"A sauce is not, as is sometimes thought, an infallible sign that the cook is a master of his or her art, for no sauce, however carefully made, will disguise poorly cooked food. Nevertheless, a good sauce is the crowning achievement of a truly accomplished cook, for, with the aid of sauces, knowingly prepared, a cook may turn the humblest ingredients into appetizing fare.
The thickening agents or liasons for sauces are flour, the most generally used; yolk of egg (which gives a far richer flavor to a sauce, but which must be handled carefully); rice; and beurre manie--butter and flour blended together and dropped into liquids to thicken them. The proportions of butter and flour in beurre manie are about equal, or, sometimes, two parts flour to one of butter.
There are certain basic sauces to which other ingredients are often added for variations on the single theme. In France, these are called the "mother sauces" and they include a white sauce, or Bechamel (sometimes called sauce Allemande), brown sauce or Espagnole, and mayonnaise, which is the base for many other sauces.
Basic White or Cream Sauce
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
Blend butter and flour in top of double boiler. (The mixture of butter and flour over heat, basic to most sauces, is called a "roux.") Stir milk in gradually, using a spoon or whisk. Continue stirring until mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Add salt and allow sauce to cook over hot water about 5 minutes.
Make the roux described above and add 1 cup cream instead of milk. Season to taste.
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken broth
1 small onion, sliced
1 small carrot, sliced
1/4 bay leaf
Sprig of parsley
1/4 cup heavy cream
Make a roux by combining flour and butter in top of a double boiler or in a saucepan. Simmer chicken broth 10 minutes with onion, carrot, bay leaf, peppercorns, and parsley. Strain broth and add it to roux stirring constantly. Continue cooking until thickened. Stir in heavy cream and cook 5 minutes."
From The Fireside Cookbook by James A. Beard
The beauties of a properly made white sauce or bechamel are truly underestimated. Last night, for example, I was able to make a delicious supper for my man using some rather bland and boring ingredients. I would encourage you to perfect the art of making the "mother sauces". It will be such a useful skill to have. You will be able to make a nice meal out of an assortment of ingredients that you might not otherwise have been able to pull together well. This knowledge definitely helps to stretch the grocery budget!
So...for the Parmesan Sauce with Chicken that I discovered last night at suppertime.
First, I had a chicken breast thawed, which I poached, cooled and cubed. For the sauce I made a variation on the bechamel. I don't make mine over a double-boiler (mostly because I don't have one, and Mama taught me to make a white sauce without one...probably because she didn't have one either!), but you really do have to stay with the sauce and always be stirring to make sure that it doesn't stick.* My man bought me the loveliest little [red!] nonstick skillet for my last birthday which I use, but, because of its nice surface, I use a wooden spoon to make my sauces instead of a wire whisk, which means that I have to be extra careful to keep them smooth. Actually measuring the butter and flour is important as well. In a pinch, you can just eyeball the measurements, but it doesn't turn out quite as nice. I had some good chicken broth leftover from dinner, which had been simmered with a bruised garlic clove and had a touch of cayenne and lemon juice added to it (to make a hot drink for my man...Mama's inspiration again!), which I used to flavor the sauce. I also used milk instead of cream because I didn't want it to be too thick (but I did want it to be creamy). The sauce was beautiful. It sent me into raptures. It looked like glossy satin and had an equally smooth texture on the tongue. Mmmm. I then sprinkled Parmesan over it, stirring over a low heat so that the cheese would melt in. I added the Parmesan to taste, remembering that although the sauce itself was soon perfect (for me anyway...) I still had to add [bland] chicken and put it over pasta. The cheese thickens the sauce a bit too, so that is why I left it a little thinner before. I also did not add any salt, which a person might get in the habit of making simple white or cream sauces, because I knew that I would be adding chicken broth and Parmesan cheese later; and I was right, by the time I was done it was perfect. (But you already would have left it out if you were following the Venerable Beard's recipe from above!) All that was left to me now, was to add the chicken and make sure it was warmed through before serving. It was simply amazing to taste.
So, all of that rambling to say this: You can make the best sauces in your very own kitchen using simple ingredients that you probably can manage to have around you. No MSG, no artificial anythings, or preservative thus-and-so's. I would encourage you to learn this art! Not just for Parmesan chicken sauce. Any "cream of" soup that you could buy in a can is something that you can duplicate with more real flavor than you would have had otherwise.
Post Script: The herby garnish thing that you can see in the photo of last night's supper was a sprig of Rosemary from the bush that I overwinter in my kitchen. Although I didn't actually use Rosemary in the recipe, it seems to me that it would go well alongside this. Say, in a Rosemary and lemon foccacia. Ummm...I'm inspired!
*The beauties of a gas stove cannot be over-emphasized here. The ability to control the heat by changing the size of your flame is helpful, and, dare I say, almost necessary to make a good sauce. But, if you stay on top of how your sauce is doing, you will be able to give a close approximation, so do not worry if you use electric.