“Whiskful Thinking” is a weekly column that explores the very Southern concept of food as a vehicle for history and storytelling. When recipes are included, each ingredient is a snapshot of time gone by, and the finished product conveys the spirit of that moment. “Whiskful Thinking” is written by Le Cordon Bleu graduate Jeremy Green.
It’s late night on a Friday, or early on a Saturday if you prefer. It’s been a busy shift at the restaurant I call home, and things went smoothly. New hostesses learned a little bit about how to manage the flow of service, and old hands got a work out. Feet are tired, wine is poured, and hearts are alternately heavy and light.
Although my monetary success was great tonight, my heart belongs to the heavy guild. I’m not sure why: the weight of life, of education, of what is to come? I think it also has something to do with the weight of passing years and passing time. Is there reason; is there rhyme? We are all just doing the best we can.
When I’m in a mood like this, a Lady Sings The Blues mood, I turn to my kitchen. Tired feet stand on hundred-year-old marble floors and try to find a center, a grounding. Yes, you know I go back to my Southern roots for comfort. But for order? I turn to France.
I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu an unspeakable amount of years ago. My admitting class was around fifty. Our graduating class was exactly seven. Those of us that made it for our various reasons hold that time close to our heart. It’s not the precious moments of sampling beluga, sevruga, and osetra caviar on pearl spoons in silver dishes in the Garde-Manger that I hold most dear. No, there is something akin to a jurisprudence of culinary art.
There are the Mother Sauces (isn’t it interesting that they are called Mothers?) that form the cadence of my life. There is never a time when I cannot smell the “doneness” of a wedding-white Bechamel. Over these years, I can smell when the roux is done, when the shallot and parsley is added. When the reduction is complete. It is to me as law is to another, as medicine is to others.
May I share with you a story? It’s not particularly Southern, although it happened in the South. It was in my days of externship (Le Cordon Bleu requires notoriously long, largely unpaid externships). We kitchen boys had in the morning hours roasted veal bones and were reducing down the resultant stock of marrow and mirepoix. I emerged from a walk in freezer with a handful of frozen raspberries just as a waitress came back into the kitchen. Her first question was “Are you eating raw hamburger?!”-her second comment was that “it smells brown back here. Yes, it did smell brown. It was the brown of roasted bones and roasted restaurant hearts, scorched personalities. Her comment, “it smells brown,” has always stuck with me. We were, in fact, making what in America is called Brown Sauce, and in France, Sauce Espagnol. It is that liquid added to dark roux and tomato paste, essentially. It is the formation for demi-glace, sauce champignon, and many others. That the waitress knew it so innately as “brown” spoke to me. It spoke to me of the difference of my people: these fluorescent lit, white clad, black clad, injured people compared to that of the general population. Brown Sauce is its own law. Brown sauce becomes soupe d’oignon, becomes any number of things. It is not the effect, but the sensation upon which I concentrate. I will never forget her, or that moment.
And Hollandaise? Dare we even speak her name, much less her derivatives, béarnaise, choron, mousseline? Hollandaise is to a cook (Julia Child always preferred being called a cook to a chef) what the perfect cerulean is to a painter. It is formulaic, spiritual, and personal. My Hollandaise is a combination of the Child method and the Cordon Bleu formula: I dump wayward ladles of butter into barely whisked eggs to create an initial balance. The formula does not fail. I can, and do, make it in my nightly wanderings in the world of dreams. Hollandaise is finesse, is fineness, is excellence.
You know, I was told a hundred years ago, “what a chef can do with an egg defines him for the rest of his life,” and I have taken that to heart. My Hollandaise is on point for this reason. If Brown Sauce is a code of conduct, hollandaise is the white wigged jury that grants it merit and veracity.
These. These are my touchstones. Yes, of course when my heart is weary and I need my momma, I make a squash casserole, or I make a roast the way she would. But when the world is falling apart, is too difficult to bear, I return to what can only be called Culinary Law. I return to those sauces.
I return to the proper sound of knives on boards. Did you know that knives should sound, as they chop through vegetables, simply like a sigh? There is no need for a cacophony, only the quiet swish-swish of German metal through produce, through meat. Through a life.
So this is behind the scenes of “Whiskful Thinking,” if you wish. This is what I do when nothing else is working. When the world is hard to carry and life seems disorderly. When there is need for an order that borders on religious.
I won’t leave you hanging, though. These same sauces didn’t stay in France. Yes, they were made for the courts of Europe, for Kings and Queens burdened with crowns of gems and metal-but they did not stay there. Like the great American migration, they have come along for the ride.
Sauce Béchamel has become the base for Etoufee (a treat more creole than truly Southern, perhaps). Hollandaise has become our mayonnaise, has become bases for unique potato salads. Hollandaise has been the sauce poured out to impress company since a lady first donned a watered satin dress and tried her best. And those Mother Sauces ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.
That’s what my regulation is. That is my order. Learn one, master one. You never know when it might come in handy when your own bare feet are chilled by old marble floors and your heart is heavy for reasons you can’t quite explain.
Here’s a recipe for my Hollandaise, and what you can do with it.
- 2 egg yolks
- 1tablespoon water
- 1tablespoon fresh lemon juice (I use much more)
- 6 -8 ounces unsalted butter, two ounces cold, the rest melted.
- Dash Cayenne
- Salt to taste
- Whisk yolks, water, and lemon juice in a saucepan until thick and pale.
- Over medium heat, whisk in a pat of the cold butter until it is melted.
- Begin slowly introducing the melted butter until it is all in the saucepot, whisking all the way. Never let the heat get so high as to turn this into scrambled eggs.
- The volume should be increasing, and you should have sauce. Remove this from the heat and rapidly whisk in the last pat of cold butter until it melts.
- Do any final seasonings: the cayenne, any extra lemon juice you might desire, and the salt.
- The sauce Is ready to go on something traditional, like asparagus or fish.
Fancy Hollandaise Potato Salad
I’m going to assume that since everyone here is from the South, that you have a go to potato salad recipe. If not, use something simple like this: Boil a couple pounds of red potatoes, large diced. As they cool, chop hardboiled eggs into them, garlic, salt, pepper, celery, and green onions. It is at this stage that you would add the Hollandaise instead of the mayonnaise. It makes for a real upgrade.
You can also add a bit of Hollandaise into your deviled egg recipes for a bit of envy at the table.