Time for a saucy comeback

You can make a good pan sauce without masking flavors

When I came of restaurant-cooking age in the late 1980s, “sauce” had started to become a dirty word. In restaurant reviews, the word was often associated with the adjective “heavy” and the noun “to mask.”

A typical sentence would go like this: “The chef uses heavy sauces to mask inferior ingredients.”

So restaurant chefs stopped calling sauce “sauce.” Instead, they turned to their French dictionaries and began using words like “coulis,” “nage” and “beurre blanc,” all of which indicate the presence of flavorful liquids on the plate.

These chefs weren’t fooling anyone, particularly once “French” got added to the no-no list. If any group is guilty of heavy-sauce flavor masking, it’s the French.

Soon sauces were replaced wholesale with beds of mashed potatoes, scatterings of salsa or relish and maybe, just maybe, some light pan juices to moisten the food without galumphing in like some sort of flavor-packed intruder.

Restaurant food these days is still largely sauce-free. Current plating trends call for each chunk of protein to arrive with an artful scattering of colorful ingredients and a kind of Nike swoosh of some sort of dark, flavorful puree. This makes me wonder if we’ve reached the turning point in the cycle. I mean, you just add a little stock or water to the Nike swoosh and you’ve got a sauce.

I’m ready for sauces to come back. Are you?

I will tell you this much, whenever I make a pan sauce at home, dinner goes over well. I’m not talking about pan juices enlivened with a bit of butter and lemon, but rather a full-tilt-boogie sauce filled with flavor and intrigue. Something you want to swipe your bread or potatoes through.

Here are three ideas:

Mustard-green peppercorn cream sauce for pork: Season and saute pork chops or medallions in a skillet, finishing in the oven if they are thick. Take the chops out of the pan to rest. Put the pan over a medium flame and add a chopped shallot, stirring until fragrant. Add about a half cup of dry white wine and turn flame to medium high. Stir well, scraping up any bits that are clinging to the pan. Add a spoonful of brine-packed green peppercorns and a spoonful of Dijon-style mustard. When reduced by half, add a half cup of heavy cream. Let boil until the sauce can coat a spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add any juices from the resting pork.

Bacon-mushroom butter sauce for fish fillets: Render some cubed slab bacon in a skillet until crisp. Fish the bacon pieces out and reserve but leave the fat. Saute the fish fillets, cut side down in the fat until browned. Flip the fillets over and place the pan in a hot (400 degree) oven to finish cooking. Remove fillets to a side plate. Saute several chopped scallions and a handful of sliced mushrooms in the pan. Add a quarter cup of white wine and a handful of coarsely chopped tomato and loosen up any bits sticking to the pan. Add the reserved bacon and a knob of butter. Swirl until smooth. Season to taste and pour over fish.

Shallot-red wine sauce for steaks: Season and saute hanger steaks, a tri-tip or tenderloin medallions in a skillet, finishing in the oven to desired temperature. Take the steaks out of the pan to rest. Put the pan over a medium flame and add a lot of chopped shallot (about one shallot per diner), stirring until fragrant. Add a small spoonful of tomato paste and stir until it begins to stick and color in the bottom of the pan. Add a cup of red wine and stir well, loosening up any bits from the bottom. Add several sprigs of fresh thyme and several grindings of black pepper. Reduce by about two thirds, or until the sauce can just stick to a spoon. Add a knob of butter and swirl until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Fish the thyme out and add any juices that have pooled under the meat. Serve the steak sliced with the sauce poured over the top.