No disrespect to the five classic mother sauces of French cuisine, but we’ve come a long, long way since then, velouté.
The next time you dangle handfuls of melty cheddar into a béchamel for mac and cheese or ladle Thanksgiving gravy into a hollow of mashed potatoes, you can give their roux-thickened mamas a little nod—but right this second I’m going to need us to turn our attention to another, decidedly more modern French sauce. I bet you’re going to feel inspired to make this one a whole lot more.
It’s called sauce vierge (literally virgin sauce)—a miraculous fresh tomato sauce you can spoon over fish or vegetables or pasta or anything summer throws at you. It was created in 1976 by Michel Guérard, one of the forces behind the lighter, fresher nouvelle cuisine that sprang up in reaction to cuisine classique, dripping with all its hefty mother sauces.
But Guérard had even splintered off into his own even lighter form of spa food called cuisine minceur—a.k.a. thin cooking. At his own luxury spa and hotel, he still serves a “slimming menu” that changes each day: “They include a starter, a main course, and a dessert, although there are never more than 600 calories.” Regardless of how it’s packaged, this form of French low-cal cooking has little to nothing in common with Lean Cuisine, as you can plainly see here. Light doesn’t mean stripped bare; low-calorie doesn’t preclude a generous cushion of olive oil (or butter or dessert, or much else).
In sauce vierge, there have emerged only a few non-negotiables: fresh tomato, olive oil, lemon juice, and fresh herbs, which you can either let sit for an hour or two at room temperature to mingle, or very gently cook on the stovetop. Many add smashed garlic and ground coriander. Most peel and seed the tomato, but I refuse.
Surprisingly, the first published version in Guérard’s breakout cookbook La Grande Cuisine Minceur in 1976 had lots more complications, calling for mustard and Worcestershire and a homemade fromage blanc. But by La Cuisine Gourmande in 1977, Guerard had slimmed the recipe down considerably to the more common bare-bones form (from 557 words to a petite 98). From there, a parade of influential chefs helped it proliferate around the globe: the Roux brothers liked to warm it just before serving; Marco Pierre White added black olives; Gordon Ramsay brought back some fuss with a shallot confit and balsamic vinegar.
In this way, sauce vierge is a true foundational mother sauce, one from which we can build many. Though it’s perhaps most often associated with grilled or sautéed mellow white fish, on the internet alone it’s been served over lobster, scallops, a crab omelette, lamb chops, heaps of pasta, grilled chicken and tofu, poached eggs, and—at the recent wedding of Pippa Middleton—like this: “Berkshire Mayfly trout, paired with marinated cucumber, confit tomatoes, horseradish cream and sauce vierge.”
All summer, you can make it over and over—every time you lament that it’s too hot too cook, or you’ve overreached at the pricey tomato pile at the farmers market, or you happen to remember what life was like 3 months ago, when the tomatoes weren’t nearly this good. Because that time will come again. Then we can go back to the other mothers.
Michel Guérard’s Sauce Vierge
- 3 large, very ripe tomatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
- 2 whole, peeled garlic cloves, lightly smashed
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh herbs (any combination of chives, tarragon, parsley, basil, chervil, basil, cilantro)
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil (or to taste)
- Freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste
- Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Pinch of ground coriander (optional)
Photos by Bobbi Lin
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps a genius dessert? Please send it my way (and tell me what’s so smart about it) at firstname.lastname@example.org.