Punch Up Your Dishes With 5 Incredibly Easy to Make From-Scratch Sauces
I’ve never been a ketchup person. This thick, sweet and salty concoction that has forever been reluctantly blopped onto foods all over the western world from Heinz and other bottles, has never been my choice to top a side of fries. Or anything else. A splash of malt vinegar, a dollop or three of mayo? Certainement. I’m simply one who prefers luscious love apples as they are, or served up as anything but ketchup.
That said, I’m still very much a sauce person. I was charmed, and right there with them, when chef Hassan and his Marguerite picnicked in the sunshine of France in The Hundred Foot Journey. What a sensual scene when they seductively dipped into what many agree are the mother sauces of culinary Europe. Versatile velouté, rich brown Espagnole, creamy white béchamel, pasta-loving tomate, tangy and terrific hollandaise? Classics every one.
But important as this happy family is — the beginnings of so many other tastes — there are many more. All kinds of spicy and other sons and daughters, in kitchens far, far removed from the apron strings of mother France.
I’ve been a fan for years of commercial Thai sweet chili sauce and shamelessly swamp it over almost everything. Made of pickled red chilis, vinegar, garlic and the inevitable xanthan gum to thicken it up a bit, it complements every kind of protein and gives ordinary, too-familiar tastes a burst of exotica. Unlike fiery Tabasco, the heat of it is barely discernable, but there’s enough to make it interesting.
In the same Southeast Asian family, but with more heat, is sriracha, again with a heart of chilies and named after the coastal city of Si Racha in eastern Thailand. You may have seen it on the table at some restaurant — identified by a rooster on the label and a green squeeze top. If you know it, you’re likely to be addicted. Like the mothers of Europe, which can often be the starters for other sauces — think cheese in your béchamel, onions and mushrooms in the tomate — mayo mixed with sriracha makes a great dip.
I don’t know exactly when sauces like these Thais hit the mainstream, but my own experience has been to try what the locals are using and if I like what I’m tasting, I bring a bottle home. As does everyone else — and soon after they seem to find spots on the grocery shelves.
Coconut milk, in recent years, has become a staple in my kitchen cupboard, as have the spices for a good curry. I’m an aficionado of curries and in a grinder, which I use exclusively for this purpose; I have brought together toasted cumin, cardamom and coriander and whirled them with turmeric, mustard and cayenne. Presto — a colourful and bright-tasting meal. Serve it up in a mélange with chicken or shrimp and coconut milk and rice on the side. Once again, close your eyes and open your taste buds and you’re back where you were on holiday. With the street vendors of the Pacific villages of Mexico or the gastronomic mysteries of the backstreets of Bangkok. Where else to find galangal, kaffir lime leaves, mangosteens, pomelos and rambutans; and the shrimp just in from Mexican fisher Manuel, who minutes before pulled his boat up onto the beach? Aroy it is!
The common denominator in all of these places is that the locals make the best use of what’s available and bring taste together with heartfelt abandon. The Thais? No other country’s cuisine quite combines the sweet, sour, salt and spice tastes in such clever, complementary style. Which is likely why the tastes work so well in our favourite Thai haunts, upmarket and down. The secret, of course, is that recipes may be there as guides, but like the mother sauces, it’s what we do with them; how we prepare and present our meals to family and friends that make them memorable.
The Thais, we’re told, chase a state called jai yen, which more or less means cool heart. Like a great picnic in the poppies or flax fields of France, it’s a place with signs in every language, or no language at all. Simply friendly, vibrant, pungent if you wish and like nothing at home — which again is why you went there in the first place.
You can always buy this in a pack. But scratch-made is always better. This “mother” has been in my book forever. It makes about a cup.
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 tbsp lemon juice, dry sherry or tarragon vinegar
- 3 egg yolks
- 4 tbsp boiling water (in total)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Dash of cayenne
Melt the butter and keep it warm. Place the egg yolks in the top of a double boiler that is over, not in boiling water.
Beat the yolks with a wire whisk until they begin to thicken. Add a tbsp boiling water and keep beating until the eggs again begin to thicken.
Repeat this process until you have added 3 more tbsp boiling water. Beat in the warmed lemon juice. Remove the double boiler from heat.
Beat the sauce well with a wire whisk. Continue to beat while slowly adding the melted butter, then the salt and cayenne. Serve at once.
If your sauce “breaks” you may be able to bring it round with some chilled cream. Despite Hundred Foot Journey, not the best sauce for a picnic.
street stall green chicken curry
We ran this recipe from Bangkok a few years ago, attempting at the time to make it as close to the real thing as possible.
- 750 g chicken thigh fillets
- 200 g green beans
- 1 cup coconut cream
for the curry paste:
- 3 small chopped green chillies
- 2 green chopped shallots
- 2 cloves crushed garlic
- 1/2 cup chopped lemon grass
- 1/4 cup chopped coriander
- 2 tbsp oil
- 2 tbsp water
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
Prepare the curry paste by blending ingredients smoothly together. Cut the chicken into thin strips and the beans into bite-sized pieces.
Cook the curry paste on medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add the chicken and beans and cook for another 5 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.
Stir in the coconut cream and simmer uncovered for another 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to thicken. Serve with steamed rice.
This recipe is included more for information than anything else because it’s much easier to relish the sriracha that comes in the rooster bottle. But try it if you wish and have a spare 3 and maybe more days to provide time for fermentation. You will be admired for your effort. (Credit for this recipe goes to allrecipes.com)
- 1 lb red jalapeño peppers, stems cut off
- 1/2 lb red serrano peppers, stems cut off
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 3 tbsp light brown sugar
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 1/3 cup water
- 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
Chop jalapeño and serrano peppers, retaining seeds and membranes and place into a blender with garlic, brown sugar, salt and water. Blend until smooth.
Transfer into a large glass container. Cover with plastic wrap and keep in a cool dark location for 3 to 5 days, stirring once a day. The mixture will begin to ferment.
Scrape down the sides during each stirring. Rewrap after each stirring and return to a cool, dark place until mixture is bubbly.
Pour fermented mixture back into blender with vinegar and blend until smooth. Strain mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a saucepan, pushing as much of the pulp as possible through the strainer into the sauce. Discard remaining pulp, seeds and skin left in strainer.
Place saucepan on a burner and bring sauce to a boil, stirring often, until reduced to desired thickness, 5 to 10 minutes. Skim foam if desired.
Remove saucepan from heat and let sauce cool to room temperature. Sauce will thicken a little when cooled. Transfer sauce to jars or bottles, refrigerate.
sweet and sour sauce
You will have read that I’m not a fan of ketchup. But when it’s an ingredient of something else, like this Cantonese veteran, it’s OK and pairs well with pork.
- 4 cups water or broth
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 cup vinegar
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup ketchup
- 1 cup brown sugar
Place broth into saucepan and bring to a boil. Add lemon juice, vinegar, brown sugar and salt, stir well for 5 minutes. Add ketchup and thicken with cornstarch. It pairs well with pork and some stir-fried vegetables.
One of the French “mothers,” this sauce is béchamel made with chicken stock instead of milk. And it’s a great foundation for other sauces you may wish to create with herbs, spices or whatever is in your cupboard or fridge.
- 5 tbsp butter
- 4 tbsp flour
- 4 cups chicken stock
- Salt and fresh-ground pepper
Over medium heat, melt the butter and whisk in the flour until it forms a smooth paste. Continue whisking and cook for about 2 minutes. Gradually add the chicken stock. Continue whisking and cook until the sauce is heated through, smooth and thickened. Remove from heat and season with the salt and pepper to taste.