Saturday, April 24, 2010

Good Gravy

My father used to tell me that it is important to marry a woman who knows how to make good gravy. Unfortunately, heat is a big trigger for my wife, so it all falls on me. Fortunately, it's not that tough to make. Better yet, the technique is easily adapted for migraine patients and lends itself to lots of variations.

The key to gravy is following these three easy steps:
1. Create a "roux" (rhymes with "shoe")
2. Add liquid
3. Season to taste

A roux is made by combining roughly equal parts of fat and flour in a sauce pan over medium to medium high heat. Your fat can be butter, oil, margarine, meat drippings or some combination. Butter and olive oil are a popular combination. Butter burns easily, so less heat and more attention are required. Peanut oil is delicious, but bad for you and a potential trigger, but most other fats should be ok. Heat up 2-3 tablespoons of fat and whisk in roughly the same amount of flour. Remember to use a safe whisk if you are cooking in a non-stick sauce pan. Make the mixture as smooth as possible, eliminating all lumps.

Depending on the fat used, the flour may or may not become visibly darker when it is cooked. It may give off a slightly bread-like smell. In any event, after about 5-6 minutes, the dough-like taste that you are trying to avoid will be gone (Note: this is not one of those frequent moments where you should taste your work). Congratulations - you have made a roux.

Now it's time to add liquid. For gravy, the liquid is going to be stock or water. When using water, "base" can be added for flavor. "Better than Boullion" is a safe base choice for many migraine patients (as opposed to real boullion, which is often not). This opens up all kinds of choices for flavors. You may want to steer clear of ham stock, but otherwise, just about everything is reasonably safe. Although the temptation is to match the stock to the meat, chicken stock works great with just about anything. Whisk in about 2 cups of liquid, increase heat, bring to boil and reduce to simmer until the gravy is the desired consistency. Be sure to stir occasionally to keep out the lumps.

Seasoning to taste can be done as the gravy thickens, and fine-tuned when the gravy is finished. This WILL require tasting your work, so remember to use a clean spoon each time. Seasonings can obviously include salt and pepper. However, don't stop there. Other than onion powder for some people, the spice rack is one of your greatest assets. Borrow ideas from your favorite ethnic dishes: Cajun, Greek and Mexican are just a few options. Store-bought seasoning mixes (Creole, Bay Seasining, . . . ) make excellent choices as long as they don't contain trigger additives. Such things DO exist, so shop around, check labels and be patient - your efforts will be rewarded.

Although gravy generally comes out fine even when "eyeballing" measurements, sometimes it refuses to cooperate. Don't despair - you have two options to end up in a good place. First, you can whisk in a bit more flour. This is simple and does the trick without pulling out more ingredients. If you are concerned about changing the taste of the gravy, you have another option: corn starch.

Corn starch has to be used correctly or it will not work as a thickener. However, its advantages outweigh its minor challenges. Stir together 1 part corn starch with 2=3 parts water, just enough to suspend the corn starch in a white, thick, milky mixture called a "slurry". Before the solids settle to the bottom, add a couple of tablespoons to the uncooperative gravy. Increase heat, bring to boil, and quickly reduce heat to simmer. Failing to reduce the heat will cause the corn starch to break down and lose its thickening properties. Remove the gravy from heat as soon as it achieves the desired consistency to avoid this.

The best thing about gravy is that its uses are not limited to something drizzled over a hunk of meat. Other options include the liquid filling for a pot pie, the liquid behind a stew, or the beginnings of a chili.

They say that once you can make gravy, you are offically a real cook. If you are hesitant to cook it without a recipe, try this to get started:

Country Style Steak

This nice recipe uses sauteed onions (shallots work great here) as part of the roux:
Chicken Pot Pie