Your Guide to White Sauces (and Where to Find Good Ones in South Jersey)

Do you know the difference between bechamel, veloute, alfredo, and carbonara? Find out here – and learn where to enjoy quality white sauce in South Jersey.

White sauce. Alfredo. Bechamel. What’s the difference?

That’s what I wondered earlier this week.

I had just whipped up a quick dinner for my family. I stirred together some milk, butter, flour, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, chopped up some spinach and canned salmon, tossed it all over a box of linguine, and finished off the dish with some freshly grated parmesan.

When my four-year-old son Elliot asked me what our meal was called, I hesitated. I wanted to say “linguine and salmon with bechamel,” but I was unsure.

“Alexa, what’s the difference between bechamel sauce and Alfredo?” I asked.

Alexa replied with some confusing nonsense where she basically repeated my question back to me. (Rest assured: artificial intelligence is not going to take over the world just yet.)

I vowed to do a little research to settle my confusion.

Behold a brief guide to white sauce:

White Sauce

‘White sauce’ is a generic term that can refer to any kind of creamy sauce made from milk, butter, wine, or cheese.

Photo credit: goblinbox_(queen_of_ad_hoc_bento) from Walla Walla, WA, US [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Bechamel

Bechamel’s origins are rooted in political history. In 1533, Catherine de Medici of Italy married a French duke named Henri. When Medici came to France, she brought her Italian chefs with her.

Back in Medici’s homeland, Tuscans had already been eating their own version of white sauce – besciamella – since the Renaissance. No one quite agrees on who exactly invented bechamel, but Medici’s arrival in France paved the way for the sauce.

Bechamel sauce is named for Marquis Louis de Bechamel, a businessman and steward of King Louis XIV. During the 1800’s, a French chef named Marie Antoine-Carême described four French “mother sauces” – including bechamel – in her book Le Guide Culinaire.

Today, cooks make bechamel using a roux of flour and butter to which they add milk, salt, black pepper, and often – nutmeg. (If you’ve only eaten nutmeg is sweet desserts, you need to try it in savory white sauce dishes.)

If you want to make a basic bechamel sauce at home, I recommend using this recipe from Epicurious. I double the recipe, add a pinch of nutmeg to it, and pour it over cooked tortellini or linguine. 

Photo credit: Photo by Viktor Tasnadi from Pexels

Veloute

If other white sauces are too heavy for you, behold the light, milk-free veloute. The word veloute derives from the French word ‘velour,” a reference to the sauce’s smooth, velvety consistency. Veloute is another of the four original mother sauces Marie Antoine-Careme outlined in the nineteenth century.

Like bechamel, veloute begins with a flour and butter roux. In lieu of milk, clear stock made from unroasted chicken or fish is added, making for a lighter sauce that is then poured over fish or vegetables.

Carbonara

The earliest known mention of carbonara sauce can be found in Richard Hammond’s 1957 book Eating in Italy: a pocket guide to Italian food and restaurants. Many people believe carbonara, which originated in Rome, was introduced to Americans at the end of World War II. American troops stationed in Italy had little to eat. But they added cured pork to dried pasta to create something similar to carbonara sauce.

‘Carbonara’ roughly translates to ‘charcoal burner,’ so another theory holds that carbonara was first created as a dish for Italian coal miners.

However, some historians doubt both theories. No one is entirely sure when carbonara was first created. Today, spaghetti alla carbonara is a popular Italian-American dish made with creamy white sauce, pancetta, egg yolks, and an Italian cheese like pecorino or parmesan.

Photo credit: Dllu [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Alfredo

Alfredo, one of the simplest white sauces, is made from butter and parmesan cheese over fettuccine pasta. Fettucine alfredo is one of the most common dishes you’ll find at American restaurants.

While Americans might consider it a quintessential Italian dish, fettuccine alfredo is not a common sauce in Italy – though it was invented there.

American actress Mary Pickford helped popularize fettuccine alfredo.

A Roman restauranteur named Alfredo di Lelio first made the dish for his pregnant wife. American actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at di Lelio’s Ristorante Alfredo and told their friends back in Hollywood. Celebrities like Sophia Loren and Jimmy Stewart soon came to love fettuccine alfredo, helping to popularize the dish in America.

Where to Find Good Cream-Based Pasta in South Jersey

If you don’t feel like whipping up your own, head out to one of these South Jersey restaurants for quality white sauce.

Photo by Plush Design Studio on Unsplash

Ristorante Toscana Fire Grill and Bar (Cherry Hill, New Jersey) – My former workplace held our annual holiday party at Toscana every year. I recall loving their Champagne Pear Sacchetti, which their menu describes as “Toscana’s Speciality.” The sacchetti pasta is stuffed with pears and ricotta and tossed in a rich, creamy walnut-champagne sauce. Yum.

Theresa M. Hinke, a public relations professional, recommends three South Jersey restaurants for quality pasta of any kind:

Photo by Emily Austin on Unsplash

Allora (Marlton, New Jersey) – Allora’s new “Pasta Your Way” menu includes two different white sauce options: carbonara and truffle cream.

Ill Villagio (Cherry Hill, New Jersey) – Ill Villagio’s white cream-based sauces include porcini cream and carbonara sauce.

LaScala’s Fire (Marlton, New Jersey) – I have not eaten at LaScala’s yet, but I keep hearing great things about them. Their menu includes a truffle cream sauce.

Instagrammer Tasty Temptations recommends the gorgonzola cream sauce at Maurizio’s Bistro (Moorestown, New Jersey). Their menu also includes a salmon dish with a wine cream sauce.

South Jersey Instagrammers South Jersey Foodies recommend trying Piccini Brick Oven Pizza (Ocean City, New Jersey). Their menu includes the unique dish tortellini carbonara. (Note that Piccini only accepts cash.)

Linda Pelaschier Mihlebach, a home cook and Instagrammer, suggests Filomena Lakeview (Deptford, New Jersey). While not a white sauce fan, “I never had a pasta dish there I didn’t like,” she says. Their menu includes a seafood and tortellini butter sauce.

Mihlebach also enjoys the Bronzino Francese at Chubby’s Steakhouse (Gloucester City, New Jersey) – which is made with butter, lemon, and white wine.

Photo credit: Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Angel Merrill’s family, which has owned and operated Merrill’s Colonial Inn (Mays Landing, New Jersey) since 1959, has passed down recipes for generations. Their homemade spaghetti with white clam sauce is a customer favorite. 

In good conscience, I couldn’t leave Hammonton off this list. Located in the Pine Barrens, Hammonton is home to a large Italian population. I attended high school in Hammonton and have never had bad Italian food there.

Photo Credit: United States Census Bureau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While I can’t recall ordering any white sauces, I have always enjoyed Marcello’s (Hammonton, New Jersey) which has been serving up homemade Italian specialties for more than two decades. Marcello’s “Special Sauce” is made with cream, mushrooms, and peas. Their menu also includes carbonara and alfredo sauces.

Where’s your favorite spot in South Jersey for delicious white sauce pasta?

What’s a Rambutan and What Do You Do With It?

Rambutan, a tropical fruit native to Indonesia, can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.

Christina Carrell is a freelance writer based in Medford, New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Finding Rambutan in South Jersey

“What are THOSE?” my four-year-old son Elliot laughed as I pushed him in a shopping cart through the grocery aisles of the Berlin Wal-Mart last week. I looked where he was pointing.

“I have no idea,” I answered.

“Can we get them?” he asked.

I reached for a plastic package containing a dozen or so golfball-sized fruit that looked like a bunch of sea urchins having bad hair days. “Sweet and juicy!” the package promised.

“Sure…” I said, surprised that Wal-Mart carried such an exotic food. I tossed the package in the cart, and we continued walking. As we shopped, Elliot continued laughing about the “weird things,” as he had dubbed the mysterious produce.

What is Rambutan?

Rambutan is the fruit’s real name, and before that night, I had never encountered them. When we got home, Elliot wanted to try them right away. I opened the package and wondered what to do with them. Do we bite them? Peel them? Cook them? Luckily, the package included directions on how to eat rambutan.

I grabbed a knife from the drawer and sliced the rambutan’s firm, spiky flesh across its hemisphere. Out popped a white, gelatinous, egg-like fruit, which I sliced in half. My knife met resistance as it hit a hard pit in the center of the “egg.” I cut out the seed, hesitated, then popped a piece of the fruit in my mouth.

“Wow, that’s sweet,” I said.

Elliot reached for a piece. He chewed for a moment, paused as I had, then swallowed. “More,” he said. Like most other fruits, the rambutan was a hit with my son.

Rambutan Origins

I had to know more about this strange-looking but pleasant-tasting plant. Later that night I learned that the rambutan is a native Indonesian fruit that grows from trees in tropical Southeast Asia where people enjoy them fresh or canned. In the Malay language, rambut means ‘hairy,’ a fitting name for a fruit covered in hair-like spikes.

According to Wan Yan Ling of Serious Eats, rambutan also grows in “Australia, South America, Africa, and Hawaii.” The label on the package we bought says “Fort Lauderdale,” so I imagine rambutan can grow anywhere with a tropical climate.

In the Phillipines, people roast and eat the rambutan’s seeds. Use caution if you try the seeds, though, as they are reportedly poisonous if consumed raw. High in fat, research suggests rambutan seeds also have the potential to be used for manufacturing fatty products like cocoa butter, soaps, and fuels.

I posted a picture of the fruit on Instagram and asked if anyone else was familiar with it. Amaris Pollock, a freelancer who writes about Philadelphia’s food scene, remarked that the rambutan looked similar to lychee, another Asian fruit. She was right. A quick Google search revealed that rambutan, lychee, longan, and pulasan fruit are all close relatives of one another.

Because of their sweet scent, rambutan trees attract large numbers of stinging fire ants, which can make obtaining the fruit a dangerous endeavor. Bees also love rambutan trees, and they feed on the rambutan and then produce honey.

Rambutan & Health

Rambutan fruit is used to treat fever and other ailments in traditional Malaysian and Indonesian medicine, and recent studies show it may actually possess medicinal benefit. Studies conducted in vitro and on mice suggest that rambutan honey contains antioxidants that can hasten the healing of oral wounds. Another study suggests rambutan’s high antioxidant count may help treat diabetes. It’s worth nothing these studies are small, and I wasn’t able to locate any definitive proof that rambutan offers any health benefits beyond those provided by other fiber-rich fruits.

How to Cook With Rambutan

So if you’re able to find rambutan at your local grocery store, what exactly can you do with it?

Linda Pelaschier Mihlebach, a home chef from South Jersey, makes rambutan martinis. Another South Jersey chef specializing in Indian cuisine, Chetna Macwan of the blog Spice Culture says they’re also delicious in “summery fruit salads.”

I love trying new foods, and I was especially glad to find them at a common store like Wal-Mart. In some countries, rambutan is in-season during early winter, which is likely why they had them in stock. And I have to admit: I’m proud of my son’s comfort with unfamiliar foods and his willingness to taste them.

If you know of somewhere else in South Jersey that carries rambutan, please let us know in the comments below.

Rambutan Recipes

Here are a few rambutan recipes with serious yum potential:

One for when you’re craving salty and sweet together: Savory Stuffed Rambutan from Genius Kitchen

One for your next holiday gathering: Rambutan Mojito from Fine Cooking

One for supposed pain relief: Rambutan Fruit Juice from the Spruce Eats

One to serve up for dessert: Mango and Rambutan Crumbles with Cardamom Ice Cream from Delicious

…And one to file away for summer: Summer Rambutan Curry from Saveur (or throw caution to the wind, break the rules, and whip this one up tonight.)

Christina Carrell is a freelance writer based in Medford, New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

From Health Food to Comfort Food: the History of the Salisbury Steak

Highlights:

  • Dr. J.H. Salisbury declared salisbury steak a health food in a late 19th century book.
  • A few years later, a woman named Elma Stuart wrote a book extolling the healing powers of Salisbury’s diet recommendations.
  • Salisbury and Stuart did not believe we should eat salisbury steak with mashed potatoes as we do today, calling them “indigestible.”
  • When Salisbury and Stuart published their books, German immigrants had already been eating a similar dish for centuries. 
  • During the 1950’s, TV dinners entered the market. One of the most popular TV dinner varieties – sold by Swanson – included salisbury steak with a side of potatoes.
  • Around the world, people in countries like Japan, Sweden, Russia, and Germany enjoy meat dishes similar to salisbury steak.
  • To cook salisbury steak, purchase ground beef raised on local farms in South Jersey.
  • Salisbury steak is surprisingly difficult to find on Jersey restaurant menus, but there are a few restaurants in our area offering the dish.

Dr. James Henry Salisbury

Before ‘low-carb diet’ entered the American vernacular, a physician from New York named Dr. James Henry Salisbury touted the benefits of eating low-fat, protein-rich foods. Salisbury believed the optimal human diet consisted of two parts meat to one part vegetable. Carbohydrate consumption, he argued, was the root cause of afflictions like heart disease, tuberculosis, and even mental illness.

But Salisbury didn’t just eschew bread and pasta. He also vilified vegetables. He even had a term for illness brought on by plant-based diets: vegetable dyspepsia. Salisbury believed we all possess “twenty meat teeth” and only “twelve vegetable teeth,” a finding he viewed as evidence favoring a protein-rich diet. In 1888, he set forth his diet recommendations in his book, The Relation of Alimentation and Disease.

Today, most people wouldn’t put the terms ‘ Salisbury steak’ and ‘health food’ in the same sentence. But, as part of his crusade against all-things-carb, Salisbury popularized the comfort food we all know today as Salisbury steak. (Notice I didn’t say invented the salisbury steak, as the dish had already been eaten around the world for centuries. More on that later.) Above all things edible, Salisbury thought beef singularly nutritious for the human body. In fact, he argued we could all stay healthy by consuming salisbury steak three times a day.

No arguments here.

Elma Stuart and the Healing Powers of Beef

In 1895, a woman named Elma Stuart published a book called, What Must I Do to Get Well? And How Can I Stay So? which advocated in favor of Salisbury’s diet recommendations. (I imagine Salisbury and Stuart as the nineteenth-century equivalent to quacks who, during late-night television infomercials, get rich by convincing desperate consumers they hold the secret cure to all that ails us.)

The recipes in Stuart’s book are divided into multiple parts. First, she offers advice “for the sick” who are already suffering. She then lists some recipes “for the seedy,” a term that referred not to trashy, bedbug-ridden motels, but to people who were “hovering on the borderland” of health and illness. Finally, Stuart addresses those who are already well and want to remain that way.

The beef recipes in Stuart’s book specify guidelines for selecting and preparing the beef used to cook Salisbury steak. Beef should be free of fat. The cow should be between the ages of four and six years when slaughtered. “Butter, pepper, salt, and mustard” should not be added until after the beef has finished cooking. Finally, the sick person can eat the beef “with a tea-spoon in his right hand and a dessert fork in his left!”

Go figure.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Elma Stuart specified that, in order to provide optimal health benefit, the beef for salisbury steak should come from a cow between the ages of four and six years.

Potatoes as a Salisbury Side

Neither Salisbury nor Stuart recommend we eat salisbury steak over mashed potatoes as most people do today. In fact, Stuart calls out mashed potatoes as one of the “foolishest” menu items a person could eat – dubbing them one of the “vain imaginings that have deluded mankind” – a pretty extreme stance to have about a mashed potato. Instead, she argues, we should eat baked potatoes because they are cooked more thoroughly and are therefore more “digestible.”

Photo by Hai Nguyen on Unsplash
Stuart and Salisbury believed potatoes should be eaten baked – not mashed.

TV Dinners and Salisbury Steak

So how did our modern take on salisbury steak – rich in buttery, flour-thickened gravy and served over mashed potatoes – ever enter American kitchens? Likely, this recipe change happened when the “TV dinner” was popularized in American culture around the 1950’s. In fact, one of Swanson’s first TV dinners included Salisbury steak. Potatoes were, and remain, a cheap, easy-to-make, filling commodity. (Plus – as we all know – they’re delicious with ground beef and gravy.)

Photo by: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/14736658624
Hungry Man TV dinner. Photo by: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/14736658624

Before Salisbury and Stuart

While Salisbury and Stuart may have been the first to popularize the supposed health benefits of minced steak, they weren’t the first to introduce the dish to America – or to the world. We also have German immigrants to thank for our modern conception of salisbury steak. By the time Salisbury published his book, Germans had already been eating a similar dish called Hamburg steak – often cooked with breadcrumbs and onion – for centuries. During the 1700’s, sailors from Germany introduced Hamburg steak to Americans at their bustling New York port.

German immigrants, published in Harper’s Weekly, (New York) November 7, 1874 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Salisbury’ Steak Around the World

Today, Americans aren’t the only ones who cook up salisbury-esque steak. The Japanese enjoy hambagu, a meat and gravy dish made from minced beef and pork. Swedes make pannbiff seasoned with allspice and ginger. And Russians have buttery pozharsky, which is made from ground chicken in place of beef.

Swedish pannbiff Wolfgangus Mozart [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Salisbury Steak Recipe

On busy weeknights, I like to whip up salisbury steak in a cast-iron skillet with a side of buttery mashed potatoes from our Instant Pot. I toss a bag of steamable frozen peas in the microwave and spoon the steak gravy over top. Easy-peasy.

My own salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and steamed spinach

Here’s my recipe for fast Salisbury steak:

1 tbs butter

1 onion, sliced into rings

½ tsp salt

½ tbs Worcestershire sauce

1 ½ c water

½ c milk

1 tsp bouillon (I use Better than Bouillon)

¼ tsp black pepper

¼ tsp garlic powder

3-4 tbs flour

4 prepared hamburger patties

In a cast-iron skillet, saute onion on medium-high heat until nicely browned (about 10 minutes). Add Worcestershire sauce and cook for an additional minute. Remove onions from pan and set aside.

Sear burger patties on both sides and cook until burgers reach preferred temperature. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add milk and water to pan, scraping the meaty brown bits from the bottom. Add salt, Worcestershire sauce, bouillon, black pepper, and garlic powder. Bring to a boil.

While whisking gravy, slowly add flour a half tablespoon at a time and simmer until gravy reaches desired thickness.

Add burgers and onions back to the pan and serve mixture over mashed potatoes.

Where to Buy Local Ground Beef

For extra tender Salisbury steak, purchase fresh, local beef raised in South Jersey.

Here are some places in South Jersey where you can buy local (grass-fed, if desired) beef:

7th Heaven Farm (Tabernacle)

Bringhurst Fine Meats (Berlin)

Burlington County Farmers’ Market (Moorestown, seasonal)

Hough Family Farm (Southampton)

Rastelli Market (Marlton, Deptford, and Mullica Hill)

Whole Foods Market (Marlton)

Salisbury Steak in South Jersey

Finally, if you don’t feel like cooking at all, here are a couple South Jersey restaurants that offer Salisbury steak on their menus. I wasn’t expecting to have difficulty finding local diners that serve Salisbury steak, but the dish is surprisingly rare on Jersey menus.

Maybe time for a Make Salisbury Steak Cool Again campaign?

Aunt Bertha’s Kitchen (Berlin, Oaklyn)

Marlton Diner (Marlton)

And if you’re willing to travel over the bridge, Google reviewers report that this Philadelphia restaurant offers an especially tasty Salisbury steak:

Butter’s Soul Food (Philadelphia)

If you know of any other local restaurants serving salisbury steak, please mention it in the comments below.