Silky smooth veloute

Once you've mastered this French technique for velvety soups and sauces, the possibilities are endless.

I have long admired the organization of classic French cuisine. Once you know how to prepare a basic recipe, a grand array of other dishes are easy to cook. Soups and sauces, for example, are divided into several categories. A particularly useful one is the veloute family. Both veloute soups and sauces need only three main ingredients: butter, flour and broth, and are made the same way. What differs is the ratio of flour to liquid. Basically, you heat a little butter (or margarine or oil), add flour and cook them together briefly to thicken and enrich the veloute, then stir in broth of any kind: vegetable, fish, chicken or meat, and cook the mixture until it becomes smooth. Use less liquid and serve the veloute as a sauce for meat, chicken, fish, vegetables or pasta; or add more liquid and serve it in a bowl as soup. Once the veloute base is ready, you can add any ingredient - diced or pureed vegetables, fish or meat, and seasonings ranging from gentle parsley to pungent peppers. Some common French additions to make soups are mushrooms, spinach, radish leaves, sorrel, lettuce and leeks. A favorite of mine is Swiss chard veloute soup sprinkled with chopped toasted hazelnuts. Raymond Oliver, a famous Parisian chef and author of La Cuisine, stirred in avocado puree to make avocado veloute soup. The possibilities are endless. "Veloute" in French means velvety, and is the perfect description of these sauces and soups. They acquire a smooth consistency from the butter cooked with flour, which is called a roux. To give them a luscious finish, chefs often finish veloute sauce or soup with creme fraiche, egg yolks or both. In restaurant kitchens veloute soups are usually strained, but at home many cooks leave them chunky. Although these classic soups are delicately flavored, they should not be bland. Season them well with salt and pepper; if you like, stir in a little minced fresh herb just before serving. Once you master the techniques for properly preparing a veloute soup or sauce, you can vary them to your taste. If you like mustard, stir some into veloute sauce made with chicken broth, for serving with chicken. Add curry powder to a cauliflower veloute soup for a golden color and extra spice. To make white bean soup, Oliver sautees aromatic vegetables - onion, carrot, celery, turnip and parsley root - in butter, then sprinkles them with flour so it is lightly browned with the sauteed vegetables and gives a rich flavor to the soup. Next he adds white beans and broth, and when the beans are tender, he strains the bean soup and enriches it with cream. In Perigord in southwest France, sauteing vegetables to flavor the roux this way is a tradition, writes La Mazille in La Bonne Cuisine du Perigord, and notes that the preparation, called la fricassee, is part of the reason for the good reputation of the region's soups. Plenty of non-French soups are actually veloutes with other names. Gumbo soup, a popular soup in Louisiana, makes use of a roux to thicken a soup of tomatoes, okra and usually meat or seafood. American chowders, whether made of fish or vegetables, also are variations of the veloute soup. TIPS: * Cook veloute soups and sauces in a heavy saucepan, and stir often with a whisk, to prevent the flour from sticking. * Veloute soups and sauces thicken on standing. After reheating them, if they are too thick, gradually stir in a little whipping cream, milk, broth or water to bring it back to the desired consistency. FISH VELOUTE SAUCE WITH MUSHROOMS Serve this sauce with broiled or baked fish, or stir in some small chunks of salmon or other cooked fish and serve the sauce over pasta or rice. Makes 4 or 5 servings 4 11⁄2 Tbsp. butter/margarine/oil 4 11⁄2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour 4 1 cup fish broth (made from fish bones or left from poaching a fish), heated 4 Salt and white pepper 4 4 small mushrooms, halved and thinly sliced 4 1 tsp. strained fresh lemon juice 4 Salt and white pepper 4 1⁄4 cup whipping cream 4 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley To make basic veloute sauce: Melt butter in a small heavy saucepan over low heat. Whisk in flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until mixture turns a light beige color, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Gradually pour broth into flour mixture, whisking. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly. Add pinch of salt and white pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, whisking often, for 5 minutes. Put mushrooms in a small heavy saucepan with 3 tablespoons water, lemon juice, salt and white pepper. Cover and cook over high heat until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, reserving mushrooms and liquid separately. Bring veloute sauce to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat, whisking. Whisk in mushroom cooking liquid. Simmer, whisking often, until sauce is thick enough to coat a spoon. Stir in cream and cook until sauce thickens to your taste. Stir in mushrooms and parsley. Taste, and adjust seasoning. If not using sauce at once, dab top with butter to prevent a skin from forming. CAULIFLOWER VELOUTE SOUP Makes 4 to 5 servings 4 2 small cauliflowers (about 1 to 1.25 kg. total), cut into medium florets 4 2 Tbsp. butter 4 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour 4 11⁄2 cups vegetable broth or parve chicken broth 4 Salt and white pepper 4 Freshly grated nutmeg 4 11⁄4 cups (about) milk 4 1⁄3 cup whipping cream 4 16 to 20 cooked small broccoli florets, or 2 to 3 tsp. chopped chives or parsley Peel cauliflower stalks and slice them. Put florets and stalks in a saucepan of boiling water. Return to a boil, then drain and rinse with cold water. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Add flour and whisk it into butter. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Gradually whisk in broth. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until mixture thickens and comes to the boil. Add a pinch of salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add cauliflower florets and 1⁄2 cup milk; liquid will not cover cauliflower. Bring to boil, stirring. Reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer, stirring often. As cauliflower becomes more tender, crush slightly with spoon while stirring. Simmer about 25 minutes or until cauliflower is very tender. Using a slotted spoon, remove cauliflower and puree it (in batches if necessary) in a blender, food processor or food mill with a fine disk. If using blender or food processor, gradually add rest of soup to puree while machine is running. Puree until very smooth. Return soup to saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring. Add enough remaining milk to bring soup to desired consistency. Bring to a boil, stirring. Add cream and bring again to a boil, stirring. If necessary, simmer 1 or 2 minutes to desired consistency. Taste and adjust seasoning; season generously with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Serve hot, garnished with broccoli florets or herbs.n Faye Levy is the author of the Fresh from France cookbook series.