Let’s Make a Roux: White Wine Spinach Cream Sauce

Where it all begins: butter and alliums.

Making a roux was the first scary, real-chef sort of thing I did in my kitchen fresh out of college and it was simultaneously terrifying and freeing. Terrifying because, well, you are dumping a lot of flour into not a lot of butter, and praying that your super doesn’t evict you if it all goes to pot and you burn down your apartment building. Freeing because it actually ended up being so fun and gave me the exhilarating feeling of “gosh, maybe I can cook!” It’s sort of how I felt after I turned in my first paper in grad school. I was so scared, but it turned out really well. It was the moment that the imposter syndrome started to let go, and I could finally allow myself to believe that maybe I belonged here.

Now, making a roux is exciting to me and I can do it by feel alone. In fact, I think that’s my favorite thing about it; you can’t really follow a recipe. You just have to move with your ingredients and listen, watch, and taste your progress, adjusting along the way. If you don’t know, a roux is “a mixture of fat (especially butter) and flour used in making sauces,” according to the dictionary. The flour and the fat merge and thicken, providing that creamy, luxurious, decadent base for the cream sauces that color our favorite food memories.

Last night I made a white wine spinach cream sauce over penne pasta, and it was about the most decadent thing you can do with a Monday night. It’s elevated comfort food that looks and tastes like hard work but was actually just a ton of fun. So I’m going to talk you through how I made my sauce, and I hope you go and try your own. Mix up the ingredients, burn a saucepan, over-salt, make your mistakes, but just, please, keep trying and learning from your food.

I began my sauce by setting out everything I would need close at hand. Building a roux will move pretty quickly, so you don’t want to be digging around in your cupboards while your mixture scalds or seizes on the stove. sautéing minced shallots and garlic with a healthy dash of salt over melted butter on medium heat. I sautéed them for about three minutes all told. De glaze the pan with about a 1/3 cup of white wine (I used Bogle’s Chardonnay. I don’t love it for drinking strait up, though my husband does, but it imparts a great cooking flavor and it’s a pretty affordable wine at a smooth $7).

Once I’ve deglazed the pan, I may add another pat of butter if I think I need more fat after the shallots and co. have absorbed some of it. From here, I start to whisk in the flour (if you are gluten-free, try arrowroot powder!) a little at a time, keeping things moving. You’ll notice that the flour will start to gum around the shallots. This is the roux! It will form the thickening base you need for a rich sauce.

It’s so pretty! Not scary, pretty!

You want to keep the mixture loose, however, so start to slowly add in some milk, half and half, or cream. Keep whisking to loosen the bonds. Alternating as needed, whisk in all your flour and dairy. I find that I end up with about 1/3 cup of butter, 1/3 of flour, and 1/2 cup of dairy. At this point, taste your sauce base to see what it needs. Last night, I knew I needed a little more wine, a spoonful of coarse-grain mustard, some generous freshly ground nutmeg, lots of freshly ground pepper, and if I’d had time and the inclination for doing more dishes, I would have zested and juiced a lemon to cut through all the richness. After stirring in these elements, the sauce was seizing a bit, so I loosened it with more milk. I let the mixture heat through, adding in the spinach. I used half a bag of frozen chopped spinach because I had it on hand. You can totally use fresh, but it will have a lot of water content, so watch out as it sweats down in the sauce. You may need to adjust ratios to keep things balanced.

I wish you could smell this decadence.

Just for fun, I had some chéve I wanted to use up, so melted that in (added a great tang) along with 2 cups shredded mozzarella. Once this had melted, I tasted again, added more pepper, and it was ready to serve. I poured this gooey deliciousness overtop some lovely al dente penne, cooked in heavily salted water (thank you Samin Nosrat for illuminating me about the importance of thoroughly salting your cooking water!), and dove in with aplomb. Like seriously, I blew through this bowl in like five minutes and had leftovers today for lunch.

Try topping your bowl with lemon zest, minced fresh parsley, or something else bright and acidic to cut through all of the luxurious heaviness. Or, for a crunchy element, toast some panko breadcrumbs in butter and top.

All this to say, keep experimenting and don’t fail to rejoice in really successful cooking moments. I did this without a recipe last night, but you better believe that I clung to the recipe book the first time I made one of these 5 years ago. Give yourself permission to pull away the scaffolding as you learn and internalize cooking principles, growing in confidence and skill. And remember; you can always order pizza if it all goes wrong.

Weeknight Garlicky Greens

My favorite part is the crunchy tofu!

Over the holidays, university towns become ghost towns, and it’s really quite wonderful. But, if you happen to be the one graduate student who isn’t traveling to see family over the holidays, you are given all the [fill-in-the-blank]-sitting jobs. Don’t get me wrong; I am ALL about the side-hustles. In addition to being a full-time graduate student and part-time university employee, I also teach at a local fitness studio (check out Refit online! It’s an amazing body-positive fitness movement!), clean a friend’s Air B&B, do freelance writing, and donate plasma (for money, obvs). But holidays take it to a whole new level. I apartment-sat, plant-sat, dog-sat, and cat-sat. Let’s be real. I will do almost anything for bookstore/coffee shop gift cards. But the best offer I got over the holidays was to pick up my friend’s CSA (which, if you don’t know, stands for community supported agriculture, which is where you as a community member support a local farm and receive a dividend of produce in return! See if there are any local CSAs in your area; they can be surprisingly reasonable in price and the money supports local farmers. Can you think of a better use of your money?) share while she was out of town, and it was a field greens bomb. Seriously, the first day I picked up all of the produce, it took me a full hour and a half to wash, chop, and process all of it.

I was so proud of my jarring; check out Brown Kids instagram to learn more about the jar method of storing produce! It’s been a life-saver.

So I was drowning in greens, quite happily. But what’s a girl to do with 4 jars of bitter greens? Stir-fry, duh. So here’s my quick weeknight garlicky greens recipe; feel free to adjust the flavor profile as you see fit. I went a more Asian-style route, but you could really do whatever you want. Always keep in mind, these ingredient measurements are approximations. I tend to cook by feel, rather than precise measurements. Also, I found that this meal takes about 30 minutes to prepare, and will leave leftovers that are great warmed up the next day for lunch! Just be sure to add some water or broth to the rice so that it isn’t dry and gross.

  • 6 cups minimum of your choice of field greens, chopped (I used mustard, turnip, kale, collard, radish, and mature arugula). NOTE BENE: I really like the stems, but separate these out from the leaves.
  • ALL OF THE GARLIC. Like seriously, knock yourself out. Slice, mince, whatever suits your fancy.
  • 2 Tbs. toasted sesame oil
  • 2 tsps. minced ginger or ginger paste
  • 1 Tbs. white miso paste
  • 1 dried Thai chili (or if you can’t find this, try a teaspoon of Sambal, an Asian chili paste)
  • 2 Tbs. sweet chili sauce
  • 1/3 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup tamari soy sauce (preferably low sodium)
  • 1 Tbs. sesame seeds
  • 2 cups of jasmine rice
  • 4 cups broth (PS, I make my own veggie broth with kitchen scraps. It takes so much better than store bought, it’s free, and I can control the sodium levels)
  • 1/2 a package of extra firm tofu, diced (or 1 chicken breast, chopped, if you are a meat-eater like my husband)
  • 1 1/2 Tbs. neutral oil
  • 2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Cook your jasmine rice in a pot or rice cooker while you make the stir fry. (Come on; it’s 2020. If you aren’t using a rice cooker or InstaPot for your grains, what are you doing with your life?) I find that rice takes about 30-40 minutes to cook, depending on the portion sizes, so time your stir-frying accordingly.

In a large skillet or wok, heat the sesame oil over medium heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the garlic, ginger, miso, green stems (if using) and Thai chili, stirring often until just tender. Add sweet chili, rice vinegar, and tamari, letting the ingredients heat through. Add in all greens, coating in the sauce. Adjust sauce as necessary, adding more of whatever your tastebuds require. Put the lid on the skillet or wok, and let the greens sweat down, stirring often (about 5 minutes). Toss in sesame seeds in the last minute, stirring to incorporate.

While the greens cook, in a separate skillet, heat your neutral oil over med-high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add in the tofu or chicken, seasoning with the salt, garlic, paprika, and cayenne. Cook tofu until crispy, stirring often (may require high heat) or chicken until cooked through, but tender.

Place a bed of rice in the bottom of the bowl, topped with greens, then your protein of choice. Garnish with more sesame seeds and tamari, if desired. Dig in!

Healthy-is comfort food!