"I think of soubise as the cashmere jumper of sauces. Nothing can compete with its soft, cosseting qualities." Nigel Slater
Maybe I should start a series on classic sauces, because this is one of those. This is actually a lucky dip post, from Jane Grigson's Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, which I bought way back when I was young and enthusiastic and thought I might like to make real sausages of my own. I had the equipment for mincing and filling the sausage, but couldn't find where to get the casings for the sausages, so that was a failed ambition. One of many.
Nevertheless the book does have lots of other lovely recipes for all pork associated stuff - and pork being a bargain and delicious meat of the moment I really ought to dip into it more. The photo at right is of my very old edition, which I actually saw advertised on the net for sale at $50.00, which is considerably more than I paid for it around 1970 - a mere $1.35. So when I die I should warn my children that some of my books might actually be worth something.
But here is a confession - the page I picked at random contained recipes for choucroute and sauerkraut, but I know I have done choucroute way back in the past, and I did sauerkraut recently. So I tried again and picked what to do with a pig's head! Well, in spite of the currently very trendy guanciale I don't really think I or any of you are going to be enthralled about what to do with a pig's head, so I tried again.
Third time lucky I am in the sauces and relishes chapter and the sauce I am tackling today -sauce soubise. The other ones on the page are saupiquet - which I may do as well in a few days time, and suprème - which is a kind of creamy velouté sauce. One thing I have learnt whilst 'researching' this post is that there are five 'mother' sauces and most of the others are variations on those.
Sauce soubise is a variation on béchamel sauce, which most of you probably know from making lasagne. Unless you are lazy like me and just use cream instead. Indeed it was actually interesting to see that some of the more modern soubise sauces, do not use the béchamel sauce as the foundation, and instead use cream.
Soubise sauce is a white sauce based on slowly braised onions. Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats has an interesting article about it which gives a good overview. Fundamentally it's a sort of comfort food sauce. One of those things that sounds not worth bothering with because it's bland and boring seeming, but which is actually delicious, even divine.
"Soubise, an old-school French sauce made mostly from onions, isn't all too common these days, but it should be. It's incredibly easy to prepare, works with all sorts of meats—from roast chicken to pork and even fish—and lends itself nicely to variation." Daniel Gritzer - Serious Eats
Béchamel sauce is fundamentally a white sauce, made by creating a roux with butter and flour and then whisking in milk and cooking until thick with a touch of nutmeg added along the way. For the classic sauce soubise, you cook your onions very slowly in butter until meltingly soft, add the béchamel and purée the lot.
It was invented by Auguste Escoffier - sometime in the mid nineteenth century. Here he is with some kind of high award on his chest. The other gentleman is Charled de Rohan, Prince de Soubise, whom it is believed the sauce is named after, He lived in the eighteenth century and was a soldier and nobody has said what the connection is - why was the honour given to him? Did he eat a lot of onions?
There are variations, of course, in the way the sauce is cooked. Robert Carrier suggests boiling the sliced onions briefly before braising them. Others use rice in the mix and sometimes cheese is added too. Elizabeth David sort of incorporates the béchamel technique in the cooking by braising the onions until soft, then adding some flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg, before adding some stock - not milk - well she says you can add milk if you like but she prefers the stock. And she doesn't talk about puréeing it at all. Others, purée it and then strain it which to my mind would probably take out most of the taste. And really is a bit fussy.
Here are a few examples that I found - a couple being dishes that use a soubise sauce and Julia Child who really is making a veggie side dish rather than a sauce: Suzanne Goin - with rice in NY Times; Roast cauliflower with onion sauce (Nigel Slater); James Beard/Epicurious - with cheese (no picture but it was James Beard so I thought I should include it); Julia Child's soubise - Kitchen Parade - with rice and more a vegetable side than a sauce; Adam Liaw Steak sandwich with soubise sauce which you can actually barely see. The Serious Eats man is correct - it's not commonly used these days. Definitely not trendy.
Finally I just couldn't leave without including this video which shows you how to make Soubise fluid gel - a cheffy product that is smeared or dolloped artistically on to plates. The process is very over the top but there were some interesting ways the guy worked with the blender. An eye-opener as to how some of those pretty things get on your plate - it's the white dollops in this picture.
I think the idea of sauce soubise is a good one. I love onions. Could not dream of living without them, and this would be a very good way of giving a hit of onion to something. The British seem to think it is perfect for lamb, others go for eggs and fish. I think the egg thing is very old-fashioned. People don't serve up hard-boiled eggs covered in some sort of sauce these days do they? But then they might pour it over your poached egg sitting on sautéed kale or whatever.
Whilst I was checking all this out I found this in the Serious Eats article and thought it summed up how I cook wonderfully.
"It's a rare day that I say to myself, I know, I'm going to pick a very specific dish, go shopping for it, and then cook it for dinner. That requires more planning, shopping, and cooking time than I have on most weeknights. More often, I stare into my fridge, scour my pantry, and think, what the heck can I whip up that uses some of this stuff up and still tastes really good?" Daniel Gritzer - Serious Eats
He did go on to say that both ways of cooking were perfectly valid. Well tonight I'm going the recipe route - for the meat anyway. I feel the need for something classic and easy, so we are having Poulet sauté à l'estragon (tarragon) from Robert Carrier. I adore chicken and tarragon. But - here I go. I'm not going to include his sautéed potatoes and am making a gratin instead - it's in the oven, and I haven't got shallots, so it will have to be onion, but the rest will be as he tells me to do.