simple white sauce, or to call it by its rightful name, a bechamel sauce, when a dish needs body.

Devised of butter, flour, broth and milk or cream, a bechamel sauce can be made from scratch in five minutes, which is less time than it takes to read the fine print on the back of a soup can label.

The following recipe is an old-time family bequest passed along to me by a reader. It called for condensed soup as part of the ingredient list, which I removed without guilt.

In my opinion, Clara B. Less of Dearborn, Mich., probably is one of the great unheralded cooks in the nation. A reader who became a pen pal, she has sent me innumerable recipes that have been printed in this column and other places.

Her splendid, healthful dish arrived with a comment: "I know you hate cream of mushroom soup, but the dish is delicious." No question about it--and more delicious yet with a homemade blanket of bechamel sauce with mushrooms.

CLARA B. LESS' GREAT GRAIN-STUFFED CABBAGE

2 ounces salt pork, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

1 cup long grain rice

1 cup roasted kasha

2 tablespoons barley

Salt, pepper

2 cups water

1 large head cabbage (about 3 pounds), leaves separated

1 1/2 pounds meat loaf mixture (beef, pork and veal)

1 egg

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Bechamel Sauce With Mushrooms

Cook salt pork over medium heat in medium saucepan until lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Add onion. Cook until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Stir in rice, kasha, barley, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and water. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 10 minutes. Cool.

Meanwhile, cook cabbage leaves in boiling water until just tender, about 1 minute. Rinse under cold running water and drain. Pat dry with paper towels.

Combine meat loaf mixture in large bowl with egg, parsley, cooled grain mixture and season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix well.

Fill cabbage leaves generously with meat mixture and roll up. Place in large, shallow, lightly greased baking dish. Chop any remaining cabbage and place around and between cabbage rolls. Spoon Bechamel Sauce With Mushrooms over top. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees 1 1/2 hours. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Bechamel Sauce With Mushrooms

1/4 cup unsalted butter

12 ounces mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped

3 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup whipping cream or half and half

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute mushrooms until golden brown, about 5 minutes.

Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in flour. Cook, stirring constantly, 2 minutes. Whisk in chicken stock and cream. Cook until thick, whisking occasionally, about 8 minutes. Stir in mushrooms. Makes about 2 1/4 cups.

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