Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Cooking Basics: Simple Cheese Sauce

Hey readers!  Lacy and I were talking about what to cook for dinner, and Lacy mentioned that she doesn't make pasta because canned sauces don't taste great (I agree) and she doesn't know how to make a homemade sauce or what recipes are good.  I, on the other hand, love to make homemade sauces!  Pasta is one of my favorites for a really simple dinner.  It's a fallback of mine when I don't have anything else in the house.  Because all you need for a pasta sauce is a few pantry staples.

So, Lacy suggested that I start a "Cooking Basics" series on this here blog.  So you, my fellow readers, can also make delicious pasta a weeknight simple meal!  But let's not stop at pasta sauces.  I'm hoping to also include a soup base, basic desserts, meats (I'll probably get husband on board for that one), etc.  If you have any requests, let me know!

First up?  Cheese sauces!

I'm going with a Parmesan cheese sauce (very similar to Alfredo sauce).

The first step to a basic cheese sauce is to make a roux.  Not La Roux, but a roux.  (But Bulletproof is a super great song, though.  And now I'll listen to that while I finish this post.)

A roux is equal parts of flour and fat mixed together.  The best things to use are all purpose flour and butter, but I have used olive oil as my fat in the past, and that has worked fairly well.  Using any other flour or fat?  I make no guarantees.  But try if it you'd like!

Get the butter beginning to melt in a deep skillet or pot over medium heat, then pour your flour right on top.  Use a fork or whisk to combine the two, (I often have to tilt my pan to keep the melting butter in the same corner as the flour) and let them cook together for a short minute to let the flour taste cook out.

Next step, add your milk or cream.  An all cream dish will be rather heavy (but incredibly delicious, of course) whereas an all milk dish will be lighter, thinner, and won't quite cling to the pasta in the same way.  If you're trying to save calories, go ahead with all milk, but you may need to up the flour amount in your roux, or add additional cheese to add some body to the sauce.
Another calorie saving trick I like is to use all milk, but add a good dollop of cream cheese.  It adds creaminess without all the calories of heavy cream.

In this recipe, I went with half heavy cream, and half 1% milk.  Feel free to use whatever milk or cream combination you have on hand.  Whisk the milk into your roux so that no roux chunks remain and everything is smooth.  If you want to add some spices or herbs, here's the place to do it.  I added a clove of garlic, a touch of nutmeg, and pepper.  Hold off on the salt since cheese, especially Parmesan, can be salty.

Once your roux and milk have cooked together and thickened up, add the grated cheese.  I went with a Parmesan, and for dense cheeses like Parmesan (or Asiago, Mizithra, etc.) you'll want to do about half as much cheese as you did milk (example, 1 cup of milk to 1/2 cup cheese).  For softer cheeses such as cheddar, Gruyere, etc., the ratio is closer to 1 part to 1 part.  For example, when you make cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese, you're usually using softer cheese like cheddar.  Then you'd have about a cup of grated cheddar to a cup of milk.

Whisk the sauce with the cheese until your cheese has completely melted in.  And there you go!  You've made a cheese sauce!

A Parmesan cheese sauce differs only slightly from an Alfredo sauce in that an Alfredo sauce typically does not contain a roux.  It's simply straight cream mixed with Parmesan cheese and garlic.  So, if you're reading between the lines, that means this Parmesan cream sauce tastes nearly exactly like Alfredo, but with less fat.  AND if you go the milk and cream cheese route I mentioned earlier, that's even less calories.  You're welcome.

To serve this pasta, we went with a fettuccine pasta, and ribboned up and sauted some carrots.

Isn't that a cool way to prepare pasta?  I first saw the idea over at TheKitchn, via The Forest Feast, and fell in love.  The ribboned carrots add a nice sweetness and crunch and color.

Both Husband and I are very on board with this sauce and pasta preparation.

You should get on board, too!

Parmesan Cream Sauce over Ribboned Carrots and Fettuccine
Serves 2

3 carrots, peeled
4 oz fettuccine
1 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. flour
1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. heavy cream
1 garlic clove, minced
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 c. grated Parmesan
salt to taste

Use vegetable peeler to peel carrots into ribbon.  Set a deep skillet over medium heat.  Add a glug of olive oil, and saute carrot ribbons for 2 to 3 minutes until just softened.  Season with salt and pepper, and remove from heat. Set aside carrots on a separate plate.

Bring a pot of water to boil, salt the water well, and add in the fettuccine pasta.

In the same deep skillet you used for the carrots, over medium heat, add the butter and flour, and mix together with a fork to create a roux (or a paste).  Allow to cook for 30 seconds to a minute.  Pour in the milk and cream slowly, whisking as you go to combine the roux with the liquid evenly. Add the garlic, nutmeg and pepper.  Let cook for 3-5 minutes until slightly thickened.  Add the cheese and whisk well til the cheese is melted through.  Taste, and add salt if necessary.

By this time, your fettuccine should be just al dente.  Drain, and add the noodles to your sauce, allowing to cook for another minute.  Add in your reserved carrots, and combine well with sauce and noodles.  Serve with a little fresh Parmesan right on top!

And remember to submit your ideas for any cooking basics you want to learn!

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