Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Gravy Train

When I married my husband almost 20 years ago, I married his three children too and they came to live with us soon after the wedding.  Their biological mother never claimed to be a cook and it did not take long for the kids to start looking forward to meal times.  For the longest time, none of them would touch my homemade gravies though, despite my assurances that it was good eating and their father's enthusiasm.

It took a while, but the oldest one decided to be brave one night - not much of a surprise for anyone that knew her, she had a lion's heart - and proclaimed the chicken gravy to be delicious.  The other two were swayed by her compelling arguments of yum and slurp; they came to know the wonders of gravy and are better people for the knowledge.

Our middle daughter is a very picky eater, there are not many meats that she cares for but the gravy is a completely different matter.  There is always a puddle of it on her plate and a pleased smile on her face that pleases me immensely.  As for my son, well he and I are of the same mind about one thing:  that leftover rice and gravy is perhaps the best breakfast ever.

Winter is the time for steaming pot roasts and crispy roasted chickens, so it is therefore also the gravy season and I'm here to tell you how easy it is to make great gravy.  Let me say here that the reason my kids refused to eat gravy in the beginning was because all they ever knew until then was commercially made stuff in a jar or can.  No small wonder they shunned those foul concoctions, store-bought gravies have no redeeming values and have yet to justify their existence in my view.

Say no to shortcut gravy and say yes to roux (pronounced roo), you'll be glad you did.  Roux has been villainized in recent years by food Nazis who tend to talk much more than they think or eat.  It is just a mixture of equal parts fat and flour that form the basis for silky, hearty gravies and other sauces and mastering the roux is very simple.

Here is the formula: 1 tablespoon fat and 1 tablespoon flour to 1 cup of liquid.  It can be easily increased without a change in the formula, so double or triple the recipe as needed.

Cooking the roux is even easier, melt the fat in a sauce pan or pot, add the flour, stir until combined and there you go, one basic roux.  In this stage, roux is great for lighter colored gravy like chicken, but it can be tailored to what you are cooking.  Keep stirring the roux in the pan a bit longer and it begins to change color to a darker brown and takes on nuttier flavor notes, this darker roux is great for beef gravy.

I've heard rumors that burnt roux has little black spots instead of uniform color and that it should be thrown away.  However, I've never burnt a roux, so I can't say for sure; what I can attest to is that one should not walk away from the gravy making once it has started.  It doesn't take long, but a moment's inattention at the wrong time could ruin all your work.  Gravy is a humble sauce and simple too, but it is not a forgiving sauce, not at all.

Okay, how about a little practical procedure?  We will be making 2 cups of gravy from the drippings of a roasted chicken, so we will need 2 cups of liquid.  I bolster my drippings with milk flavored with bouillon so that I get those 2 cups of liquid, but you can use stock or broth instead.  Too many dirty dishes is a drag, so I cook the gravy in the roasting pan, this is where I will put first my 2 tablespoons of fat.

Fat can come from many sources, butter is the most common for roux, but I prefer to use the rendered fat from whatever I roasted.  Therefore, I have skimmed off 2 tablespoons of chicken fat and put it in the roasting pan with 2 tablespoons of flour, turned on the stove to medium-low heat and began stirring diligently.  Get all the fat and flour combined quickly and keep moving it around with your spoon (!) until the roux is a light golden brown color.

Now you add the liquid, the closer to room temperature the better because overly hot or cold liquids don't blend as well.  Continue stirring briskly, the goal is to blend the liquid and the roux quickly, scraping out the corners of the dish and stirring down small lumps.  Allow the gravy to come to a simmer, while stirring, and then let it cook gently for another minute or two, stirring frequently.

On the stove, your gravy may not look as thick as you were hoping, but it will thicken up once it has been removed from the heat.  Taste the gravy and adjust the seasonings if necessary, a little salt could take it from good to great, and give your diners something to look forward to.

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