Awesome Sauce(s)

Secret sauces

May 7, 2018

If there’s one thing we love, it’s a trick to elevate our cooking without, well, requiring much effort. We want fantastic meals, and we don’t want to work that hard to make them. Is that too much to ask?

Turns out, it isn’t.

One excellent way to do it: Add a sauce. And ideally, an easy one. We turned to Vanessa Seder, author of Secret Sauces, to get a couple of her favorites.

The two we selected from the book, Classic Pesto and Classic Vinaigrette, are fantastic as is, but you also can mix up the ingredients to make them your own (or pick up a copy of the book and check out the variations offered by Seder, a Maine-based cooking teacher and food stylist). For example, in the vinaigrette, swap buttermilk for the vinegar and add ¼ cup grated cucumber for a whole different experience. For the pesto, try baby arugula instead of basil and walnuts in place of pine nuts.

“When I was in culinary school, it was classic French cuisine, and one of the first things we learned was the mother sauces,” Seder tells Clean Plates. “It was one of the foundations of technique. You make these sauces, and then you build upon them and make other sauces. The mother sauces can be kind of heavy, and I wanted this book to be lighter, relatively healthy, with international influences.”

Start with the basic recipes, below—use the vinaigrette to liven up your weeknight salad, and spoon the pesto on plain broiled chicken or fish. Once you’re comfortable with them, change them up. Your cooking will take on a gourmet quality, no crazy equipment, mad skills or hours in the kitchen necessary.

The Mother Pesto

  • Serves: 8
  • Prep Time:


  • ⅓ cup raw pine nuts
  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves, thoroughly washed, dried, and torn
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


  1. Heat the pine nuts in a small skillet over medium heat while stirring constantly until lightly toasted, about 6 minutes. Immediately transfer them to the bowl of a food processor to cool.
  2. Add the basil to the food processor along with the garlic, lemon juice, and cheese. Pulse about 40 times until very finely chopped. Continue to pulse while slowly drizzling in the olive oil until all the olive oil is incorporated and the pesto is smooth but slightly chunky. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Use immediately or place a piece of plastic directly over the top of the pesto so that it doesn’t oxidize. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

The Mother Vinaigrette

  • Serves: 4
  • Prep Time:


  • 1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper


  1. In a medium bowl, whisk the mustard, shallot, and vinegar together.
  2. Very slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking constantly until emulsified. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Alternatively, place the mustard, shallot, vinegar, and olive oil in a jar and vigorously shake for 30 seconds to 1 minute until combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.