Happy Accident/You'll-Never-Guess! "Cheese" Sauce

By • October 4, 2017 0 Comments

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Author Notes: This recipe has its roots in a Biba Caggiano recipe for "Spinach Penne with Endive, Pancetta, and Cream," from her 1998 cookbook "Italy al Dente." It's one of those recipes that I loved in theory but could never execute to my personal satisfaction. I tinkered around with it years ago, adding dried mushrooms and subbing bacon for the pancetta, but mostly forgot about it until I was home visiting my folks this past Christmas and happened across my dad's copy of the book. I went in a different direction that time, straining the liquid from the cooked solids and emulsifying it with an avocado, some dijon mustard, some creme fraiche, a little grated parm, and some lemon juice. Then I tossed everything back together with some spaghetti, and it was like the best carbonara I'd ever eaten! Fast forward a few weeks, and I'm back in DC attempting to recreate this ad hoc masterpiece while incorporating some other ideas that had occurred to me to boost the umami factor (carrots, tomato paste, a parmesean heel rather than grated cheese). I got to the point where I was supposed to stop and strain the liquid from the pan, but upon tasting, I liked what I already had so much, I decided to just blend everything together and see what happened. The result was perhaps my happiest--well, not "accident," per se; "detour" is probably a better descriptor--but either way, the silken, beige sauce that emerged from this protracted bout of kitchen experimentation, with its deeply savory, umami, and undeniably CHEESY flavor (all from that one heel of parmesean!) has since found its way into mac 'n' cheese (no need to make a bechamel; this *is* your bechamel, and because of its already-cheesy flavor profile, you can drastically cut back on the amount of additional cheese called for in your preferred recipe); to sauce a bowl of steamed broccoli (pictured; it's that frozen 10 oz package of Green Giant from your childhood, all grown up); or simply spooned over a thick slab of grilled or toasted rye bread, a la Welsh Rarebit. Bogre

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Makes about a quart

  • 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, stems removed and reserved, caps roughly chopped
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme, or better, lemon thyme if it's available
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for roasting mushrooms
  • 4 ounces bacon, diced
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 leek, white and light green parts, well-washed and sliced thinly crosswise
  • 1 shallot, sliced thinly
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 decent-sized carrot, peeled and shaved into ribbons
  • 6 ounces Belgian endive, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch thick strands (3-4 endives; the 6 oz refers to the volume once trimmed and sliced)
  • 1 russet potato, peeled, 1/2-inch dice (approx. 8 oz diced potato)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste (eyeball it; a little extra doesn't hurt)
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 parmesean heel, 2"x2"-3"x3" in size
  • palmful of dried mushrooms, such as oyster or porcini
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • salt and pepper
  1. Heat oven to 450F. Toss fresh mushrooms with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread out on a baking sheet and scatter thyme over. Roast 10-12 mins or until it smells like awesome. Remove from oven, discard thyme sprigs, and set mushrooms aside. Meanwhile, warm 2 cups chicken broth with reserved fresh mushroom stems and parmigiano heel. When it comes to a gentle boil, remove from heat and add dried mushrooms. Cover and let steep until the mushrooms have rehydrated.
  2. Warm 2 tbsp olive oil and chopped bacon together over medium-low heat. When it has rendered its fat and begun to brown, add 2 tbsp butter and the leeks. Lower heat, cover, and let stew for about 5 mins. Remove cover and add shallots and garlic, and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add carrot, endive, and potato and continue to sweat, another few mins, until they start to soften as well. Add the roasted mushrooms, then clear a little hole in the middle of the pan and add tomato paste. Let it take on a little color, then stir to incorporate into the vegetables. Raise heat to medium (or medium-high; my stovetop runs pretty hot) and add Worcestershire sauce. Give a quick stir, then add the white wine. Cook until reduced by half, 2 or 3 mins. Strain the infused chicken broth into the pan, pressing down on solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Stir in the heavy cream. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, covered, until flavor is well-developed, 15-20 mins, although it won’t hurt if you let it go longer.
  3. Uncover and remove from heat. The sauce will look greasy and broken. That’s ok, because it will emulsify when pureed, which is what you do next: Once it’s cooled a little, work in batches and puree in a blender or food processor until completely smooth, a minute or two. Alternatively, you can do this directly in the pan using an immersion blender. Stir in the lemon juice and adjust for salt and pepper. Serve over grilled bread a la Welsh Rarebit, or to sauce cooked broccoli, or as a base for mac and cheese.

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