Food + Drink

From the Chronicle Kitchen:
Modern Sauces

Congratulations to this week’s guest blogger Martha Holmberg! A few weeks back, today’s featured cookbook, Modern Sauces, received an IACP Cookbook Awards nomination for best single subject book of 2013. This week, she’s also received a nomination for the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Awards (a major achievement to be recognized by both of these organizations). If you leave a comment on this post, you’ll be eligible to win the copy of Modern Sauces we’ll be giving away to a randomly selected lucky person (offer good in the US and Canada only).

I have memories of many good meals that I’ve eaten throughout my life, but there are a handful that are less an actual memory and more an imprint—a moment when what I tasted struck my sensory chords in a way that rang a tune never heard by me before and for which I would long to hear again.

One that I remember well is soupe aux poissons—Provencal fish soup—a brick-red concoction of broth and bones and fish and saffron, blended into a thin but highly fishy flavor (and I mean that in the best way) and served with grilled bread and a bowl of pale orange mayonnaise.

My introduction came in 1979, when my college friend and I did our Grand Tour of Europe, which at the time meant an Eddie Bauer backpack, a Eurail pass, and some of those lovely American Express Travellers’ Cheques, which probably don’t exist any more, but which had an unmistakable crisp, lightly embossed texture. I can feel it now as I write this, so obviously I imprinted on Amex Travellers’ Cheques, too.

Our itinerary took us to London, then Edinburgh, and then—inexplicably—Glasgow. With all due props to the Glaswegians, in the early 80s, that town’s food scene was about as exciting as a Styrofoam to-go box. After 36 hours of deprivation, we decided to hop on a train and trek for what I recall as a 24-hour ride to Cannes, where the first thing we did was head for the harbor and find a restaurant.

I’m sure our place was touristy, and the soupe aux poissons was likely pedestrian, but I will forever taste that salty, fishy, fragrant, slightly mysterious soup (they puree the bones?) and especially voluptuous ribbons of the garlicky, red-pepper mayonnaise (delightfully named rouille which means “rust” and which is as confoundingly difficult to pronounce as just about any French food word, except of course for hors d’oeuvres…).

The soup and sauce combo I’m sharing here, from Modern Sauces, offers nowhere near the romance of that first soup—what could? —but it requires no crossing of the English Channel nor grinding of Mediterranean fish carcasses. If you decide you like it, tuck it into your repertoire, and you’ll find yourself making this soup both for family and for company. It’s easy and it’s quick and yet it does offer a certain captivating south-of-France-ness that makes it memorable, too.

Simple Seafood Stew with Grilled Bread and Smoky Red Pepper Mayonnaise

This dish is delicious as written here, but the recipe is also a starting point for whatever calls to me when I’m shopping on the day I’m cooking it: sweet summer corn, chunks of firm zucchini, or fat white beans. You can turn this simple stew into a feast by adding shrimp, mussels, and clams.

Serves 4

5 tbsp/75 ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 small jalapeno chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 1/2 tbsp chopped garlic
Two 28-oz/795-g cans whole peeled tomatoes, coarsely chopped, with juices, or 4 cups/600 g peeled, seeded, and chopped fresh tomatoes
1 cup/240 ml dry white wine
4 slices artisanal white bread such as ciabatta or pain au levain
3 cups/720 ml fish stock, bottled clam juice, turkey broth, chicken broth, or canned reduced-sodium chicken broth
Large pinch of saffron threads (about 15 threads)
1 lb/455 g halibut, cod, or other firm white fish, cut into 1-in/2.5-cm chunks
Kosher salt
Hot-pepper sauce such as Sriracha
2⁄3 cup/165 ml Smoky Red Pepper Mayonnaise (see below)
2 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat 3 tbsp of the oil over medium heat. Add the chile and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, another 30 seconds or so. Add the tomatoes and wine, raise the heat to medium-high, and simmer vigorously until the tomatoes have broken down and the mixture is slightly soupy, about 15 minutes.

While the soup is simmering, prepare a medium fire in a charcoal or gas grill. Or, position an oven rack about 5 in/12 cm from the boiler element and heat the broiler. If using a grill, the fire is ready when you can comfortably hold your hand, palm-side down, 2 to 3 in/5 to 7.5 cm above the grill rack for 4 seconds. Brush the grill rack so that it is perfectly clean.

Brush the bread slices on both sides with the remaining 2 tbsp oil. Place on the grill rack or on a baking sheet under the broiler and grill or broil, turning once, until nicely toasted on both sides. Set aside.

Pour the stock into the tomato mixture and crumble in the saffron. Simmer to reduce the liquid slightly and concentrate the flavors, about 5 minutes. Add the fish chunks, stir to make sure they are completely covered by liquid, and simmer until the fish is opaque throughout, 3 to 5 minutes more. Season with salt and hot-pepper sauce.

Put one slice of the grilled bread in each of four wide soup bowls, ladle some of the stew over each slice, and top with a big spoonful of the mayonnaise. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve immediately, with a knife and fork as well as a spoon.

Smoky Red Pepper Mayonnaise
Spanish smoked paprika, or pimentón de la Vera, comes in sweet, bittersweet, and hot varieties. I like using the sweet here because it plays well off the sweet roasted red pepper, but feel free to use whichever kind you like best. If you’re pressed for time and opt for a jarred roasted red pepper, be sure to rinse and dry it before adding it to the mayonnaise. This crimson sauce, which is a bit like the French rouille, is wonderful on grilled vegetable and mozzarella sandwiches or as a dip for seared or steamed green beans.

Makes about 2 cups/480 ml

2 egg yolks
2 tsp sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
1 or 2 cloves garlic
Kosher salt
1 to 1 1/4 cups/240 to 300 ml canola, grapeseed, or mild extra-virgin olive oil, or a mixture
1 tsp Spanish sweet smoked paprika
1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, stemmed, seeded, and cut into a few pieces
Hot-pepper sauce such as Sriracha

In a food processor, combine the egg yolks, vinegar, mustard, garlic, and 1/2 tsp salt and pulse until well blended. The yolks will likely be sprayed on the sides of the bowl, so scrape them down with a rubber spatula. With the motor running, begin adding the oil in a very slow stream. You may need to stop and scrape again. As the mayonnaise gets thicker, you can add the oil faster. When you have incorporated almost all of the oil, slow down and watch the sauce closely. If you see oil starting to separate out, stop adding oil; the yolks have absorbed enough.

With the motor running, add the paprika, roasted pepper, and a few dashes of hot-pepper sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and hot-pepper sauce if needed.

Storage: Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Quick change: Soak a small pinch (about 8 threads) of saffron threads in 1 tbsp warm water for 10 minutes and add the saffron and soaking water with the egg yolk mixture.

Purchase: Modern Sauces: More than 150 Recipes for Every Cook, Every Day.

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  • Marisol March 21, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Can't wait to try these recipes out…


  • Sara P. March 21, 2013 at 11:09 am

    This looks like a great book!


  • Glenna M March 21, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Ahh, sauces! They seem like they should be so easy, but success is often elusive for me… I can deglaze a pan with my eyes shut, make a mean bolognese, and whip up an acceptable bechamel, but beyond that, I need some serious guidance!


  • Marisol March 22, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Love these recipes


  • skileskatharine March 22, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Lovely story and photos- can't wait to try this recipe. Congratulations Martha. -Sky


  • Laura L March 23, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    This looks delicious! I can't wait to try out the soup recipe with the cold weather still here.


  • Nik March 23, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    ohgoodgolly…perfect for National Sauce Month! 🙂
    Just like Crêpes and Puff, this book looks over-the-top amazing! Just gorgeous!


  • Laura March 24, 2013 at 11:50 am

    I made the mayo and it was fabulous — ate it with homefries this morning.! Could eat alot of it.


  • Karen March 26, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Wow! Vicariously tasting the fish soup from your wonderful description!! Eager to try the recipe provided.


  • @wirechairs April 2, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    …and Laura L is the randomly selected lucky winner of "Modern Sauces". Thanks to all for your comments.


  • Nancy Sterngold December 21, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    Hello, Martha Holmberg. I am enjoying exploring “Modern Sauces.” I wonder, though, whether it would be possible for you to send me a copy of the book in all black text or at least in dark inks. I’m a senior lady and am having quite a difficult time with the recipe ingredients printed in orange and golden-rod ink. Thank you for the recipes– they are great and I’m trying a new one tonight– and thank you in advance for more legible text!


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