When I see a book on sauces, I suffer a number of reactions. First, I feel sure it’s going to take a whole lot of time and a whole lot of work — fine for an army of sous-chefs with whisk-ready biceps and a commercial dishwasher, but not for me. Second, I feel depressed that I’m not even going to get a meal out of it. Third, I feel guilty, because I should’ve learned this stuff in cooking school when I was supposed to.
Usually, a quick leaf-through of the book confirms my hunches. But the new “Modern Sauces,” by former Fine Cooking editor Martha Holmberg, turns my instincts upside-down. These sauces look almost speedy, and they’re followed by real, meal-sized recipes that use them.
Couscous with braised vegetables in charmoula proves sauces really are magical. At first the dose of smoked paprika seems overpowering, then it mingles loosely with parsley and cilantro, making a rather pedestrian assortment of roots and cauliflower taste like something new.
Spicy saffron-red pepper cream sauce is the sort of thing you can smell across the house, a broad hint of lemon offering a departure from what otherwise tastes like a kind of mayo-less rouille. If it came in a can I would spray my house with it every day, but I settled for wolfing it down with farfalle, shrimp, and scallops.
You may have tried to make a fast Bolognese, despite traditionalists warning that you need no less than three hours. But in 45 minutes, Holmberg makes a sauce that stands on its own merits, porky with sausage and pancetta, borrowing depth from Worcestershire sauce and a piney fragrance from rosemary.
Jalapeno-lime-ginger butter tempts you to just grab a spoon and dig in, but it’s more decorous to hold out for the chicken. Holmberg’s chicken breast gets an interesting coconut-sesame crust; inside it’s just plain old chicken, waiting to be rescued by dollops of ravishing butter sauce.
I curdled homemade mayonnaise the other week while testing recipes for another book, but Holmberg’s formula restored my confidence, producing a perfect, thick food-processor mayo, curried, and acidulated with ginger, lime, and vinegar. It’s the perfect foil for hazelnuts and apples in an unorthodox chicken salad.
I doubled a recipe for seared skirt steak and garlicky fried potatoes, which meant it was harder to cook everything just right. My skirt steak was a little thick and tough for pan-searing, and the potatoes wilted in the oven as I batch-cooked them. But none of this matters once you start in on the “steak sauce hollandaise,” a simple marriage of soy, Worcestershire, and sherry vinegar.
Sides are equally effective. There’s nothing not to love about a warm maple-bacon vinaigrette, except possibly that if you put it on a smashed new pottage salad you may gobble it down and ruin your appetite for the rest of the meal. An apple cider-chili butter sauce perfectly balances the funky sweetness of roasted Brussels sprouts; a pinch of espelette pepper keeps it moving and bright.
Holmberg says she is not a baker, which may explain why when I measured the flour for her profiteroles the “correct” way (the spoon-and-scoop method) they failed. I did it again the “wrong” way (the packed-scoop method), and the extra gluten puffed them perfectly. But the real star was Holmberg’s chocolate sauce, swooning and dark against a cardamom-coffee-caramel pastry cream.
Organizationally, it would be nice to have a key next to each sauce directing you to the recipe you could serve it with. And it is true that the sauces often outshine the proteins and carbs that deliver them. But using surefire flavor combinations and optimal tweaks, Holmberg makes sure each sauce is delicious and worth your while.