When Harry Met Saucy
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - June 16, 2004
Mark R. Vogel - Epicure1@optonline.net - Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel
The other night at the restaurant where I work, the executive chef admonished one of the other chefs for not applying enough dressing to the spinach salad. In his opinion, (and since he’s the executive chef it’s HIS opinion that counts), the salad was too dry. These are the kind of incidental tidbits that set my brain into motion and become grist for the “Food for Thought” mill.
How much dressing should go on a salad? How much sauce should go on pasta? A grilled duck breast? Or your poached salmon? Should the sauce fill the plate, cover just the entrĂ©e, or be scantily dispersed in some kind of petite, artistic design?
I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that the ultimate answer is your personal taste. If you’re the one eating it you have the right to have as much, or as little sauce or dressing as you like. When preparing meals for yourself at home, it’s easy to follow the dictates of your palate. But what if you’re entertaining a number of guests? Or worse yet, making dinner for 150 patrons at a restaurant. Yikes! Then you are forced into a one-size-fits-all portion, at the very least to provide consistency, but also to facilitate the monitoring of food usage and cost.
But gold standards vary from dish to dish and from chef to chef. A Culinary Institute of America textbook recommends two to three tablespoons of dressing per two ounces of salad. But within this edict lurks exceptions to the rule. For example, the flavor and the flavor intensity of the greens and/or the dressing may influence the amount of dressing you choose to employ. Moreover, the flavor profile of secondary ingredients in the salad, (cheese, anchovies, meat, vegetables, etc.), must be considered to determine the “proper” amount. Textural and color factors may also play a role. Yet this can still be quite subjective. My executive chef would deem the Culinary Institute’s rule too skimpy for his spinach salad.
And then there’s the sauce issue. The same guidelines with salad dressing apply to sauce. The flavor, texture, and color of the sauce, the main item, and any accompaniments, can all influence the amount of sauce. One professional source I encountered suggested two ounces of sauce for an average size entrĂ©e. Two Ounces? What are you kidding me? Many upscale establishments believe a dish appears more elegant or refined when graced with a parsimonious serving of sauce. If I were just a little more paranoid I would wonder whether this philosophy was generated by bean-counting restaurateurs. Yes, I’m well aware that a culinary ten commandment is that a sauce should not overpower a dish, but rather enhance it. But then that pesky subjectivity creeps in again. What one chef considers appropriate may be deemed an inconvenience by you. Such as when you’re scraping the edge of the plate in a futile effort to moisten those last few bites of your pork chop.
Pasta is a perfect example of this issue. Virtually all chefs warn about over saucing pasta. Interestingly, the further you move up the professional culinary ladder, increasingly removed from the common man, the more this axiom is embraced. My peers will begin my excommunication proceedings upon reading this but I like my pasta with a lot of sauce. I want sauce in every forkful, as opposed to swishing each bite around, feebly attempting to coat it with the piddling sauce. But that’s my Id-based constitution. Generally speaking, I don’t believe “less is more.” Less is less. More is more.
Meanwhile, there are the people on the other side of the continuum. Some prefer their food with barely any sauce/dressing at all, or in a separate container so that they have complete control over its application. I keep picturing Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally,” perpetually driving servers nuts with her sauce-on-the-side requests. And although it’s beyond my comprehension, I’ve even witnessed patrons order salads with no dressing at all.
So where does all this leave us? Well, as stated, while the home cook can tailor his or her creations to their own taste, the restaurant must establish their own sauce standard. You my dear readers are left at the mercy of the owner’s budget, the executive chef’s inclinations, and/or the time-honored tenets of culinary tradition. You can roll the dice and hope your sauce requirements match, or you can ask for extra, ask for none, or ask for it on the side. You are paying for it after all. But I recommend you don’t mimic Sally’s “other” behavior at the dinner table. That would definitely be too saucy.