I am realizing, as I continue this sauce project, how few of the sauces I’m examining are used “as-is.” Most, including this month’s velouté – the last of the flour-thickened sauces I’ll explore (next month we move on to eggs. I’m scared!) – are made as a base. They are, after all, “mother” sauces, so called not just because they are quite common, but because they are literally mothers: foundations that give birth to more complex sauces.
Velouté is very similar to béchamel, with the exception that here the roux (butter and flour cooked together) thickens a stock or broth, not milk. The stock in question is most commonly chicken or fish stock, which also tells you with which products it is most frequently served. To be technically correct, the stock or broth is supposed to be “white,” that is, made with bones that have not been previously roasted. However, I wasn’t about to make a special batch of stock just for this application, so I dug into my freezer and emerged with some icy golden goodness I’d made from roasting a chicken some months ago. Not exactly traditional (I so rarely am, after all), but manageable for our purposes.
Recipes for velouté vary slightly on particulars. Some begin with mire poix (a French vegetable base consisting of diced onions, carrots, and celery), some recommend herbal accompaniments, some advocate finishing the sauce with a splash of cream, and the quantities of salt and pepper a cook should add differ depending on whose authority you accept. Some recommend adding heated stock to the roux, some call for the roux to be plopped into the heated stock. Either way, you essentially make a roux, combine it with the stock, whisk assertively to banish lumps, and settle in for a long, slow simmer during which time the sauce reduces, thickens, and develops flavor. Velouté means “velvet,” and when your sauce is done simmering you will understand why: it is so silky and fluidly pourable and soft. Mine was a pale matte gold, not quite thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, but sufficiently concentrated to pour in a solid stream rather than a liquid dribble. It smelled incredible – rich and meaty and flavorful – like midafternoon on Thanksgiving, the first time you open the oven to let the turkey aroma escape.
Yet for all its depth of flavor, prolonged cooking time, and high heritage, I couldn’t help but feel comforted by this sauce. There is something fundamentally homey and familiar about it. I realize Escoffier, the father of modern French cooking, will roll over in his grave when I write this, but it’s basically a simple gravy.
In restaurants, it was traditional to have a pot of velouté simmering away, ready to be dipped into to create more complex sauces and flavor bases. I wanted to keep things simple and pure, though, to really understand the sauce and its flavor, so I only made a slight adjustment.
I’ve got two recipes for you. This week, I’m celebrating velouté for its simplicity. Next week I’ll share a preparation that turns this rich, velvety sauce into something a bit more complex, but superbly tasty and comforting.
For the first, capitalizing on velouté’s similarity to a simple poultry gravy, I considered meals that incorporate such a familiar staple, and ended up with a sort of blue plate special: crispy chicken cutlet, buttery smashed potatoes, and lightly steamed green beans.
I often try to trace my thought process as I put dishes together, since the influences I’m incorporating aren’t always obvious. One of the derivatives of velouté is called sauce allemande, which includes egg yolk and mushrooms added near the end of the cooking time. To give this a nod, I decided to incorporate sautéed mushrooms to my sauce. Leery of the egg yolk idea, though, I transferred it to my chicken instead, dusting the breasts with flour and then dipping them in beaten egg before giving them a crisp coating. The mushrooms reminded me of my mom’s rice pilaf, which includes sautéed mushrooms and toasted almonds. Almonds seemed like a good pairing for the chicken, so I chopped them fine and combined them with panko. Almonds are equally nice with green beans, as are mushrooms, so the dish was starting to look cohesive, especially once I imagined my fragrant sauce kissing the whole thing.
Deep and rich thanks to its prolonged simmer, and silky smooth from the flour granules just bursting with all that liquid, this velouté made me realize why the judges on Chopped (don’t laugh, it’s my favorite guilty pleasure show) are always on about how important it is to have a sauce accompanying your dish. This enhanced all of the existing flavors on our plates. I kept going back for different combinations: sauce with chicken, chicken and sauce with potatoes, potatoes and sauce with green beans. All good. It really, as the Dude might have put it, tied the dish together.
Makes about 2 cups
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups chicken stock or broth
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup sliced, sautéed mushrooms
- Heat the broth or stock in a medium saucepan until it comes to the barest simmer.
- In a small skillet, melt the butter. When it is just melted, sprinkle in the flour and immediately combine with a whisk. I find sprinkling the flour around the skillet, rather than dumping it all in one place, makes for easier combining.
- Cook the butter and flour together for a minute or two, whisking the whole time, until it takes on the consistency of a loose paste. You’ve now made a blond roux – minimal color, but maximum thickening power.
- Either scrape the roux directly into the warm stock, or pour the stock slowly into the pan with the roux. Either way, whisk constantly to prevent clumping.
- Simmer over low to medium-low heat for 30-45 minutes, whisking frequently to break up any lingering clumps or surface residue, until the liquid is slightly thickened, rich, and smells meaty. During this time, it will reduce by about a cup, leaving you with approximately two cups of sauce. You really do need to cook it for this long to achieve the desired consistency and depth of flavor.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Just before serving, stir in the sliced, sautéed mushrooms and warm through.
Sauce Velouté with “Blue Plate Special”
2 chicken breast cutlets (thin cuts of boneless, skinless chicken breasts)
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon garlic powder
1 cup panko bread crumbs
½ cup sliced almonds, finely chopped
Olive oil, to cook chicken
2 large Yukon gold potatoes
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup heavy cream
½ pound green beans, stem ends trimmed
1 recipe velouté with mushrooms
Additional salt and pepper to taste
For the chicken:
- First, set up a breading station. I like to use two large plates and a pie pan for this. On one of the plates, combine the flour, salt, pepper, and garlic powder and spread it out to cover the entire plate. If you want additional or different spices, this is your chance to personalize. On the other plate, combine the panko and almonds. Sprinkle some salt and pepper in there as well, if you wish, and again, spread the mixture out for even coverage. In the pie pan, crack the egg and beat it up with a fork. Set these out in order: flour, egg, breading (see above photographs for reference).
- Preheat the oven to 300F so that the cutlets can stay warm while you cook other elements of the dinner. Place a baking tray with a wire cooling rack on it in the middle of the oven.
- Now, take a look at your cutlets. We want them no thicker than ½ an inch so they can cook quickly without burning the almonds in the breading. If they are that thin, great. Skip to the next step. If they are thicker, we need to pound them out. To do this, place one cutlet at a time in an unsealed plastic zip-top bag, or just wrap it loosely in plastic wrap. With a meat mallet, a rolling pin, or a heavy saucepan, pound the chicken by beating it with steady, forceful hits that push toward the outer edges of the breast. In other words, you’re not just punching straight down. You’re striking at a slight angle, from the middle toward the outer edges, which helps the meat spread without tearing.
- When your chicken breasts are evenly ½ an inch thick, it’s time to bread them. Working one at a time, dredge the cutlet in the seasoned flour, pressing it with your fingers to ensure even coating. Flip it over and dredge the other side. Repeat with the egg, then with the panko and almonds, again being sure you press it in firmly to help the breading adhere.
- Heat a good slick of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Once it is glistening, add the first cutlet, placing it down in the middle of the pan and then not moving it for four minutes.
- After four minutes – no cheating! – peek at the underside of the cutlet. The breading should be golden and crisp but not burned, and thanks to being left undisturbed, not peeling and crumbling off the chicken! Flip the cutlet and sizzle on the other side for another four minutes until cooked through and crisp.
- While you are cooking this cutlet, dredge and bread the second one.
- When the first cutlet is golden brown and crisp on both sides, carefully move it from the skillet to your prepared, preheated oven tray. It is already fully cooked (at least it should be, if you’ve pounded it to a true ½ inch), so this will keep it warm and crispy until both pieces are done.
- Repeat this cooking process with the second cutlet. If you need more time to prepare the rest of dinner, as I always do, these will hold in the warm oven for 15 minutes or so. You don’t want to go much longer than that, lest they dry out, but I was delighted by how moist ours still were.
For the potatoes:
- Cut the potatoes into small, even sized chunks – the smaller you cut them, the faster they will cook. Plop them into a pot with plenty of salted water, then cover and set over high heat.
- Bring the water to a boil, and cook, stirring once or twice if the water threatens to boil over, until the potato chunks are fork-tender. Depending on how small you’ve cut your potatoes, this could take anywhere from 10-20 minutes.
- When the potatoes are done, drain into a colander and set aside.
- Place the pot back on the stove over medium-low heat and add the butter and cream.
- As the butter melts and the cream heats, put the drained potato chunks back into the pot and stir to combine. Using a potato masher or the determined back of a spoon, smash up the potatoes to your desired consistency. I like mine just a little chunky, with the thin skins still in there. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
For the green beans:
- Heat a pan of salted water to a simmer.
- Add the beans, stem ends trimmed, and simmer for 3-4 minutes, or until they reach your desired tenderness. We like them crisp-tender.
- Drain the green beans, then return to the empty pan over medium heat with a slick of olive oil or a small knob of butter. Cook, tossing occasionally to distribute the fat, for a minute or two.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice or a tiny splash of white wine if desired.
- Consider your plate like a clock face. Position a scoop of mashed potatoes at 9 o’clock. Lay the green beans out in a curved little stack along the top few hours: let’s say 11-1. Now, lay the chicken breast partially atop the mashed potatoes, angling it from 9 down to 5.
- Pour the warm, mushroom-spiked velouté over the chicken and the potatoes, so it slides and settles, gravy-like. Serve immediately to retain the crispness of the chicken coating.