I posted on Sunday about this assignment and the dinner that was going to go along with it, but events have transpired so that there were no artichokes present at our meal. Instead, there were garlic mashed potatoes and green beans. Or haricots verts, if you are so inclined, which tend to be after reading Le Cordon Bleu at Home.
Béarnaise sauce is a variation -- or perhaps derivation would be a better term -- of the Hollandaise we made last week. It is Hollandaise with shallot, tarragon, wine, wine vinegar, peppercorns and chervil added, creating a more complex taste that compliments the taste of just about any kind of meat or fish, according to the cookbook. In looking through some of the other books in my small collection of cookbooks, I found recipes for beef, poultry and fish that called for a buttery-rich drizzling of warm béarnaise and it's just fortunate for my digestive system that I didn't try to eat the pages that depicted colored photographs.
Meelyn, Aisling and I started out by finely dicing the shallots (we used three small instead of one large) with our new 7" chef's knife. Our knife skills are....poor. Beyond poor. When we were dicing those shallots, we looked like zealous members of of some sort of amateur digit amputation association, only our knife is not all that sharp. But you have to start somewhere, and considering the fact that we trimmed the woody ends off of last week's asparagus with a utility knife that is about as useful as a piece of sharp stone from the driveway, we felt that we were moving forward in the world, even though our new knife cost under $10, which made us all kind of giggle in embarrassment, considering the awe-inspiring price of this professional set. We've been interested in knives ever since watching the contestants on Top Chef reverently placing theirs into their little canvas bundles or attachés.
Shallots diced, we measured out the tarragon, substituting one teaspoon of the dried herb for the one tablespoon of fresh called for in the recipe. It turns out that our blue-collar city isn't the best place to shop if you plan to do a little French cooking and fresh tarragon was not to be found at the two grocery stores nearest my home. (Neither was chervil, fresh or dried, so I substituted dried parsley flakes, but that comes later.)
The béarnaise recipe called for the shallots, tarragon and three ground peppercorns to be placed in a small saucepan with 1/4 cup of white wine and 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar and then cooked over a gentle flame until the liquid was gone, which I think is called a reduction, but don't quote me on that. Unless I'm right.
I didn't have any white wine vinegar (and was unmotivated to drive back to the market, since I'd just come back from that very place with the meat), so I used the red wine vinegar from last week's recipe. The wine was just a white table wine I had in the fridge.
The herbs and spices cooking on the stove smelled sooo good. The girls and my husband kept commenting on the sweetly savory aroma pouring forth from that little pan. I estimate it took about fifteen minutes for all the liquid to evaporate, with me giving it a stir every now and then. It would be very easy for this to scorch, so take care if you decide to make this yourself. I have to warn you -- this doesn't look all that yummy when the liquid is gone. It sort of looks like, well, chewing tobacco. Already chewed chewing tobacco.
I decided to follow Kayte's way of doing things over at Grandma's Kitchen Table last Wednesday and I did not clarify the butter. I melted it in the microwave in short bursts so that it wouldn't foam up and get too hot -- it needed to be room temperature before we could stir it into the egg yolk/water mixture that was coming up in a few minutes.
One thing I know from making soap for so many years is that if you're making an emulsion, all the ingredients you're combining have to be very close in temperature if you want them to stick together. This has something to do with chemistry and molecules binding together and if hash were on the menu for this week, I could try to explain all that and you'd have a serving of it. Let me just say: if you add hot butter to a just-warm mixture of egg yolks, water, herbs and spices, you're going to have problems: the mixture is going to separate into an oily mess of butter and nasty chunks of curdled egg yolk, plus all the stuff that looks like ABC* chewing tobacco....yuck.
But if you remove that little saucepan from the flame and then add the room-temp butter to it in a slooo-oow stream, you will have no problems. Add the rest of the tarragon, the chervil (or parsley, in our case) and just keep stirring. Before we knew it, we were looking at a saucepan of béarnaise! Meelyn even paid me the high compliment of saying, "Mom, that looks just like the picture in the cookbook." I was terribly thrilled. I pushed my toe against the kitchen floor, blushed, and murmured, "Ohhh, I bet you say that to all the FRENCH CHEFS IN THIS HOUSE."
(If you'd like to see what béarnaise sauce looks like, here's a fairly decent photograph -- oops, wait, I was just informed that that one looks like snot, so try this image instead -- although it doesn't look nearly as delicious as the sauce in the photograph in the Le Cordon Bleu at Home cookbook, nor even our humble efforts chez nous.)
Again, just like last Wednesday, I made a bain-marie out of my small saucepan carefully arranged inside a slightly larger saucepan that was half-filled with simmering water to keep it warm but not hot until the meat was done. I read that if the béarnaise gets too hot, it will cook the egg yolks too much and you'll have a lumpy sauce. I also took out just a brief moment to write "Buy a cheap double-boiler" on my shopping list.
My husband grilled the beef -- we ended up buying two strip steaks that were on a severe markdown, indicating that they'd been on display for a few days -- and cut them in half, along with a couple of chicken breasts that I'd marinated in a nice vinaigrette earlier. Meelyn whipped the garlic potatoes with butter, salt, ground pepper and a bit of milk; the green beans were ready for Aisling to dish up with the slotted spoon.
I asked everyone if they'd mind making the grilled meat with sauce their first bite and was extremely gratified when everyone said, "Mmmmmmm!" in unison.
"I could grow to like this Frenchy stuff," my husband said, mopping a bite of steak in a little puddle of sauce with enthusiasm.
NOTE: I happened to read a severe little paragraph in a different French cookbook which stated that sauces are meant to be applied with artistry, a mere tablespoon or so drizzled over the meat with a careful hand, creating a beautiful presentation as well as a beautiful taste. Me, I used a small ladle and covered our steaks and chicken with a thick blanket of béarnaise that completely obscured the meat, making a presentation that looked like oddly shaped, unidentifiable lumps under a very pretty sauce. It could have been a chunk of possum under there, for all we knew. That's how we eats our sauces here in the Hoosier state, monsewer.
* Remember that from childhood? ABC = Already Been Chewed
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