By Melissa Pasanen, "Creamy Winter Comfort,"January/February 2013
On cold winter nights on a Colorado ranch, Grandmother Maud bustled around her warm woodstove simmering up rib-sticking meals like hearty winter vegetable chowder for a table full of family and ranch hands. Standing over the steaming pot, she would taste the sweet carrots and rutabaga and then pour in a generous pint of fresh cream. It’s a scene that her grandson, renowned chef John Ash, remembers vividly. He would savor spoonfuls of the comforting soup, full of tender vegetables with a touch of smoky bacon. “It was so rich and creamy, it would warm me up all the way through,” he says. “It still takes me back to childhood.”
Cream has the power to transform something pedestrian into something extraordinary. This was a lesson reinforced for Ash when he traveled around Europe in his twenties. He took cooking classes in London and Paris and worked in the restaurant of a small family-run inn in Burgundy, France. There he learned that cream stirred into a bowl of garden peas or a sauce for a simple chicken breast or fish fillet added velvety texture and delicate sweetness that is hard to duplicate. Cream, unfortunately, also brought less-desirable things like calories and saturated fat.
“Most of us love rich, creamy sauces, but the butter and cream can be of concern,” Ash acknowledges. Over the years, as Ash’s eponymous Sonoma County restaurant gathered praise, he published cookbooks and began teaching, and his repertoire expanded beyond traditional French cuisine to include global influences and healthier cooking methods. “As I learned more about good nutrition, I was faced with the dilemma of how to cook in a healthier way without sacrificing flavor and texture,” he says. “I started a lifelong search for ingredients and techniques to ‘enrich’ dishes without piling on fat and calories.”
A prime example is his innovative low-fat creamless sauce, which he uses to replace the cream, butter or egg yolks often used to thicken and enrich recipes. Among the substitutions Ash tried, nothing delivered the ideal lush, creamy texture until he came up with an inspired twist on a French master sauce called soubise. Starting with a base of sautéed onions, Ash’s simple technique leverages the starch of cooked rice to provide a surprising richness without any dairy. A touch of bright acidity from dry white wine rounds out the onion’s sweetness. The sauce is made with pantry basics and then it becomes a pantry basic itself. “I make a big batch to keep on hand to use in soups, sauces or wherever cream is called for,” Ash says. While the sauce has its own appealing flavor, it is also remarkably flexible. “It’s a blank canvas. You can flavor it in a million different ways.”
Ash deploys his versatile low-fat sauce to create comforting creamy dishes like crusty baked macaroni and cheese, elegant “creamed” mushroom toasts and a company-worthy—but weeknight-quick—roasted red pepper sauce to dress up chicken or fish. His “Cream Sauce without the Cream” even works beautifully in an Italian-inspired tonnato sauce that you can toss with pasta or serve as a dip for crunchy vegetables. Try it as a base for chicken potpie or swirl it into soups like the satisfying bacon-flecked winter vegetable chowder adapted from Grandmother Maud’s recipe. Even hungry ranch hands won’t miss the cream.