- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Rich sauces have traditionally been a tool to make simple foods delicious. Anyone who worked his or her way through Julia Child’s landmark “Mastering the Art of French

Cooking” (Knopf) learned not only about the various families of sauces (white, brown, butter, fat emulsion and so on) but also that the addition of cream, butter or egg yolks — often all three — really made the final sauce sing.

I still love those traditional French sauces, but over the years I’ve learned that a steady diet of them is hardly a prescription for optimum health and a slim waistline. The challenge I took on recently was how to have all the great flavor and mouth feel of butter, cream or egg yolk-enriched sauces without actually adding those ingredients. The intent was to make the sauces — excuse what I’m about to suggest next — healthy.

Of course, we would never want to label them healthy. Having been in the restaurant business for a very long time, I’ve learned that to label anything healthy on a menu is a good way to make sure it will never sell … no matter how good it is.

Surveys have told us that Americans don’t want to eat healthy when eating out. Restaurateurs were told that a big reason for eating out is to indulge. That would be OK if we were living a few decades back, when eating out was an occasional treat. But despite the popularity of the Food Network and the thousands of cookbooks that are published each year, many of us eat out way more than we cook at home.

What follows are a few recipes from my search to try to create delicious and healthy sauces. All are vegetable based (remember that we are supposed to be eating nine to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day now), and none contains dairy or eggs.

The base for many of these is a sauce that I call the no cream cream sauce. It is easily made and can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen for a few months.

I hope you’ll find these intriguing enough to create your own variations. And for those of you who are not currently cooking at home, I hope this will be an incentive to get you back in the kitchen, taking control of what goes into your mouth. Not a bad idea for most of us.

No cream cream sauce

This is a great substitute for rich, fatty cream sauces and also a delicious base for cream-style soups. Simply use it in place of heavy whipping cream and thin to the consistency you need with stock. Make a big batch and store it, covered, in the freezer. You can make a delicious sauce by adding some chopped fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon or a creamy soup by adding stock and whatever fresh vegetables you have on hand.

2 teaspoons olive oil

cup finely chopped onion

1/3 cup rice (preferably medium or short-grain, which are starchier)

2 cups or so defatted chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup dry white wine

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Heat olive oil in a saucepan. Add onion and saute over moderate heat until onion is soft but not browned. Add rice and saute 2 minutes longer, stirring frequently.

Add 3/4 cup stock and wine, cover and simmer until liquid is mostly absorbed (about 25 minutes) and rice is very soft. Cool slightly and puree until smooth with an immersion or regular blender.

Add more stock until you reach desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Store, covered and refrigerated, for up to 3 days, or freeze. Reheat before serving. Makes about 2 cups.

Here are two recipes that begin with the no cream cream sauce to inspire you to think about other combinations. Both are delicious served as you would any cream sauce. How about with sauteed chicken or fish, as a topper for mashed or roasted potatoes, or spooned over a steamed vegetable, such as broccoli or cauliflower? Or how about over a grilled burger?

Chickpea and roasted garlic cream sauce

2 heads roasted garlic (see note)

1 15-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzos), drained (about 2 cups)

2 cups or so vegetable or chicken stock

cup no-cream cream sauce (preceding recipe) or soy milk

Fresh lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a blender, puree until smooth roasted garlic, chickpeas, stock and no cream cream sauce or soy milk. Season to taste with lemon juice and salt and pepper.

Thin, if desired, with additional stock. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or freeze. Reheat before serving. Makes about 3 cups.

Note: To roast garlic, slice off top quarter or so of each garlic head to expose cloves. Drizzle with a little olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Loosely but completely wrap each head in a piece of foil and roast in a preheated 400-degree oven until garlic is very soft and lightly browned, about 45 minutes or so.

Cool and store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. To use, simply squeeze the buttery soft garlic out of the head just as you would toothpaste.

Roasted mushroom and mustard sauce

1 pound cremini mushrooms

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons butter

1 small white onion, chopped (1 cup)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh garlic

2 cups or so rich vegetable or chicken stock

About 2 tablespoons smooth Dijon mustard

1 cups or so no-cream cream sauce (preceding recipe)

About 2 tablespoons dry sherry such as fino or amontillado, optional

Fresh lemon juice

Rinse and quarter mushrooms and toss with olive oil, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in a preheated 375-degree oven and roast until mushrooms are lightly browned and somewhat shriveled, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat butter over moderate heat in a large saute pan and add onion and garlic and saute until softened and just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. In a blender, puree until smooth roasted mushrooms, onion and garlic mixture, stock, mustard to taste and no cream cream sauce. Push mixture through a fine mesh strainer, discarding any large solids.

Thin, if desired, with additional stock. Season to taste with sherry, if desired, a few drops of lemon juice, salt and pepper. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or freeze. Reheat before serving. Makes about 4 cups. What followers are two of my favorite vegetable-based sauces. I predict you will find lots of uses for them.

Red bell pepper, tomato and chipotle sauce

2 large red bell peppers (about 11/4 pounds)

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 small onion, chopped (1 cup)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh garlic

1 cup canned diced tomatoes in juice

About teaspoon honey or sugar

About 2 teaspoons chipotle chili in adobo sauce

1 to 2 cups rich vegetable or chicken stock

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cut peppers in half and discard seeds and stems. Rub lightly with 1 tablespoon olive oil, place, cut side down, on a baking sheet and roast in a preheated 400-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until flesh is soft and skin is lightly browned. Cool, remove skin, chop pepper and set aside.

In a small saute pan, heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat and add onion and garlic. Saute and stir until soft and just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.

In a blender, puree until very smooth the roasted pepper, onion and garlic mixture, tomato, honey or sugar to taste, chipotle chili to taste and 1 cup stock.

Thin with additional stock, if desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Store, covered and refrigerated, for up to 5 days, or freeze. Reheat before serving. Makes about 3 cups.

Curried butternut squash sauce

In this recipe, I take advantage of the prepared Southeast Asian curry pastes. You’ll find them in some supermarkets and almost all Asian markets, especially markets that carry Thai ingredients.

2 tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, chopped (11/4 cups)

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

2 cups roasted butternut squash pulp (see note)

About 1 teaspoon prepared Panang or other prepared Thai curry paste

2 cups canned coconut milk, well stirred

2 cups vegetable or chicken stock

Fresh lime juice

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat butter over moderate heat in a saute pan and add onion and garlic. Saute until soft and very lightly colored, stirring occasionally. Turn off heat and add onion and garlic mixture, squash pulp, curry paste to taste, coconut milk and stock to a blender. (You may have to do this in a couple of batches.) Puree until smooth.

Season to taste with lime juice and salt and pepper. Store, covered and refrigerated, for up to 3 days, or freeze. Reheat before serving. Makes about 5 cups.

Note: To roast butternut squash, cut squash in half and scoop out and discard seeds.

Brush cut surface with melted butter or olive oil, season lightly with salt and pepper and roast, cut side up, in preheated 400-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until flesh is hot all the way through and very lightly browned.

Scoop out 2 cups pulp for use in curried butternut squash sauce and serve remaining as a side-dish vegetable.

John Ash is author of “Cooking One on One: Private Lessons in Simple, Contemporary Food From a Master Teacher” (Clarkson Potter), winner of a James Beard Award.

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