It is often said that the foundation of French cuisine is its sauces. This is something that I’ve come to appreciate more as I’ve aged. With my own cooking, I once spent a lot of time (over)working my core ingredients, and not enough time on my sauces. I now like to create dishes in which the core proteins are prepared with a lighter hand — especially if those products are of the highest quality — but then dressed with a flavourful and exciting sauce. A great sauce lifts a dish dramatically. A weak sauce can make what would have been a great dish fall flat.
One of my favourite base sauces is a beurre blanc. Much to my (very healthy) wife’s chagrin, I still tend to prefer creamy sauces. I’ve also (as I’ve matured as an eater) come to appreciate acid in foods and a well-made beurre blanc is a wonderful way to add flavour, acid, and a soft luxuriousness that lifts dishes. I also like that once you’ve mastered the base recipe, it is relatively easy to flavour your beurre blanc. Infuse your cream with dried porcini and you have a sinful mushroom beurre blanc. Add saffron and spices and give your sauce new nuances. Use red wine instead of white and you have a beurre rouge. Add your favourite emulsifier and blend and you have a lovely beurre blanc foam to give your dish a fine-dining aesthetic touch. You can even change the flavouring elements of the base recipe to create new flavour accents. The permutations are limitless once you get the basics down pat.
The recipe I’ve been using for years comes from Michael Mina The Cookbook. It’s a clear, concise and almost dummy-proof recipe (good for us hubbies with short attention spans and tempers). In the recipe, the kind of white wine and the kind of vinegar you use are left for you to choose. You should experiment with different kinds of both and see what you like best. It is very true that the better the quality of the wine (and vinegar) the better the sauce will be.
2 shallots, sliced
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 sprigs of flat-leaf parsley
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
salt and pepper
Combine the shallots, thyme, parsley, bay leaf, peppercorns, wine and vinegar in a 2 quart saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced to a little more than 1 tablespoon, 5 to 8 minutes.
Stir in the cream and continue to simmer until reduced slightly, 1 minute.
Reduce the heat to low and slowly whisk in the butter, 1 to 2 chunks at a time. Continue whisking until all of the butter has been incorporated, producing a creamy emulsified sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding the solids. Cover and keep warm.