FOOD & DRINK; FOR BROWNIE POINTS

Nothing enhances so many dishes as the classic brown sauce. It demands patience, says Michael Bateman in his second look at Sonia Stevenson's sauces, but it pays dividends
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The Independent Culture
MAKING a fine sauce is the key to sophisticated cooking. This is as true today as it was in the time of the Roman emperors (the art of sauce-making is catalogued in recipes credited to the first-century Roman gour-met Apicius).

However, the home cook often stops at white sauce, considering that the proliferation of haute cuisine nonsense is best left to the professionals. Sonia Stevenson, a former restaurateur described by writer-hotelier Kit Chapman as the "most celebrated lady chef of her generation", believes the art of sauce-making is more attainable than most people think.

In The Magic of Saucery, her first book, the mastering of four simple sauce bases is the key to a collection of some 150 dishes she developed when she ran the acclaimed Horn of Plenty in Gulworthy, Devon (Egon Ronay gave it his highest accolade, three stars). Three of the bases - a cream base, an egg base and a sugar syrup base - are not only simple, they are made in a matter of seconds.

Last week we covered the three quick sauce-base techniques. The fourth, a brown sauce base, takes longer to prepare, but there is no alternative to making it yourself: there are no suitable substitutes to be found on supermarket shelves. Once made, it can be stored in the freezer and quickly integrated into a recipe.

The Brown Sauce Base is actually one of the classical sauces, when it's known as sauce Espagnole. Boiled down to a syrup it becomes a rich, savoury meat glaze known as sauce demi glace. This is the Godfather of a large family of satellite sauces; combined with white wine it sires the sauce vin blanc family: sauce chasseur (with mushrooms and tomato), sauce Robert (with mustard and gherkins), and sauce fines herbes (with tarragon, chives, chervil, parsley). Cooked with Madeira, it is the parent to the sauce Madere family: sauce napolitaine (with ham, horseradish, redcurrants), sauce catalane (with mustard, garlic and cayenne) or sauce perigourdine (with truffles). With red wine and onions, it creates the powerful sauce bourguignonne family.

Here is Sonia Stevenson's Brown Sauce Base. First, you need a good brown stock, and her method is outlined below. There is no great mystery to it, no esoteric ingredients, but it needs to be made with care.

BROWN MEAT STOCK

This stock forms the basis of the Brown Sauce Base. Collect meat trimmings and bones, or order them from your butcher. Use rib bones, not marrow bones, which only add fat, not flavour. Include mostly beef and veal, with very few pork or lamb bones, because they will make the stock too sweet. Do not use potatoes, cabbage, swedes, turnips, parsnips or cold cooked meats, as these cloud the stock or turn sour with long cooking. You could include some shin of beef or a boiling chicken and serve this as a separate dish.

Makes 3 litres/5 pints

5kg/10lb bones: beef, veal and other mixed bones

fresh meat trimmings (or a boiling fowl, some shin of beef or cheek, if serving as a separate dish)

500g/1lb carrots

1.5kg/3lb onions

2 celery sticks or trimmings (not the leaves)

3 leeks

1kg/2lb fresh tomatoes or about 750g/112lb tinned

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs of thyme

a few parsley stalks

Place bones and meat in a roasting tin and cook in a pre-heated oven at about 375F/190C/Gas 5 until the fat and juices run and the meat browns.

Remove the bones to a large stockpot. Place the tin on top of the stove, add vegetables and gently fry until nicely browned, but do not burn. The juices must caramelise, or you will have a "white" stock rather than brown. Add the browned vegetables to the stockpot. Cover with cold water, skim off any scum, heat gently to boiling point, reduce the heat and simmer for up to eight hours.

If your stockpot has a tap, draw off all the clear stock, leaving the fat behind. Otherwise, remove the bones, strain the stock and chill overnight. Remove the fat from the top and discard. Bring to the boil in a saucepan and reduce to the desired depth of flavour; you should have about 3 litres/5 pints. You can also reduce this further to about 600ml/ 1 pint of concentrate for storing.

Here are a few guidelines which will help you to achieve a good clear stock every time:

Never continue to boil a stock after it has reached boiling point. It should be just hot enough for the steam to puff gently through the fat on the top.

If you do let it boil again, the fat on the surface will be drawn down into the body of the liquid, resulting in unpleasant fatty-tasting stock.

Collect suitable bones and meat trimmings and keep them in the freezer. You can also order them from the butcher. Ask for plenty of beef rib bones, and not marrow bones as the traditionalists insist.

Never add salt to the stock, or the dishes made from it will be too salty.

Heat half the groundnut or vegetable oil in a small pan, add the flour, and cook, stirring until browned.

Finely chop the onions, carrots, celery, leek and mushrooms. Heat the remaining oil in a separate pan, all the vegetables (except the tomatoes) and fry until brown (about 10 minutes). Take care not to burn the onions at this stage.

Finely chop the tomatoes, and add to the vegetables in the pan. The tomatoes will first throw out a good deal of liquid, which will slowly evaporate, then the sugars will start to caramelise. Fry until brown.

Add the browned flour to the vegetables in the pan and stir well.

Add the Brown Meat Stock, bring to the boil and simmer on top of the stove or in the oven for two hours, or overnight in a slow cooker.

Add 600ml/1 pint of cold water to the pan to bring the quantity of liquid back to the original level. Bring to the boil on top of the stove.

Strain through a sieve into a pan, shaking gently to extract all liquid. Do not push the vegetables through.

Mix a tablespoon of cornflour in a cup of cold water and add to the pan, whisking. Return the mixture to the boil, then simmer for 30 minutes until reduced to 1-1.2 litres/114-2 pints. The thickening qualities of the flour will be dissipated over this long cooking time; it becomes part of the sauce texture rather than a thickener.

It is worthwhile making a large quantity of Brown Sauce Base; the size of your pots is the only limitation. When complete, cool and chill. The Brown Sauce Base will set. Cut it into convenient sections and freeze for later use. Thaw in the usual way.

BROWN ONION SOUP

Serves 6

2 tablespoons groundnut (or vegetable) oil

3 large onions, sliced into rings

900ml/112 pints Brown Sauce Base

900ml/112 pints water

1-112 baguette loaves, cut into rounds (18 slices)

125g/4oz grated cheese

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large pan, and fry the onions gently until coloured to the degree you require (the depth of brownness will flavour the soup accordingly); make sure you achieve at least a golden, caramel colour.

Add the water to the Brown Sauce Base, stir well and pour over the onions. Simmer for 20 minutes, then bring to the boil and reduce to 112 litres/212 pints to concentrate the flavour. Taste, and adjust seasoning.

Toast the slices of bread, then pile the cheese on top and place them under the grill or in a hot oven until the cheese has melted. Pour the soup into heated soup bowls, and float the toasted cheese rounds on top.

AUBERGINES IN BRANDY SAUCE

This sauce is full of flavour, and delicious with aubergine. It is equally good with boned chicken legs.

Serves 6

3 aubergines

50g/2oz butter

50ml/2fl oz groundnut (or vegetable) oil

4 shallots, finely chopped

2 beefsteak tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and finely chopped

250g/8oz mushrooms, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

2 bay leaves

75ml/3fl oz brandy

150ml/14 pint Brown Sauce Base

salt and freshly ground black pepper

sprigs of thyme to garnish

Slice the aubergines lengthways, place in a single layer on a plate or tray, sprinkle with salt and set aside for 30 minutes to extract the bitter juices. Rinse with water and pat dry.

Heat the butter and two-thirds of the oil in a heavy-based pan, add the shallots and saute until softened but not coloured. Add chopped tomatoes and mushrooms. Cook until all the liquid has disappeared and the mixture has started to brown, then add thyme, bay leaves and brandy, bring to the boil and reduce until syrupy.

Add the Brown Sauce Base, cover and simmer slowly until the mixture dries out again - about 30 minutes: if it hasn't, raise the heat for five minutes or so till it does. Season to taste.

Brush a ridged, heavy-based frying pan with the remaining oil, and quickly char-grill the sliced aubergine. Turn the slices 45 degrees and continue char-grilling until the surfaces are cross-hatched with grill marks. Repeat on the other side. Place a slice of aubergine on each heated dinner plate, pile the savourv mixture on top, then set a second slice of aubergine at right angles on top of the first. Serve with lambs' lettuce or similar peppery leaves, flakes of sea salt and cracked black pepper, and garnish with sprigs of thyme.

ROAST QUAIL WITH A TEA-SCENTED SAUCE

A delicious, elegant recipe for quail. The bones can be fiddly to deal with on the plate, so it is better to do most of the bone removal before serving. However, to conserve the delicate, elusive flavour of this meat, it is important to cook it on the bone.

Serves 6

6-12 slices of white bread, buttered well on one side

1 tablespoon groundnut (or vegetable) oil

12 quails

salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the tea-scented sauce: 75g/3oz raisins

300ml/12 pint strong, hot Earl Grey tea

75g/3oz butter

2 shallots, chopped

1 bay leaf

3 cloves

300ml/12 pint dry Riesling

450ml/34 pint Brown Sauce Base

sprigs of winter savory or bay leaves, to garnish

To make the sauce, first soak the raisins in the tea for at least an hour, or overnight, until required.

Heat two-thirds of the butter in a saucepan, add the shallots, bay leaf and cloves, and cook gently until the shallots are softened but not coloured. Add the wine, bring to the boil and reduce gently until syrupy. Pour in the Brown Sauce Base, simmer for 10 minutes, then transfer into a roasting tin.

Place the buttered slices of bread on a baking tray.

Heat the oil in a heavy non-stick frying pan. When very hot, add the quails and brown all sides; the breasts should have a good colour. Lay the birds side by side in the roasting tin and place in a pre-heated oven at 475F/240C/Gas 9, for five minutes.

Place the tray of buttered bread slices in the oven to crisp; remove when toasted and golden.

Cut the breast from each bird, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and keep warm. Remove the legs, chop up the carcasses, return these to the tin and place back in the oven to simmer for about 5 minutes.

Return the legs, breasts and oven-fried bread to the oven to reheat for a few minutes. Meanwhile, strain the sauce into a pan, add the tea and raisins, bring to the boil, reduce to a light coating consistency, then beat in remaining butter to finish the sauce.

Divide the toast between heated plates and arrange the quail legs and breasts on top. Spoon the sauce beside and garnish with sprigs of a suitable herb, such as winter savory or bay leaves.

CHAR-GRILLED STEAK WITH HORSERADISH AND DEVILLED SAUCES

The perfect dish for people who like their food hot and spicy. You will need only a crusty loaf of bread with it, and perhaps some deep-fried celery tops. Use the finest grater blade of the food processor to grate the horseradish. Cook these steaks by dry-frying on a ridged pan - a griddle - or in a non-stick frying pan, or in an ordinary pan with a little olive oil.

These same sauces (using fish stock instead of beef stock) are terrific with char-grilled or tuna, a fish that is often teamed with spicy sauces in American and Mediterranean cooking. Serve the fish with roasted vegetables and a leafy green salad.

Serves 6

6 steaks, fillet or rump

salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the horseradish sauce: 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh horseradish

2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

150ml/14 pint double cream

salt

For the devilled sauce (poivrade): 50g/2oz butter

3 shallots, chopped

125ml/4fl oz red wine vinegar

175ml/6fl oz red wine

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black peppercorns

300ml/12 pint Brown Sauce Base

150ml/14 pint beef stock

1 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce

salt

Lightly oil a griddle or frying pan and heat until very hot. Season the steaks, and cook as you like - rare, medium or well done. Keep warm.

Place the grated horseradish in a bowl. Add the vinegar, cream and a little salt. Whisk until thick and fluffy and use within one hour.

To make the devilled sauce, melt half the butter in a pan, add the shallots, vinegar, wine and peppercorns, bring to the boil and reduce until syrupy. Add the Brown Sauce Base and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes until reduced to a coating consistency.

Beat in the rest of the butter, the Worcestershire sauce and the salt.

Place one steak on each heated dinner plate, place a large spoonful of horseradish on top, and pour the devilled sauce alongside. !

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