I really enjoy cooking. I find that not only is it a marvelous way to relax and do something creative, but when I'm done I get to eat!
Being an older brother with three younger sisters, I was rarely if ever considered to help my mom or grandmother in the kitchen. If I ever was, I suppose I was a little young to be genuinely interested so I'm sure that had something to do with it.
Anyway, I don't have a lot of experience. Pretty much all I've learned how to make I've learned on my own. This isn't a boast, but rather simply a statement of my limited exposure in an attempt to illustrate that my understanding of all things culinary is rather spotty at best. Since I realize this, I some times feel a little inhibited by various recipes. Regardless, when I do cook I invariably end up trying things I've not attempted before and usually don't really have a recipe on hand. Mostly, I end up finding a recipe or section in one of my cookbooks that bears a passing resemblence to what I want to try and then just 'follow my nose' as I go along.
I've intuited for some time that a firm understanding of sauces is key to becoming a 'good cook'. By 'good' I mean someone who can have an idea for a dish and easily put it together because they know how various things work. I liken this to a studied painter who can easily create a picture from their vision without having to worry over what medium to use or which brush or what surface to apply it all to, and so on.
So for a long time now, I've thought about sauces, and how they work and what they are. Mostly, my thoughts end up along the lines of, "Gee, that would be good to know.", but beyond making a marinara spaghetti sauce, I was always at a loss.
For St. Pattrick's day I decided to cook something simple. I wanted to make something green, and then got the silly idea to make Green Eggs and Ham. This was easily done with some food coloring. When I headed home from work, I bought 3 lbs of ham from the Honey Baked Ham Co.. This was absolutely far far too much, since I only used like a 1/2 lb. But no regrets, as left over Honey Baked Ham is a beautiful thing to have around. :-)
So I had this ham. My favorite thing to do with it is to lightly brown it in a skillet and put it on hot buttered toast. My god, that's a glorious thing to feast upon. However, I didn't expect to be able to polish off that much ham in that manner before it started to go bad. I tried to come up with a more creative idea to use it.
Having recently eaten at Garozzo's Italian restaurant I found myself thinking about their Tortellini Gina. I remembered having had it quite a while ago and that it was lovely. What I didn't remember was that the Garozzo's dish included the prosciutto INSIDE the tortellini. I did recall that the dish included ham, mushrooms, and peas in a cream sauce that wasn't an alfredo sauce. While thinking, I also recalled a cooking show I had seen years ago that had a pasta dish with ham and peas in a cream sauce. I suppose that was some sort of 'confirmation' in my mind.
Anyway, I endeavored to make a similar dish.
I spoke with a coworker who sits in the cube next door and asked his advice, since he used to be a chef in a 'former life'. He explained that the sauce sounded like one of the Mother Sauces (I forget the French word) and was probably a combination of chicken stock reduced down by half and heavy cream.
Aha! That didn't sound so scarey.
After a quick trip to the store, here's what I did:
My first attempt at 'Tortellini Brian':
- 64 oz of liquid chicken stock
- 1 quart heavy cream
- 1 bunch fresh parsely
- 1 handful of shallots
- 1 palmful of garlic cloves
- 1 flat of button mushrooms
- 1/2 flat of baby portabella mushrooms
- 2 cans of LeSeur peas (frozen baby peas would fare better, so I've been told)
- 1/2 lb of Honey Baked Ham
- Coconut oil (any oil will probably do - this was my choice)
- A little bit of butter (less than 1 tsp)
- Several spashes from my bottle of cheap Riesling I use for cooking
- Celery salt
- Sea salt
- Black pepper
- 2 packages of frozen tortellini
(NOTE: This made a metric shit-tonne of sauce. In the future, I will make only half as much, or even less.)
The first thing I did was pour the chiken stock in a big pot and set it to high.
I knew I needed to reduce it and that this would take the most time.
While that was heating up, I peeled the shallots and garlic. Having never worked with shallots before, I found them interesting - both delicate and sweetly pungent. (My ex-chef coworker had suggested them.) Next I minced them all finely and put them in a bowl.
Rinse the parsely and pluck the leaves into a bowl so you have about 2 cups worth.
Heat up a skillet and add some oil. I like using coconut oil for several reasons, one of which is that it handles high heat well and does not denature into trans fats.
Lightly sautee the shallots and garlic. I intuited that it was not necessary to fully cook them, since they would go into the pot of sauce eventually.
Not long after I started cooking the shallots and garlic, I added about half the mushrooms. I couldn't add them all since my pan really wouldn't accomadate them.
Splash in some wine (I figured the white Riesling wouldn't discolor the sauce) for flavoring.
Pour out the sauteed veggies and add a the rest of the mushrooms to the hot skillet. At this point, I decided to add about a tsp of butter and see how that worked. I felt there was too much butter and so I used a paper towel to soak up most of it. However, I do think that butter and mushrooms combine well. I also added wine.
Pour the mushrooms into the same bowl with the other veggies.
I didn't add this stuff to the broth immediately. Instead, I waited until closer until the end.
Lightly brown the ham, so as to generate all those wonderful flavors from the browned meat and sugars. Put the ham aside.
Deglaze the pan with mor Riesling. Deglazing is simply the process of adding liquid (water, wine, vinegar, anything) to a hot pan that has lots of browned meat goodness stuck to the bottom. As the liquid heats up, very gently rub or scrape the bottom of the pan (I used a soft wooden utinsil so as not to mar the pan) and get all that browned flavor to lift up and disolve into the liquid. This stuff is like gold.
Pour the liquid over the mushrooms into the bowl.
Cut up the ham into small bits about 1" - 1 1/2" squareish. (Bite sized)
Drain and rinse the peas.
As I understand it, frozen baby peas would be better, especially when added at the end.
At this point, I have not "built" the sauce. I was waiting for the chicken stock to reduce down by 50% or more. I figured that if I added a bunch of ingredients, I'd never get it right.
Once the stock had reduced, I turned the heat way down as it had been cooking at the highest heat my gas stove could muster. My reasoning for this was that I didn't want to damage the cream. I believe I turned the heat down to either LO or MED-LO and I waited quite a bit.
Once the stock was much cooler, I added the cream slowly, while stirring it in. With the stock reduced by half, it probably measured around 32 oz. The quart of cream also measures 32 oz. Apparently, 50-50 is the proper proportion of cream to stock. I was lucky, as I really didn't know this until I got started and flipped through one of my cookbooks. Even then, the book didn't really come out and say all that - I had to deduce it from clues.
After I added the cream, I slowly brought the heat up to around MED. After waiting about 5 min, I added the bowl of mushrooms, garlic, shallots, and that wonderful juice. I also added many shakes of celery salt. My thinking for the celery salt was that I wanted to try and cut the sweetness of the ham and cream, if I could. I also added black pepper from my pepper mill. Since I was hoping for a more modest and simple sauce, I didn't add a great many seasonings, choosing instead to stick to the celery salt and pepper.
At this point, I put on a big pot of water, added sea salt, and set it to HIGH.
About 40 minutes or more later, the water was boiling and I tossed in the tortillini, which takes about 8 minutes to cook. This gave the sauce nearly an hour to cook at or just below a simmer.
I think it turned out really well. I brought in a sample for my coworker, and the ex-chef pronounced it rather good. His only suggestion was to use frozen baby peas.
I'm surprised how simple it really is to make such a sauce. The time it took to prepare was nearly 2 hours, but that included a lot of waiting on the inordinately large amount of chicken broth to reduce. In the future, I'll only use 32 oz of broth and half as much dairy. The sauce is rather rich, a little more so than I had hoped. Next time, I will try using half-and-half and see what that tastes like.
I think this basic sauce, reduced chicken broth and dairy, is probably quite versitile. I also wonder how it would work with a lighter broth, like perhaps a vegetable broth. I bet this is how one puts a bisque together.