What is this thing called love we’re celebrating today? And why don’t we have more words for it in English? The Greeks have four. We’ve got metaphors for love, such as “You’re the apple of my eye.” And we’ve got words that represent love. Think “passion” and “fervor” and “zeal” and “food.” Food is love, no? Passionate chefs and home cooks alike will be working overtime today, stirring their hearts out for the love of their family, friends and customers.

Of course, chocolate will be on every Valentine’s menu today, as well it should be. But what about those dreamy and decadent foods that warm our hearts before dessert. Things like macaroni and cheese, vegetable gratin, Chateaubriand steak, eggs Benedict and hearty chicken topped with a creamy (spoiler alert!) sauce.

What makes those dishes so delicious and lovable? Yes, the secret is in the sauce. The five mother sauces, that is. Chefs from Canterbury Royale in Fort Fairfield to Maurice in South Paris to Fuel in Lewiston to a private kitchen in Brunswick all shared their mother sauce love with us to help you better understand what makes the foods we love . . . lovable.

Back in the early days, before knife, fork and double boiler, eating was a sad affair in survival. Whatever food crossed the path of our early ancestors was eaten as it arrived, with very little elaboration. A little hollandaise on your raw asparagus? Highly unlikely.

Fast forward to the 17th century, when French cooking began to distinguish itself from other cuisines. Roux, that classic creation, was made by simply adding flour to butter, and then used to thicken meat juices and stocks. It was a game-changing food innovation.

Further practice and experimentation over the next two centuries perfected this simple thickening agent (or “liaison,” as the French call it) and sauces began to emerge as compliments to basic foods.

By the early 1800s French celebrity chef and food writer Antonin Careme codified sauces into four categories — the fundamental “sauce meres” (mother sauces). Careme’s work would be further perfected and simplified by Auguste Escoffier in his 1903 “Le Guide Culinaire,” adding one additional sauce to Careme’s original four. His book is still an important text for cooks today; Ali Waks-Adams, a Brunswick chef and partner of Butter + Salt pop up restaurant, acknowledges, “I knew they (the mother sauces) existed from reading Escoffier.”

Maybe Escoffier’s work is not on your bedside table. But years of cooking and eating may be enough to spark your “a ha!” moment when you read the names of the mother sauces: bechamel, veloute, espagnole, tomato and hollandaise.

Studied and practiced for centuries, they make us love our food. And they’ve birthed whole new families of well-loved derivative sauces.

Bechamel: This is a white sauce, made of butter, flour and milk. Vegetable gratins and macaroni and cheese rely on this simple sauce. Mornay sauce is just one derivative.

Veloute: This is also a white sauce, but chicken or fish stock is combined with the roux instead of milk. Veloute means “velvet” in French and some of the velvety derivatives you may be familiar with are sauce supreme, allemande and normande.

Espagnole: A brown roux is prepared by carefully cooking a basic roux longer; then veal stock is added. Bits of beef, vegetables and seasonings may be also added and then skimmed off. The blended sauce is slowly reduced by additional cooking with added stock, developing a rich flavor over time. Chefs Barbara Boucher and Rene O’Neill, owners of Canterbury Royale in Fort Fairfield, say “the espagnole sauce makes its way into all aspects of our cooking.” Michael Gosselin, chef at Fuel restaurant in Lewiston, says classic espagnole sauce is sometimes replaced by “a straight reduction of veal stock versus combining it with a roux.”

Hollandaise: An emulsion of egg yolks and butter, flavored with lemon juice. The preparation of this sauce requires some practice to get the science of emulsification to work. Exact amounts of agitation, heat and time are required, and first attempts to make hollandaise often result in sauce separation. Gosselin says hollandaise preparation is “the one that trips up most people. It can break on you at any time.” At Maurice Restaurant in South Paris, owner Corey Sumner says “our filet mignon with bearnaise sauce is one of the most popular” dishes served at the restaurant. Bearnaise sauce, a hollandaise derivative, is flavored with tarragon.

Tomate: Similar to the tomato sauce served with pasta; in French cuisine a roux is used to thicken it.

Before this little tutorial makes you doze off like you used to in science class, remember this:

? Mother sauces are the source of great palate happiness;

? Getting a feel for cooking these sauces, if you haven’t already, will add immeasurably to your skill set and the admiration and appreciation you will feel from the lucky people you serve;

? These sauces are just the beginning!

Take for instance Waks-Adams’ Maine Rarebit.* She acknowledges “mother sauces are rather exact and complicated,” and therefore, to nurture readers along with their own cooking, she offers a rarebit recipe that tips the classic bechamel on its ear.

“Eschewing the classical infusion of bay leaf and clove-studded onion, (I like) using fresh Maine cream and local beer and strong local cheese to bolster the roux-thickened sauce,” she says.

(By the way, she recommends serving the rarebit with a hearty winter green salad, including ingredients like kale, kohlrabi and watermelon radish for a tasty meatless dinner.)

So don’t be afraid to get cozy with mother sauces. Waks-Adams’ recipe that accompanies this story is a good place to start. For more, you can try to pick up a copy of Escoffier’s book, but also highly recommended is James Peterson’s “Sauces.”

Who knows, you may just fall in love.

* See related story for a brief explanation of the humorous origin of the name “Welsh rarebit.” 

Julie-Ann Baumer lives, cooks, and writes from her home in Lisbon Falls. Read her blog www.julieannbaumer.com or follow her on twitter @aunttomato

Welsh rarebit a rare bit of humor

Hot and cheesy, that’s Welsh rarebit. But where did the dish get it’s name?

Nowhere else will you find “rarebit” but on a menu or a cookbook referring to the dish. And what do the Welsh have to do with it?

There’s little evidence the Welsh originated the dish. It’s speculated that it was originally known as “Welsh rabbit,” facetiously. Since it contained cheese instead of rabbit, some considered this a wee bit patronizing to the Welsh, who were well known to love their cheese. What may have been intended as a humorous barb tossed at the Welsh — pointing out cheese as inferior to rabbit — didn’t hurt Welsh feelings at all. No rabbit, no problem. We’ve got cheese.

Somewhere along the line, “rabbit” morphed into “rarebit” and forever it remains, having no other use in the English language.

Ali Waks-Adams’ Maine rarebit

(Serves 2 people who love cheese or 4 who are eating something else with it.)

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon grainy mustard

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped

1/2 cup Allagash Black or other Maine made porter

3/4 cup fresh local cream (or half & half)

2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated Hahn’s End “Lynn” cheese or Lakin’s Opus 42 or any local cheese you like (this will not work with feta or mozzarella; if you choose a creamy goat cheese, use a lighter type of beer such as Saison)

4 slices of thick-cut (about 1 inch) local crusty bread

1 clove garlic

Maine sea salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

1. Melt butter over low heat in a heavy-bottom sauce pan; season with a few grinds of pepper and a pinch of salt

2. Whisk in flour. Whisk consistently for a couple of minutes — do not allow the flour to turn brown. A bechamel sauce requires a blond roux; it should stay pale.

3. Whisk in the Worcestershire sauce, mustards and thyme until you have a smooth paste

4. Add beer and continue to whisk, making sure there are no lumps

5. Whisk in cream and continue to whisk until smooth.

6. Gradually add 1 1/2 cups of the grated cheese (reserving 1/2 cup for a topping), stirring all the while as the cheese melts. It will take about 4 to 5 minutes to emulsify. (Your Fitbit will capture all the stirring and give you steps.)

7. Remove from heat, taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if needed. A few dashes of hot sauce may also be added. Allow to cool for easier spreading. (The dish won’t be terrible if you don’t wait and just pour it on the bread.)

Once the cheese mixture is cooled, preheat broiler.

1. Meanwhile, toast bread lightly on both sides, then rub with garlic clove on both sides

3. Place toast on a baking sheet

4. Spread or pour cheese over top.

5. Sprinkle tops with reserved grated cheese

6. Place under broiler until cheese melts, bubbles and browns.

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