Cover Story : Water Cure


Water, the source of life, has become a dirty word in the kitchen.

Watery. Watered-down. Water-logged. All these are terms of contempt, expressing a fear that water as an ingredient in everything from soup to creme anglais will dilute any flavor past the point of no return.

Perfectly decent dishes are served at less than their best just because the cook didn’t add the drops of restorative fluid that would have given the pasta a smooth texture, made the vinaigrette delicate, imparted the perfect consistency to the sauce. I have learned, through experimentation and accident, from Vietnamese ingredients and great French chefs, that water is the most important ingredient in cooking.

Imagine, for instance that you over-reduced the cream sauce for your pasta; it’s sitting there, gummy and dry. A few judiciously applied drops of water can bring back its consistency.

Of course, a few more drops can turn it into a puddle. Like salt and pepper, water requires a deft and experienced hand.


It took me a long time to learn this. Once upon a time, making salads as a garde-manger (the cold station in a restaurant kitchen), I never considered adding water to a vinaigrette. To balance the flavors and achieve the right consistency, I struggled with oil and vinegar and everything else on the shelf--but not water.

More often than not, adding vinegar to an overly oily dressing only seemed to make it too sharp. With more oil, it was too heavy. I’d go back and forth and end up with gallons of a vinaigrette I didn’t really like. I experimented with fruits, herbs, sugar and onions, all of which were helpful but not the antidote that would cut both the sharpness and the oiliness without turning the vinaigrette into paste.

A moment of revelation came when I was learning a technique in a different part of the kitchen. The chef, Steven Hatch, taught me to add a little warm water to vegetables that had separated and become greasy when cooked in butter too long. A vigorous shake to the pan after adding the water re-emulsified the butter into a creamier, less greasy state.

The words less greasy ignited my mind. Why couldn’t a vinaigrette be degreased in a similar way?

I tried. It helped balance the flavors nicely. But oil is lighter than vinegar, so it was impossible to ensure that same balance from first ladle to last.

Emulsifying was one answer, but using whole eggs or yolks made the vinaigrette too much like mayonnaise. I tried using whites alone, but they also made the vinaigrette too thick. I added onions and herbs to lighten and broaden the flavors, but the dressing was so heavy it would flatten the sturdiest of greens.

Two more clues led to the solution. I found the first while making a mustard-dill sauce for gravlax, in which oil was emulsified into mustard to make a sauce. Voila! It was a temporary and fragile emulsion--with an emphasis on fragile. But it pointed toward my goal.


I discovered the second clue during a kitchen emergency. Faced with a rush order, directly against the chef’s instructions, I used some lettuce that had not been thoroughly dried after washing. What I found was that the minute amount of cold water on the leaves thinned and distributed the dressing more evenly. I have since applied the technique in many ways.

In retrospect, I can see that my resistance to using water stemmed from my own training in classic restaurant cuisine. Almost every dish follows a basic flow line: saute, de-glaze, add thickener (if any), add base liquid, reduce or cook, finish. (There are, of course, many exceptions, as with any rule.)

But even after mastering the principles behind the steps--which allowed me to improvise--I was still dissatisfied with the results. Though I enjoyed all the reduced and thickened stocks, all the cream and butter, they left me feeling logy. I began to look for new methods to produce the same intense flavors but in a much lighter medium.

Then a friend dragged me to a Vietnamese restaurant, where I learned the lesson of nuoc cham.

Nothing but chile paste, sugar, fish sauce and lime juice, garnished with a few delicate strips of vegetables, nuoc cham is a complex and delicate sauce--spicy, salty, tart and sweet flavors, suspended in water.

Could it be prepared otherwise? If it were made with soybean paste or mayonnaise or even chicken stock, would its character remain true?


No. Any distinctive background noise would surely detract from its fragile balance, its natural simplicity. Only water has the clarity to allow the flavors to retain their individuality and the power to unite them.

The simple recipe, taught to me by the Vietnamese chef of V Majestic in Boston, sparked the idea that a vital sauce in a world-class cuisine could be based entirely on water. Even though there were a handful of other examples in other cuisines, I saw this sauce as being a major step toward understanding the solutions of lightening the food while preserving its richness.

As I began to embrace water as a vital ingredient in fine restaurant cooking, I began to encounter resistance from the old-school thinking of my various employers.

“No, no,” one chef always said when I tried to make a water-based sauce, “chicken stock!” It was true, chicken stock would achieve similar results in terms of consistency, and the proper consistency was key to any soup, sauce or stew. A piece of fish might seem covered in oatmeal if the sauce were not properly thinned before plating.

The catch is that if all sauces are thinned with chicken stock, they all taste like chicken. Rice cooked in chicken stock is . . . chicken rice! The pearly white character of the grain seemed compromised this way.

For a time, I went to great lengths to hide my additions of water to my sauces, even though I still had one foot in the chicken-stock school of thought. But as I learned the importance of consistency, I also realized that thinning sauce with a stock often meant adulterating the flavor.


Romesco is a Spanish sauce made by beating olive oil into a mixture of roasted tomatoes, peppers and garlic along with almonds and stale bread. By its nature, it tends to be too thick to serve as is. But when I diluted Romesco with chicken stock, the flavors were blurred by the strong chicken taste.

So when the chef’s back was turned, I grabbed my pitcher of water. Just a little water brought the Romesco to the desired consistency without compromising the balance of flavor--as with the nuoc cham.

Of course, I am not alone in my love of water. If the culinary world has a King of Water, it would be Bernard Loiseau, chef-patron of the three-star hostelerie-restaurant La Cote d’Or in the tiny Burgundian town of Saulieu (pronounced like a cow mooing, say the locals: Sau lieuuuuuu ). Monsieur Loiseau has coined the term la cuisine d’eau (cuisine of water) to d his cooking. His goal is food that is free of stocks and cream, based instead on Hc,6 2O and the natural juices of meats and vegetables (which has led to wry anecdotes such as the one in which Loiseau and the world-famous chef Paul Bocuse are walking across a bridge over a stream. Bocuse turns to Loiseau and says: “Ah, look at all that sauce. Such a waste!”).

In 1991, I worked as an apprentice in Loiseau’s restaurant. I saw creams and stocks being used there--though on a very limited basis--but Loiseau used water extensively for many purposes, chiefly for consistency. Beyond the individual recipes and techniques I learned, the validation of seeing a Michelin three-star restaurant that boasted of using water as its base greatly affected my view of the liquid’s role in cooking.

And since you are a water being, on a watery planet, now you, too, can discover the power you have on tap.


1 cup basil leaves, washed and drained

1 cup Italian parsley leaves, washed and drained

3 medium shallots, sliced

5 medium cloves garlic, sliced

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

3 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 drop Mexican-style hot sauce

1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil

Puree basil, parsley, shallots, garlic, mustard, vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper, water, lemon juice and hot sauce in food processor or blender until smooth. With machine running, slowly add olive oil in thin stream. Taste for salt and pepper and balance of acidity.


Makes 2 cups.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

93 calories; 60 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.04 gram fiber.


2 large or 4 small red bell peppers

1 fresh poblano chile, optional

4 ripe plum tomatoes

7 cloves garlic

1 (3-inch) piece crusty baguette, or 6 ounces any good bread

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup sliced almonds

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt and pepper

2 drops Mexican-style hot sauce

1 to 2 tablespoons water

Over open flame or electric burner, roast red peppers and poblano chile until black, then remove to bowl (poblano needs less blackening than hot peppers). Cover bowl tightly for no longer than 5 minutes; peel and seed peppers by hand (do not rinse, some seeds and charred skin are OK). Keep peppers separate.

Char whole tomatoes in ungreased saute pan, turning after 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook until garlic begins to char and tomatoes have charred spot on each side. Cool, cut tomatoes in quarters and set aside.

Rip bread into small pieces. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toast in 400-degree oven until thoroughly dry and beginning to brown. Grind bread to medium-rough consistency in blender or processor. Don’t over-process. Set aside.

In food processor puree red peppers, charred tomatoes, garlic and poblano chile 3 seconds. Add bread crumbs and blend. Remove 2/3 of puree to bowl.

Toast almonds in 400-degree oven until golden brown, about 5 minutes. When almonds are golden brown, quickly and carefully add directly into food processor and blend until smooth. Almonds should be hot enough to sizzle when added (this keeps flavor of almonds in sauce).


Return remainder of sauce to processor and, with machine running, add remaining olive oil, then water to desired consistency, salt and pepper and Mexican hot sauce to taste.

Makes 3 cups.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

61 calories; 27 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.07 gram fiber.

Note: Ingredients may be prepared 1 or 2 days in advance but sauce should be assembled within few hours of serving for best flavor.