I realized this afternoon, as I was whipping up a quick cheese sauce for pasta that I make “white sauce” all the time. It’s the basis for so many of the things I make that I feel like it’s something I should pass on to others. Plus, I first learned to make it in Israel so that covers the “say more about Israel” clamor I’ve been getting. (You know, from all four of my fans…love you guys!!)
When I lived in Israel I lived on a kibbutz. It was a small kibbutz, about 70 families. There were about 15-20 volunteers and factory workers at any given time. We worked all over the kibbutz- landscaping, cleaning the dinning room, cooking in the kitchen, running machines in the factory. We worked six days a week- really, more like five and a half since Fridays we were able to knock off a bit early. The volunteers all lived in the same row of flats and the factory workers were a few rows away.*
Since it was a small kibbutz there wasn’t much to do on our days off. Sometimes we’d travel into Tel Aviv or down to Jerusalem for the night. Often we’d stay on the kibbutz and drink at the pub- which was actually a converted bomb shelter- or walk over to the “bush pub” which was a bar a bit further away. Saturday mornings were the best- we’d all sleep late and then gather in one of our small flats to make breakfast on our hot plates. We’d take fresh vegetables from the kibbutz kitchen (this was how most of the kibbutzniks did their shopping- just wandered through the walk-in with plastic bags in hand. It’s really no wonder they had to revamp their practices a few years after I left!) and eat them with fresh bread and cheese outside on the grass in front of our flats.
Sometimes we’d make dinners. That was always a bit harder and we’d have to get creative. Sometimes we’d take the Friday chicken from the dinning room and supplement it with vegetables. One night, and I remember it clearly, despite all the Shabbat wine I’d had, one of the Australian volunteers made what she called “white sauce” with pasta. It was delicious and I watched intently and then demanded that she tell me how she made it. She described it to me and I memorized it. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized what I was making was technically a Bechamel Sauce.
Bechamel is, according to epicurious.com, a basic French white sauce which is the base of many other sauces and was named after its inventor, Louis XIV’s steward Louis de Bechamel. I have found this to be true and have used it in numerous applications over the years. So, to me it is an invaluable Kitchen Basic. Plus, it always reminds me of S., the sassy Australian volunteer (who, in a strange twist of fate, met her now husband (who is from South Africa) on the kibbutz and they currently live a few towns away from me! So she had to come from Australia to Israel to meet her South African husband and then to move to the U.S. Funny how life works, huh?)
Bechamel Sauce aka White Sauce
3 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
nutmeg (a true Bechamel uses a bit of nutmeg, I don’t always use it)
Additional items: cheese, dry mustard, onions, garlic, other flavorings
Keep whisking until all the butter is absorbed and you have kind of paste.
Let it cook over medium heat until it’s a nice golden color- about 1-2 minutes. It will be sort of nutty smelling which is good. (This mixture of flour and fat is technically a roux. It can be used as a thickening agent for a number of dishes.)
Add a bit of the milk and whisk in order to make it smooth with no lumps. It will thicken up very quickly. Add the rest of the milk and whisk again. Cook over medium heat for a few minutes but keep an eye on it and whisk it often since it will continue to thicken and you don’t want it to scorch on the bottom.
Season it with salt, pepper and nutmeg. A few sprinkles of all three- nothing too strong. If you’re using it to make a cheese sauce, stir in the grated cheese a bit at a time (I have a visual in my mind of S. standing at her hot plate, patiently tearing pieces of cheese and dropping them into the sauce while she stirred it.). In this case, I added cheddar cheese to make a cheese sauce. Serve over pasta or meat or whatever you like. The basic Bechamel sauce is what’s used as the topping to moussaka which is a dish I love but almost never make since it’s a time-consuming one. Of course as I write this, I’m thinking it’s probably no more time-consuming than lasagna so maybe I’ll give it a shot one of these cold weekends. Stay tuned!
*In scouring the web for links I came across a website made by a volunteer whose time on the kibbutz overlapped with mine. He’s made a bit of a website with photos and such so if you’re interested, click here.