[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] It’s true that with all the many Memorial Day grilling recipes we’ve shared recently, you might not end up with much room in your stomach for dessert. But what’s a cookout without something sweet? After a meal of smoky, savory grilled meats,…
Month: May 2018
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In a large lidded container or mixing bowl, whisk together buttermilk, hot sauce, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, and salt. Add chicken to buttermilk brine, making sure it is fully coated and submerged; cover with lid or plastic wrap. Alternatively, you can place the brine and chicken in a heavy-duty zipper-lock bag and place the bag in a dish to catch any leaks. Place in refrigerator and marinate overnight for at least 8 hours and no more than 12 hours.
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You can rue the day, you can rue every single life decision you’ve ever made, but please, don’t rue your roux. Making this simple starch-and-fat mixture shouldn’t lead to frustration and regret, especially if you understand the key details that go into preparing a good one and using it right. So, let’s get going.
What Is a Roux?
A roux, from the French word for “red,” is a mixture of roughly equal volumes of a starch and a liquid fat that are cooked together and then used as a thickener for liquids in soups, stews, and sauces. It’s a common technique in Continental cuisine (French, Italian, et cetera), and is also used heavily in the Cajun and Creole cooking of Louisiana for thickening dishes like gumbo and étouffée.
A roux works thanks to the thickening power of starch. Starch is made up of minuscule granules, each of which contains two different forms of starch molecules. First are the long, thin chains of glucose known as amylose; the second are branched clusters of glucose known as amylopectin. When starch is combined with water and heated, the granules swell and burst, and those molecules spread throughout the water, bumping into each other and slowing the movement of all the molecules in the solution.
This slowing of movement is what we perceive as thickening and viscosity. The starch molecules that are most effective at doing this are the long amylose chains, which, much as with a logjam in a river, bump into each other at every turn, and make a rapid free-flow impossible.
Clearly, we need starch for thickening, but why make a roux at all? Two reasons. First, a roux is useful for cooking the raw flavor out of the starch, which leads to better flavor and aroma in the final dish. And second, when you combine the starch with a fat, each starch granule becomes coated in the fat. By keeping the flour granules apart, the fat helps them disperse more evenly when combined with a liquid, like stock or milk, later. Anyone who’s ever tried to thicken a gravy by adding just a tiny bit more plain, dry flour knows that the dry starch rapidly forms stubborn clumps: little bubbles of flour, coated in a surface layer of impenetrable wet paste. You can spend hours chasing them around the pot, trying to smash them apart. A roux prevents this from ever happening.
The starch in a roux is typically flour, while the fat can be anything from oil to lard to melted butter, depending on the flavor you want. The two are whisked together to form a paste, then cooked to varying degrees of doneness. Exactly how much the roux is cooked depends on the flavor and color you want.
The least-cooked roux should be on the heat just long enough to remove the flour’s raw-grain flavor and aroma, but not long enough to allow it to brown at all. This produces what I’m calling a “white roux” (different cooks use different terms for this, so you may see others refer to it in another way), which is the roux traditionally used to thicken milk for a classic béchamel sauce.
If the flour is allowed to cook longer, it begins to toast, just like a piece of bread, with similar flavors and aromas developing the darker it gets. The process driving this darkening of the flour and development of flavor is none other than the Maillard reaction, the complex reactions of proteins and sugars that give roasted meats and vegetables their roasty flavor, and toasted grains and flours their…um, toasty flavor.
How dark a roux is cooked has a drastic impact on the final dish. Not only do roux of different degrees of browning deliver different flavor profiles and colors, but they also thicken the dish to a greater or lesser degree.
Flour Power (or Lack Thereof)
When I worked on my article and recipe for béchamel sauce, I found that for a really thick version, one stiff enough to hold moussaka or soufflé together, you needed about three tablespoons of flour (mixed with a roughly equal amount of fat, which, in béchamel’s case, is butter) per cup of milk. For a more sauce- or gravy-like consistency, one to two tablespoons of flour per cup of milk did the trick.
But this is only true if you’re using a white roux, one that has had the raw-flour flavor cooked out of it but still hasn’t developed any color. If you were to cook the roux longer, allowing it to darken—as one often does for dishes like gumbo and étouffée, or even a Japanese kare—you would need increasing amounts of roux to maintain the same degree of thickening.
To show you what I mean, I cooked four samples of roux to four different stages of doneness: white, blond, peanut butter, and dark brown. Each roux contained the exact same amount of flour and oil. When each was done, I whisked it into the same amount of water, then brought each to a simmer, cooking it for a few minutes to unleash the flour’s thickening properties.
As you can see in the photos, the darker the roux gets, the less well it thickens the “sauce” (if a mixture of water with flour and oil can be called a sauce). In the case of the white roux, when I dragged a spoon through the sauce, it left behind a trail that didn’t close up, a sign of the sauce’s considerable viscosity. But the darker the roux got, the thinner, and therefore runnier, the sauce became. By the time I got to the dark-brown roux, the spoon’s trail closed up right away, every time.
The reason this happens is that the longer the flour cooks in the fat, the more its long chains of starch molecules—which are essential to its thickening power—break down into shorter segments. The shorter they are, the less effective they are as thickeners. A dark-brown roux has far fewer long-chain starches left in it than it did when it was several shades lighter.
The lesson: If you want to use a dark roux, you’re going to need a lot more of it to thicken the same amount of liquid to the same degree that a lighter roux would.
Choosing a Fat for a Roux
The fat you use in a roux has a direct effect on the roux’s flavor. Butter adds rich dairy notes, while lard offers a subtly funky animal richness. A neutral vegetable oil is just that: neutral. There’s no right or wrong to which fat you use; it just depends on what flavor you want. In a dairy-heavy sauce, like milky béchamel, butter is the common choice (and is also the more common fat in most French roux), while oil is often preferred in Creole and Cajun cooking.
Butter, though, is more than just a fat. It’s an emulsion of mostly milk fat with some water and milk solids (mostly proteins and sugars) suspended in it. As butter cooks, the water evaporates, and eventually the milk solids begin to brown. This is how a brown butter is made. The risk with those milk solids is that they can eventually scorch and burn, which isn’t a problem with a lighter roux, but it can become one if you’re not careful when cooking a roux to the darker stages. This is why Creole and Cajun cooks often reach for oil instead of butter: Their darker roux are less likely to turn acrid from burnt milk proteins. (I happen to like the flavor and aroma of a butter-based roux so much that I often risk it even with darker roux, but then again, I like to live dangerously.)
How to Cook a Roux: Oven or Stovetop?
A roux can be prepared on the stovetop or in the oven. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.
A stovetop roux cooks faster, and, since you’re whisking more or less constantly as it develops, you have an eye on it the whole time. This allows you to gauge its color and aroma more precisely, and pull it off the heat when it seems right. The faster cooking time can be a huge advantage, but it can also be a risk: A stovetop roux can scorch more easily if you’re not careful.
An oven roux, on the other hand, takes time. It took about an hour and a half at 350°F (180°C) for my test roux to reach the blond stage (a light tan color, just past white); it took another three hours after that for the final, dark-brown roux to be ready. That’s a lot of waiting, and a dinner that’s guaranteed not to be on the table until after midnight unless you’ve planned well ahead. On the flip side, it’s mostly unattended time, in which you can go file your nails or get lost in the never-ending stream of breaking political news on Twitter, without having to worry much about your roux suddenly going up in smoke. Plus, if you do it in a piece of cast iron, you’re seasoning the pan at the same time.
The oven method takes longer than I’m usually willing to wait, but I’m the impatient type who loves to stand over a pot, nose-deep in it, inhaling all the good stuff going on below. Not everyone is like me. Think through the kind of roux you want, and how you’d like to get there. As long as you understand the underlying principles, you’ll never rue your roux again.
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Allow me to introduce you to one of Provence’s most iconic springtime dishes, artichokes à la barigoule. Maybe you’ve heard of it—tender young artichokes braised in white wine and olive oil, with onions, carrots, and other aromatics. It’s light and bright, thanks to the acidity of the wine and the hoard of vegetables, yet also rich and deep, a quality that develops as the vegetables stew until completely tender. The dish is similar to Roman carciofi alla romana, another famous Mediterranean recipe for artichokes braised with olive oil.
Did you know, though, that it’s named for a type of mushroom? While it’s called the barigoule in France, it is referred to as the saffron milk cap in English and Lactarius deliciosus among biologists. Most accounts of the dish’s history say that artichokes à la barigoule were originally made with this specific mushroom, but as that fungus became increasingly rare, so too did its inclusion in the dish.
It’s a perfectly believable story, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the full one. More likely is that before the barigoules were omitted from artichokes à la barigoule, they were first added to it. That is, a mushroom-free dish called artichokes “à la barigoule” likely predated the version with the barigoules, which itself predates the current version without them. Confusing, no?
The research that led me on this meandering path of barigoule history started with reviewing recipes online from both French- and English-language sources. Most of them don’t bother to give any explanation of the dish or its name, and just offer some spin on the mushroom-free version that’s popular now; a few go a little deeper to explain the barigoule backstory, but only go so far as to say the original dish was made with mushrooms. I also cracked each and every French cooking tome I own, from Larousse to Escoffier, Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Some had recipes for artichokes à la barigoule and some didn’t. Among those that did, the older ones, like Larousse and Escoffier, included mushrooms in their recipes, with no indication that it could or should be done otherwise. In each case, they called for a stuffing of duxelles, a sautéed mince of mushrooms. These sources lent support to the idea that the mushrooms were once de rigueur.
In my English translation of La Bonne Cuisine, a legendary 1927 French cookbook, the recipe headnote for artichokes à la barigoule is explicit about the mushroom requirement. “Recipes for this [dish] are found in menu collections from 1750,” it starts. “There are some minor variations in the method of preparing this reputed dish, but what never changes…is a special stuffing known as ‘duxelles.'”
If La Bonne Cuisine and other trusted sources claimed that mushrooms have always been included in the recipe, it seemed likely to be true. But I’d already started to find other examples that undermined this. In my copy of Vieii Receto de Cousino Prouvençalo, an old cookbook written in both French and Provençal, and one of my most trusted sources on traditional Provençal recipes, there’s a rendition of the dish that’s as simple as can be: artichokes braised in olive oil with water, garlic, maybe a little onion, and a bay leaf or two. Not a mushroom in sight.
Elizabeth David, in French Provincial Cooking, helps fill in the picture. “This method of cooking artichokes seems to be one of the oldest of Provençal dishes,” she writes. “There are many versions, and in the course of time it has been elaborated to include all sorts of extra ingredients, but Provençal cooks mostly agree that it is best in its primitive form.” In her recipe, young artichokes are first braised in a mixture of olive oil and water until the water has cooked off and the artichokes are tender; they’re then allowed to continue cooking in the remaining oil, essentially frying at this point. When they’re done, they’re as crisp and golden as Roman-Jewish artichokes. The frying step is slightly different from what I’ve seen elsewhere (even Vieii Receto de Cousino Prouvençalo ends with tender braised artichokes, not fried ones), but the recipe is consistent with the idea that the original version of this dish had no mushrooms at all.
A final data point: This French culinary website, seemingly from a dusty and forgotten corner of the old internet and admittedly of unknown reliability. I wouldn’t be surprised if the link breaks one day, but what the author of the site says is that the recipe has changed significantly over the centuries. Exactly why the dish was named after barigoule mushrooms is unknown, but it wasn’t because it originally included them. Instead, it’s likely it was because the artichokes were cooked in a style similar to the way barigoules were prepared at the time: trimmed like a mushroom cap, brushed with oil, then grilled. Eventually, Provençal cooks, inspired by the name, decided to make a mushroom stuffing for the artichokes, and the mushroom version—the one many sources cite as the original—was born. That lasted for a while, making its way into books like Larousse and Escoffier and convincing Madame E. Saint-Ange, the author of La Bonne Cuisine, that it had always been that way. And then, just as quickly the barigoules went away, an inadvertent twist that returned us to the dish’s mushroom-free roots.
Here, I’m giving two recipes. The first is for the dish as it tends to be prepared today, with artichokes braised in white wine and olive oil, with onions, carrots, garlic, and herbs; take away the carrots and chicken stock that I also add to it, and you have something very close to the original, pre-mushroom version. In the second recipe, I return to artichokes à la barigoule’s middle period: each cap is stuffed with mushroom duxelles, wrapped in thin slices of pork belly, and then braised.
(Old and New) Mushroom-Free Artichokes à la Barigoule
To make this version, the first step is to trim the artichokes down to their most tender edible parts. It’s traditional to use tender young artichokes, which haven’t yet formed an inedible furry choke and feature an inner core of leaves that are tender enough to eat. If you use full-grown artichokes, as I have in the photos here, you’ll need to trim them all the way down to their edible hearts and stems (either leaving them each in one piece with the stem still attached, or with the stem cut off and trimmed separately). I offer instructions for each method in my artichoke knife skills guide (for small artichokes, follow the section on prepping them for Roman-Jewish fried artichokes).
Cleaning the artichokes is the hardest part, and with practice, even that isn’t difficult. The next step is to cook them. I start by sweating onions, carrots, and garlic in olive oil until they begin to turn tender. Then I add dry white wine to the pot and simmer it until the alcohol mostly cooks of. In goes some chicken stock (you could keep it vegetarian by adding vegetable stock), and the artichokes themselves. A bouquet garnis of parsley, thyme, and bay leaves adds herbal notes.
I leave the whole thing to simmer, covered, until the artichokes and all the other vegetables are very tender, which takes roughly half an hour.
After that, I use a slotted spoon to remove all of the vegetables, leaving the cooking liquid behind. I continue to simmer the broth until it’s reduced and slightly syrupy, then whisk in a little butter and herbs to finish it off.
To serve the barigoule, all you have to do is spoon the sauce back onto the vegetables.
Artichokes à la Barigoule With Mushrooms
The mushroom version differs in a few key details. First, when I sauté the aromatic vegetables, I do it in a combination of olive oil and the rendered pork fat of diced pancetta. Pancetta isn’t a French ingredient, but it’s the closest thing to French salted pork belly that most of us in the United States can find.
After adding the white wine and cooking off most of its alcohol, I add the artichokes, which I’ve stuffed with the mushroom duxelles. Duxelles are minced mushrooms, like cremini, that are sautéed with minced shallots and herbs to make a pâté-like texture. To hold the duxelles in and prevent them from falling out during cooking, I cover each stuffed heart with a paper-thin slice or two of pancetta, then tie it on with kitchen twine.
All of this gets braised just like the mushroom-free version until tender.
To finish the dish, I remove the twine from the hearts, being careful to keep the duxelles and pancetta in place, and sear it pancetta-side-down until the pork is crispy. I finish the braising liquid just like in the no-mushroom version, reducing it down and then whisking in some butter and herbs.
It’s a richer, deeper, fancier version than the one without mushrooms or pork. It’s difficult to say which is better. One is heartier and more full-flavored, thanks to the pork and mushrooms, but the other is lighter and cleaner, with a more artichoke-focused flavor. In the end, you can do it however you want. History has shown they both deserve a place on the table.
3. In a 3-quart sauté pan or saucier, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, carrot, and garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, until just starting to soften, about 4 minutes. Nestle cleaned artichokes and their stems on top, then add white wine…