YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A silky classic, in the flick of a wrist

October 11, 2006|Amy Scattergood | Times Staff Writer

PITY the poor saucier. Though the position of maker-of-sauces has been, since Escoffier, near the top of the kitchen brigade hierarchy, often the sauces themselves go unsung. Unlisted on menus, taken for granted alongside bigger-name items (pan-seared duck! roasted wild salmon!), they're often relegated to the decorative side of a dish or tucked under the marquee ingredients.

But from such marginalized outposts, what beauty can be discovered; what subtle flavors can be discerned.

Take the classic beurre blanc sauce: a velvety, delicate butter sauce that originated in Nantes, France, on the Loire River, and was traditionally paired with poached fish. Subtle in flavor and ethereal in texture, it's a warm lemon-colored sauce, lightly aromatic, with a faint hint of brine lacing the creamy butteriness. It's an old sauce, but it came into its own during the heyday of nouvelle cuisine 30 years ago, when chefs began favoring it over the heavier roux-based sauces of the old French kitchens. Since then, it's become part of the standard repertoire, a staple in many a restaurant kitchen. Yet we rarely hear of it -- maybe because it doesn't have the cachet of a jus or a coulis.

"It's not cutting edge anymore," says Campanile's Mark Peel. "We use it all the time, but we don't necessarily advertise it as such. We don't want to make the menu look like the back of a soup can."

Sona's David Myers is more effusive. "I love beurre blancs; I love the flavors; I love the richness. It's one of those classics that always comes back: It's a canvas. It can lend itself to anything." And Water Grill's David Lefevre notes that the sauce is another example of the kind of "retro resurgence" we're seeing now (though it never really went away).

So what exactly is it? Beurre blanc is a simple emulsion -- a synthesis of a reduction of shallots, wine and vinegar, and a goodly amount of butter. And by goodly amount, I mean a lot, which might be why it's often not prominently announced in restaurants these days. But butter, as anyone who watched Julia Child's TV shows will remember, is a heavenly thing. Added (or mounted, as they say) to sauces and reductions, it's the difference between ordinary, flat, sometimes overly acidic or watery concoctions and smooth, balanced, silken creations.

When paired with a main dish that can stand, or even demands, a rich sauce, -- poached fish or a grilled steak -- a good butter sauce can be the key to a deeply satisfying, luscious experience.

The balance of the emulsion (part acidic reduction, part pure butter) is also what gives beurre blanc its glossy essence -- and its charm. Not unlike a hollandaise or an aioli, it's the fusion of a component that's almost pure flavor, with one that's pure fat. Alone, either is too much. But fused together, it's a marriage made in Child's own special quadrant of heaven.

So why don't people make them more often? Maybe because we're all a little wary of butter these days. But a little beurre blanc seriously satisfies an urge for richness -- and the rest of the menu can take a leaner tack.

For a sauce that yields a total of one cup, two sticks of unsalted butter seem to work the best. OK, that's half a pound of the lovely stuff, but consider that recipes from the '60s -- Julia Child's, for example, called for a full pound whisked into the same amount of liquid.

You can use less than 8 ounces of butter; the emulsion will still hold, and it will be a serviceable sauce if you use as little as 4 ounces. Use less than that, though, and you'll have a thin acidic liquid rather than a real sauce. Or you can go up to the full pound -- but why? Eight ounces seem to strike the perfect balance in flavor, as well as achieve the right texture: thick and creamy, a sauce that coats the back of your spoon the way it should.


Not so fragile

PERHAPS another reason few home cooks make beurre blanc is its reputation. It was long considered to be terribly fragile, a sauce only the most skilled saucier could make. Cookbooks warned that the butter had to be ice cold, added in tiny increments, the nubs swirled in delicately and with, one assumes, sotto voce prayers to the necessary kitchen gods.

Los Angeles Times Articles