Puree heaven

You've probably encountered the term "coulis" (pronounced "cool-ee"). It became trendy a few years back and has now settled in as an acceptable culinary process.

In most cases, it means that your entree or dessert will arrive sitting on top of a velvety smooth, delicately flavored sauce made from a particular vegetable or fruit, a preparation in its own right. But that's not how it started out.

Originally, such purees were used in the context of soup and included pureed rice to give extra body to the soup. However, like most cooking traditions that get adopted by the masses, the coulis concept has become a bit fuzzy around the edges.

Now the term typically applies to a vegetable or fruit puree. You can call it a puree, you can call it a sauce or you can call it a coulis.

Just about any fruit or vegetable can become a coulis. But the vegetables of fall are particularly amenable to the conversion. With red peppers, for example (see recipe below), I like to roast them over a burner or grill them just until their shiny surface has blistered. Then I peel and chop them and soften them in a sauté pan with a bit of olive oil and fresh, chopped garlic.

Once the peppers and garlic are buttery soft, I add a bit of chicken broth and cream and simmer just a few more minutes before gently pureeing the mixture in my food processor.

If I'm making a large batch, I simply grab my hand-held blender and puree everything right in the pot.

Turnips, rutabagas and kohlrabi are also really good vegetables to puree and taste particularly delicious when added to mashed potatoes. Also, surprisingly, broccoli is another vegetable that's worthy of consideration, but it definitely needs to be paired up with a starchier vegetable, like potatoes, in order to retain a smooth puree. Just don't overcook the broccoli. Saute only until it's tender, or the color will turn.

As an example of a particularly clever and delicious approach to the concept, I'm sharing one of my favorite coulis recipes. It was created by Portland chef Paul Beppler in the mid-'90s for the National Beef Cook-off. It won him a gold medal in the professional cooking division. I sampled the winning dish.

I had encountered Beppler on the set of Portland television station KATU's "AM Northwest" show a month after he'd returned from New York City with his gold medal. He was preparing his winning recipe for the live broadcast and an appreciative (and hungry!) crew and studio audience.

When Beppler's 10-minute segment was over, host Paul Lindman, fork and plate in hand, made a beeline for Beppler's masterpiece. Naturally, I was on Lindman's heels, elbowing him gently out of the way so I could sample the fabulous-smelling Potato Coulis.

I had a chance to talk with the chef about his special sauce. He explained that it started out as a German potato salad, which will give you an idea of the extraordinary, rich-yet-zesty flavors this potato dish contained, from smoky bacon and beef stock to the zingy horseradish, vinegar and mustard counterpoints. He explained that he had entered the dish in the previous year's contest without success. But in that version, the potato salad was just that — chunks of potatoes in a tangy sauce.

For the winning year, he took a potato masher to the salad and finished it by adding a bit more broth, sour cream and oil. Then he labeled it Potato Coulis, "which was a lot classier than calling it Potato Sauce," laughed Beppler.

The coulis accompanied Beppler's Grand Ronde Valley beef tenderloin. The amount of oil called for in this recipe may seem excessive to you, but Beppler says it's needed to achieve the velvety texture. You wouldn't eat this every day, but an occasional splurge seems justifiable.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail, at janrd@proaxis.com.

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