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.

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