I love to see fundamental or “classic” dishes examined freshly. The LA Times story by Amy Scattergood (what a great name!) on the beurre blanc is a good example, but also a telling one in terms of how we subsequently lose sight of them, which gives the piece a poignant note of irony at the end.
Scattergood rightly praises this sauce and urges us to ignore its fuddy-duddy reputation. The beurre blanc is probably the easiest most wonderful sauce you can put together a la minute. A poached egg on toast is a poached egg on toast, but put a spoonful of beurre blanc on that poached egg, and it becomes exquisite. Why is the beurre blanc so easy? Because butter is in effect an emulsified sauce already. You’re simply maintaining the emulsification as you melt it (a few drops of liquid ensures this) and seasoning it with acid and aromats.
The shallot is critical. Without minced shallot, it can only be a mediocre beurre blanc. Shallots are perhaps the most influential onion in the kitchen. I’d never thought about the shallot much until I worked with Eric Ripert on A Return to Cooking. For the book, Eric was basically cooking everything himself and buying much of it from grocery stores. One evening over the cutting board he said, “I’m using shallots everywhere. I never realized how important the shallot was.” And it’s true. The shallot doesn’t call attention to itself, but its impact is great and its uses are countless.
A tablespoon of minced shallot, 2 tablespoons vinegar, 4 tablespoons wine, season with salt and cook till most of the liquid is gone, then add 6 tablespoons or so of butter, incrementally, stirring continuously (or simply swirling it in the pan,just keep it moving–just don’t let it get too hot). Notice the easy ratio: 1:2:4:6. You will have a rich, delicious sauce of nappe consistency that is so good you could eat it on toast if you wanted (or fish, or meat, or veg, or egg).
Simple as it is, this sauce was a mystery to the American home cook until Julia put it in her book. In her recent memoir*, written with her grandnephew, she describes her obsession in figuring out how to achieve this little miracle. The masters were all vague on the subject, she writes, but at a little Right Bank bistro, Chez la Mere Michel, the proprietress, showed her how. And Julia took it home and practiced it and perfected it, and thus was it introduced to the American home cook.
Two decades later, it would be debased by bad cooks nouvelling their way into obscurity to the point that the very utterance "beurre blanc" elicited quiet derision. And no wonder! In the LA Times article, chef Marc Peel recalls once being served a … jalapeno-caviar beurre blanc.
And here’s the telling part of the article. It goes on to encourage the very kind of “innovative” riffs that gave the beurre blanc a bad name! Why? It’s infuriating! There’s a reason why it was originally so revered, why Julia herself said in its classic form it is “stunningly delicious.”
The article gives recipes for, among others, a coconut milk beurre blanc and a soy beurre blanc. Now in the hands of a Marcus Samuelsson, whose recipe it is, I have no doubt it’s an excellent beurre-soy, but it’s not something to encourage among home cooks who may never have tried to make the original.
The LA Times food section is one of my favorites in the country, but why do newspapers and magazines insist on this?
In my first article for Gourmet, I wrote about veal stock. The editor handling the piece, a seasoned editor of long standing, wanted one more recipe, something a little more unique than a classic sauce or braise. "How about something a la grecque?" she asked. It was my first story and if she’d told me to do a recipe for jalapenos and caviar a la grecque, I’d have said, No problem, sounds delicious. And so I gave her a recipe for vegetables a la grecque with a veal stock vinaigrette. It actually didn’t taste bad, but to this day, the sound of a veal stock vinaigrette still makes me shiver. Needless to say, it didn’t make the big book (but, tellingly, my veal stock recipe did; that’s a classic after all).
There’s only so much you can do to a classic before it sighs hopelessly and retreats, waiting for a new more sensible generation to “discover” it.
*btw, the Julia book is a delight, fascinating to watch how Mastering the Art came to be.