The art of coulis
Colorful fruit, vegetables of the season transform into jeweled sauces
Simple and direct: A simple raspberry coulis dresses up a basic angel food cake for a summer cookout. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Why you need to learn this
Any plate of food benefits from a well-made sauce. Most classic sauces and simple pan sauces are based on meat broth or dairy. Using fruits or vegetables as a base opens an enormous world of possibilities.
The steps you take
Because coulis can be made from both fruits and vegetables, they are equally suited to both savory and sweet presentations. Once you get the general concept down, be adventurous. Don't think that vegetable coulis are exclusively savory or fruit coulis are exclusively for dessert. Imagine a sweet cucumber coulis drizzled around a slice of lemon meringue pie, or a raspberry coulis napped across slices of pork tenderloin. Remember, it's not about right or wrong; it's about what sounds, looks and tastes good to you.
1. First of all, all the ingredients should be cooked just enough to make them soft enough to puree. Choose a cooking method based on the main ingredient:
Fruit: Fruits and berries are generally soft to begin with and therefore don't need a lot of cooking. Just put whole berries or cut-up fruit in a saucepan with a little sugar and a splash of liquid (juice, cider, water, wine, brandy, etc.) and cook over medium heat just until they wilt.
Vegetables: Think about broccoli or asparagus or cauliflower — tough veggies that will require a lengthier cooking time to soften. These will benefit from what we call "moist heat," cooking methods like steaming, simmering or braising. If you're braising (cooking veggies in a small amount of liquid), feel free to add to the mix some herbs or aromatic vegetables like onions, shallots or garlic, to give a flavor boost. Note: Vegetables with skins, like bell peppers, tomatoes or eggplant, can also be roasted directly over an open burner or under the broiler. As the skin chars, it imparts a wonderful smoky flavor to the flesh while it cooks and softens.
2. Puree all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blenders, with four blades instead of two, tend to work a little better. Determine if the consistency of the sauce is right. It's a sauce, so it should be a liquid, about the consistency of light tomato sauce or heavy cream. Remember, though, at the same time, that there's no absolute right or wrong. Ask yourself, "How thick do I want my coulis to be?" If it's too thick, add liquid. Too thin? Put it back on the stove and reduce it.
3. Once you've got the consistency right, taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly. Wait until the end to do this; if we seasoned the sauce perfectly but decided it was too thin, upon reducing it, the salt will become more concentrated, making it too salty.
4. This is optional, but if you want, you can pass the coulis through a fine mesh strainer or chinois. Depending on the ingredients you started out with and how thick the coulis is, you can end up with a silky smooth, velvety sauce that veritably kisses your tongue. On the other hand, you might find that passing it through a fine strainer takes out too much of the solids and leaves you with a watery sauce. That's all right: just stir some or all of the solids back into the sauce and you'll be fine.
Remember: There's no right or wrong. Also, if you want a creamier texture, you can add ... well, you guessed it: cream. Don't use cream to adjust the consistency, though; when you have it right, add just enough to lighten the color and enrich the flavor.
Roasted yellow pepper coulis
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
Makes: about 2 cups
3 large yellow bell peppers
3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Pinch each: cayenne, cumin
Salt, freshly ground pepper
Low sodium chicken broth, as needed, optional
1. Rub the peppers with vegetable oil; place directly over flame on open burner. Turn the peppers occasionally, blackening them thoroughly on all sides. When peppers are nearly all black, wrap in plastic; set aside to cool. Peel to remove all blackened skin. Pull peppers apart; remove and discard seeds and pith. Slice peppers into rough strips.
2. Meanwhile, place garlic in a small saucepan over medium heat. When skin turns black, flip to another side; cook until garlic is soft, 7-8 minutes total. Set garlic aside to cool; peel cloves.
3. Combine peppers, garlic and remaining ingredients (except broth) in a blender; pulse until pureed. If puree is too thick, thin with broth. Finished sauce should have consistency of a light tomato sauce.
James P. DeWan is a culinary instructor and co-author of "The Zwilling J. A. Henckels Complete Book of Knife Skills."