I revisited an old favorite today. One of those dishes that when we were growing up, had come to epitomize the upward, cosmopolitan movement of the middle class. In my early teens, any party that you went to, you had to be served vegetable au gratin (a.k.a baked vegetables) along with your regulars of dal and subzis. Proud hostesses would bring out the gratin dish coyly and lay it on the table expecting the usual questions – what is this, what does it have? They would reply casually that it was a really easy to make continental dish. “Continental” had become the umbrella term for food that was not Indian or Chinese. All it really was, was steamed veggies tossed in a bechamel (a.k.a white) sauce topped with bread crumbs and cheese and baked off. But there was something about it. The sweetness and crunch of the veggies, typically green beans, carrots, peas and potatoes, mixed with the peppery, sweetness of the white sauce and the cheesy, crispness of the topping. It was a perfect contrast in textures and taste to the oil-heavy, spicy and mostly mushy Indian food that was served alongside. Almost like a palate cleanser.
When we first started eating it at parties, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t new to me. My mom was already doing things with pasta and white sauce before that at home. She would often make a similar gratin at home with pasta and vegetables. Once she also made baked fish in white sauce. She was doing an experiment with her new microwave to see how well it could really “bake”. So she made two kinds of fish – one in a mint sauce and one in a white sauce. I don’t remember what fish it was – a pomfret most likelt. But it was delicate enough to pair with freshness of the mint and sturdy enough to stand up to the white sauce. I was reminded of this fish when we visited Moshe’s in Cuffe Parade and I had the char-grilled rawas which came in a phyllo pastry bowl on a bed of roasted vegetables. The sauce was a classic lemon, butter and caper sauce but it’s color and texture reminded me of a light bechamel.
White sauce has been one of those things in my culinary repertoire with which I have shared a love hate relationship. I love to eat it, but for a while there I hated making it! The sauce always seized up and I ended up with a goopy mess of dough in milk. Ugh. So I gave up on trying to make it at home. Until one day I visited a family friend who lived in Columbus, Ohio. She was making a layered pasta dish with three kinds of sauces – a spinach sauce, a tomato sauce and a bechamel. When she uncovered her bechamel pan and I laid eyes on the beautiful, creamy, thick and white sauce I was green with envy. How did she create this thing of beauty? So I asked her a few questions about it. I don’t remember what she told me though, because I didn’t really use her input! I didn’t make white sauce again until much later when I had moved to California and started watching Food Network. It was there that I learned certain tricks to making a good bechamel which worked for me. I first learned that after you make the roux you have to add cold milk to hot roux and stir really hard while pouring in the milk to prevent lumps from forming. So I did that religiously and it worked! I was the creator of gloriously smooth white sauce. I kept using this trick to make several more batches of white sauce until I learned one day that you must in fact add warm milk to the roux. So I did that and found that that worked to. Apparently the latter is the original method, but I have found that if you whisk hard enough cold or warm milk works.
So today I decided to make mom’s gratinated pasta with vegetables. I used green beans, capsicum, carrots, onions and corn which I sauteed and par-cooked in olive oil with salt, pepper, chili flakes and parsley. For pasta I used a whole wheat fusili and make a light bechamel with salt, pepper, chili flakes and nutmeg (the nutmeg really does something to the basic sauce) and threw in some “pizza” cheese (processed cheese which is a mix of moz and cheddar) that I had in my freezer. I am officially out of cheese which is a good thing after several weeks of figuring out how to use existing cheese! Now for my twist. The husband showed disdain when I told him my pasta plans. Not in the mood for white sauce, he said. I knew what he wanted – what he always wants these days – pesto! But I didn’t have the ingredients for pesto. Then at least put some capers in, he said. Interesting I thought. Lemony parsley and capers. Not a bad idea. And some beautiful pimento stuffed olives. So I chopped up a couple of tablespoons of each and tossed it with the pasta, vegetables and sauce. The topping was home made brown bread crumbs and butter seasoned with mixed herbs and put it in the oven, letting the top brown at a higher temperature for the last few minutes.
I was worried that the dish might be a little dry, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t soaked in sauce, but the pasta and vegetables were sufficiently juicy. The salty bite and mild tartness from the capers and olives gave the dish that extra oomph which picked it up from regular old comfort food to fancy comfort food!
While I was chopping my veggies I started getting hiccups which would not stop with all the regular methods. But then I got so involved in all the cooking that I forgot I was hiccuping and soon they disappeared. The baby, despite being incredibly tired and sleepy, took an hour to sleep. It had been one of “those” days filled with hiccups as far as child rearing goes. Yet, while I’ve been writing about food and cooking I have forgotten about those hiccups. Funny the effect cooking and writing have on life.