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Vegetable Purees Make Easy, Full-Bodied Sauces

Fine Cooking Issue 29
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Many chefs today, while not giving up entirely on using butter and cream, have embraced vegetable purées as a way to create sauces or to give texture or saucelike consistency to flavorful liquids like deglazed pan juices or the drippings from a roast. Although these purées are intrinsically more healthy, they’re successful because they’re delicious.

I often use vegetable purées by whisking some into a pan sauce or gravy in the same way I would add cream or butter for flavor and body. For example, after deglazing with red wine the pan in which I cooked a couple of lamb chops, I’ll stir in a little onion purée and perhaps the tiniest bit of butter.

I’ll also use a vegetable purée as a base for a sauce made independently of the food it accompanies. For example, a purée of roasted red peppers flavored with balsamic vinegar or some puréed chi­potle chiles is an easy, flavorful, and colorful sauce for grilled fare, like ribs or chicken.

Cook the vegetable first. In order to be puréed, the vegetable must be softened through cooking. Delicate vegetables, such as sorrel or spinach, need just a quick sauté to soften them. Fresh chiles and red bell peppers benefit from being charred; this makes it easy to remove their skins and gives them a deeper, sweeter flavor. Vegetables roasted right along with a whole chicken or turkey become soft enough to purée and are delicious stirred into gravy.

The right tool for the best purée

There are all kinds of kitchen gadgets you can use to purée.

The electric approach. Food processors work really well for stiffer purées, such as those made from root vegetables or onions.

Blenders are best for more liquid mixtures, such as thin sauces designed to be served around the food in a large soup plate. I also like to use a blender for puréeing leafy vegetables and herbs; the blades seem to reach the food better, giving you a more emulsified purée that’s uniform in color.

Puréeing unplugged. For a smoother purée or to remove any seeds or skins, you may want to force the food through a food mill, a drum sieve, or a chinois (a very fine mesh strainer).

A food mill uses a propellerlike crank to force the mixture through a perforated metal grid. This tool has the advantage of straining and puréeing at the same time—perfect for ingredients like tomatoes that can be puréed without first removing their skins and seeds.

A fine mesh strainer, a chinois, and a drum sieve are the best gadgets for getting the smoothest purées possible. For all three tools, the food is pushed through tiny openings on a screen with a ladle (for liquids in a strainer or chinois) or a wooden spoon (for stiff mixtures in drum sieve), a process—not as tedious as it sounds—that guarantees a perfectly smooth purée. I’ve found that using an electric tool for an initial purée, such as a food processor for onions, followed by a press through a fine-mesh strainer is the best method for obtaining the smoothest purée with the least work.

Four basic vegetable purées to get you started

Bell Pepper or Chile Purée

  • How to use: As a light sauce for fish and grilled chicken; incorporated into a mayonnaise.
  • How to cook: Roast or grill peppers or chiles until charred. Remove stems, seeds, ribs, and charred skins.
  • How to purée: In a food processor. For a perfectly smooth purée, work through a strainer, a food mill, or a drum sieve.
  • Embellishments: A little balsamic vinegar; deglazed pan drippings; puréed canned chipotle chiles.

Roasted Garlic Purée

  • How to use: Whisked into a pan sauce after deglazing or into the juices from the roasting pan to add body and flavor; thinned with broth or a little cream (or both) for a velvety sauce that’s appropriate for grilled meats and seafood.
  • How to cook: Cut off the top third of a few heads of garlic to expose the cloves and wrap the garlic loosely in foil. Roast at 400°F until soft, about 1 hour.
  • How to purée: Squeeze the garlic pulp into a food mill or press it through a strainer to remove stray skins.
  • Embellishments: A little olive oil for a smoother, satiny finish.

Onion Purée

  • How to use: As a great thickener for pan sauces, especially those made from beef or lamb; served with grilled foods.
  • How to cook: Cook sliced onions with a little butter, stirring occasionally, until they’re quite soft, about half an hour. For a deeper, caramelized flavor, continue cooking slowly until the onions brown.
  • How to purée: In a blender or a food processor. For a perfectly smooth purée, work through a strainer, a food mill, or a drum sieve.
  • Embellishments: A little tomato purée or wine vinegar.

Parsley Purée

  • How to use: As a delicate sauce around scallops or seafood in a wide soup plate.
  • How to cook: Simmer a stemmed bunch in 1/2 cup chicken stock or, if using for seafood, fish broth or the liquid from steamed clams, mussels, or poached fish.
  • How to purée: In a stand blender. For a perfectly smooth purée, work the purée through a strainer or a drum sieve.
  • Embellishments: For a thicker, richer purée, replace half the stock or cooking liquid with cream.


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