Making love to food

If your aim is to make French cooking fast and easy, you’re barking up the wrong tree. French cooking is a love affair with food, and the essential ingredients of any love affair are patience and total involvement. When was the last time anybody ever saw a book on how to make love as quickly and easily as possible? French cuisine, like making love, is an art, and art is long and time-consuming.

There is no surer way to understand French cooking than to make classic brown sauce, Chef Antonin Carême’s brown stock-based Espagnole, the way it was designed to be made: from scratch. Espagnole is one of the “mother sauces” that form the basis for all French cuisine, along with white sauce Bechamel, light stock-based Veloute, Hollandaise, Mayonnaise and Vinaigrette. “Scratch” means just that, nothing out of a can or bottle. No pre-mixed spices or wonder concoctions like Old Bay..

Essentially, Espagnole is a thickened, flavor-enhanced homemade brown stock from beef or veal. You start by making your own stock the way Chef Careme intended, slowly and elegantly, a lengthy and expensive process. (Remember, among other things French cuisine is not cheap.)

Now begins the miraculous alchemy of turning your stock into the cuisine of the masters, using the simplest foods and fine French wine. In a sauce pan with a thick bottom you flavor your broth with a mirepoix of chopped carrots, celery and onion, bay leaf, parsley, thyme and wine. Then you begin the delicate process of reducing the liquid and intensifying the subtle tastes. You thicken it with a brown roux, stirring and worrying until it is just the right consistency and color, or as the chef would say, magnifique.

Here, in the words of Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, is a recipe from the master himself, metrics and all:

• 300g Butter
• 300g Flour
• 12L Brown stock
• 150g Pork (lean, unsalted pork breast or blanched bacon)
• 250g Carrot
• 150g Onion
• 1 small bunch Thyme
• 2 Bay leaf
• 100mL White wine
• 1L Tomato puree (optional)

Make a brown roux using the butter and flour. In the meantime bring 8 liters of the stock to a simmer. Combine with roux. Finely chop pork, carrots, and onions into 1/4-inch dice. Sweat pork until fat starts to render, then add the diced vegetables, thyme, and bay leaves; cook to soften vegetables. Deglaze with which wine and reduce by half. Add vegetables and wine reduction to thickened stock. Simmer for one hour. Strain to remove vegetables and add additional 2l of stock. Simmer two hours, then add remaining 2l of stock and optional tomato puree. Simmer for one additional hour, then strain through a fine cheesecloth.

To learn more about French sauces and haute cuisine, we recommend Julia Childs’ definitive Mastering the Art of French Cooking.