Kitchener-Waterloo

When it comes to great food, sometimes sauce makes all the difference: Andrew Coppolino

While the old-school, heavy-duty French “mother” sauces can be time-consuming and technically difficult, and ketchup is a bit too simple for your steak, there are easy sauces that can be done quickly to complete your plate.

From pesto to chimichurri, sauces make a great compliment to a meal

At Ennio's Pasta House, chef Danny MacDonald suggests using simple ingredients readily available and in your larder to make the perfect sauce for any meal. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

So, I've got the meal pretty much put together. The protein is barbecued, a host of vegetables have been nicely grilled and there's rice pilaf prepared.

We're ready to sit down to eat when I realize that the plates look a little boring — there's no sauce!

While the old-school, heavy-duty French "mother" sauces can be time-consuming and technically difficult, and ketchup is a bit too simple for your steak, there are easy sauces that can be done virtually at the last minute to complete your plate.

More than just an afterthought, sauces are at the very core of humankind's history in the kitchen. The word itself derives from a centuries' old word for "salt" — those crunchy sea crystals — which ancient cooks used to season food and boost taste.

Those same cooks employed the services of ingredients essentially growing around them and others brought in from far away like peppercorns, spicy-hot peppers, sweet and sour fruits, honey, herbs and spices.

Home cooks today can similarly rely on those ingredients. In addition to the punch of flavour, sauces add texture and visual appeal to a plate of food — important because it is often said that diners eat with their eyes first.

Keep it simple

At Ennio's Pasta House, chef Danny MacDonald suggests using simple ingredients readily available and in your larder.

An aglio e olio preparation — garlic and olive oil — is an inexpensive Neapolitan classic that goes brilliantly on pasta but with other foods as well.

Start off with oil in a pan and thinly sliced garlic lightly toasting. The key is to cook it slowly with the oil brought up to a moderate heat.

"You want the garlic golden brown," MacDonald says.

Of course it goes well on spaghetti or linguine with a few red pepper flakes, but try drizzling some over those grilled vegetables.

With a bounty of greens and herbs still available at local markets, draw on them for a quick green sauce that goes well with virtually any dish. It's just a combination of the greens, some sort of oil and a blender.

Pesto is usually made with fresh herbs, oil, cheese and nuts. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

"I recommend a pesto for a quick sauce for home cooks," says new Red House head chef Jenn Angus-Parkin.

"It's simple with whatever fresh herbs you have. Add some spinach and a little lemon juice and olive oil and garlic. Put it in a blender. It's great with vegetables, over pasta. It's versatile and you can switch up the veg to what you have. It's one of my go-to sauces."

Pesto often needs some cheese grated into it, along with something like a pine nut or walnuts.

A pesto variation is a slightly more oily Argentine and South American favourite called chimichurri. Its acidity and slight bite from red pepper flakes makes it a perfect compliment to the fat in grilled meats, fish and vegetables.

Red House head chef Jenn Angus-Parkin recommends making pesto to help your meal come alive, with some spinach and a little lemon juice and olive oil and garlic. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Terry Salmond, who is preparing the Charles Street space vacated by Cafe Pyrus for his new Lighthouse Food Community, says herbs are what can really make sauces sing.

"Fresh thyme is a big one because people gravitate toward parsley and cilantro at the supermarket. The leaves are small and a bit troublesome to work with, but adding thyme is that one flavour that makes people get it. They say, 'Oh, that's that home-cooked, rich, earthy, herbaceous flavour,'" he says.

Add to that some good vinegar or some lemon juice, and your sauce will be vastly improved, Salmond notes.

Invest in a few good-quality oils, vinegars and fresh herbs when possible. A little in your sauce goes a long way.

I recently cooked some pork chops in a pan with apple, onions and rosemary. But the ingredient that really made the difference was some grainy mustard.

As the chops were resting, I reduced the apple-onion-mustard mixture briefly, added a bit of wine and butter and blitzed the lot with an immersion blender. After seasoning it and garnishing the dish with a bit of chopped parsley, the preparation took only a few minutes and added oodles of flavour.

Terry Salmond, who is preparing the Charles Street space vacated by Cafe Pyrus for his new Lighthouse Food Community, says herbs are what can really make sauces sing. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Take advantage of apple season

Similarly, citing apple season, Arielle Neils, executive chef for Compass Group at a major local tech company, suggests a quick, easy Granny Smith sauce that came from her mother's creativity in the kitchen

"My mom made this during a visit to Canada when we couldn't find the tropical fruits we needed to make the specific sauce. I remember saying to her that it wouldn't work as well as without mangoes, but she just said, 'Aye, you trust me? After all, I produced a chef, no?'"

Neils says to peel the apples and blend them with fresh garlic, sawtooth coriander, salt, sugar, a little water and a piece of a scotch bonnet pepper for some heat.

"The result was perfect to accompany all of our Trinidadian fried Indian delicacies and things like pakoras and samosas. It will brighten up any dish and the flavours are very fresh," she says.

A versatile quick sauce that's great for fish and vegan dishes, according to Nyam Revival Kitchen chef-owner Teneile Warren is a simplified version of a popular Jamaican dish called "Run Down."   

"I often make this sauce and cook snapper or a vegetarian version using pumpkin and eggplant and usually serve it with rice," says Warren. "There is also a Trinidadian version called 'Oil Down.' It has a very earthy flavour profile."

Chimichurri is a pesto variation that compliments the fat in grilled meats, fish and vegetables. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Time for dessert

As for dessert, Aura Hertzog says you can combine simple ingredients to add flavour and texture to a variety of baked goods.

"If it's something like a muffin or a scone or even a coffee cake, you can do a very simple milk and icing sugar glaze. You can do it by eye depending on how thick or thin you want it. Take a spoon and drizzle it over. After that, add fruit or roasted nuts. You can make it with dairy alternatives, too," she says.

The apples and onions I used were ingredients from Waterloo region, but every cuisine in the world has sauces, from sausage gravy for American-south biscuits to pomegranate glazes of the Middle East and the XO fish-based sauce of Hong Kong.

No matter the meal, sauces deepen flavour and provide either a compliment or a contrast to foods. You can find them ready-made on grocery store shelves, but they often can be created with simple larder ingredients that don't add a cost to your grocery bill.

Nyam Revival Kitchen chef-owner Teneile Warren offers her recipe for coconut cream sauce. (Submitted by Teneile Warren)

Teneile Warren's Coconut Cream Sauce

Ingredients

400 ml or 1 can of unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk

5 cloves, garlic, chopped

1 inch ginger root, chopped

1 medium white onion, sliced

2 tablespoons neutral-flavoured oil or unsalted butter

½ teaspoon crushed whole allspice

6-8 sprigs of fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried thyme

1 bay leaf

1 scotch bonnet pepper

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

In a saucepan on medium heat, add oil or butter. When it comes to temperature, add garlic, ginger, white onion, thyme, bay leaf, and allspice. Drop temperature to low heat and cook until ingredients are softened and the flavours have been released, about five minutes. Add the coconut milk and whole scotch bonnet pepper. Cover the pan, and allow to cook for another 15 minutes. Finish with salt and pepper.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.

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