by John Ryan
Here it is September and like some biological urge to fly south, I'm finding school supplies irresistible.
I remember how each new textbook held unbelievable potential: by the end of the year I'd know all that stuff.
Then came the homework assignments...and tests.
Frankly, as much as I loved the prospect of knowing stuff, I didn't particularly like to study. I was like the writer who said he hated writing, but loved having written. I didn't like to study, but I loved knowing stuff, especially when it tasted good, which may explain why I took up food rather than philosophy.
So to commemorate the start of the school year, I am offering a short course in sautéing. Because of its speed and minimal pan requirement (one), the technique is a busy person's best friend. But, as with any subject, first things first: a few definitions.
As a verb, "sauté" literally means to jump. When applied to cooking, it means to keep food hopping, or at least turned, jostled, and disturbed in a hot pan—it's stir-frying with a French accent.
There's even a pan for sautéing called, duh, a sauté pan. It's shallow so all the food can touch the pan and pan juices can evaporate quickly.
Used as a noun, however, "sauté" refers to a kind of recipe, a style of cooking.
A sauté is a fast, almost improvisational dish where a few ingredients meet and hastily marry in one pan. For instance, let's say you were foolish enough to plant zucchini last spring. By now you have more zucchini than you know what to do with. Put a dent in your crop by taking a few zukes, dicing them and browning them in a flavorful olive oil. Throw in some minced garlic and rosemary and sprinkle with salt and pepper. That's all there is to it. Within minutes, a few bland zucchini become a flavorful side dish. Toss that side dish with some pasta and you have a main course.
Sautés allow you to become a culinary Sheherazade with only a sharp knife, a cutting board and a skillet. Tomorrow night you might add a diced tomato to that zucchini garlic/rosemary theme; the next, you could sauté zucchini with mint and lemon juice...you can tell a different culinary story every night until a frost mercifully nails your zucchini plants.
If there is one skill to acquire, it is getting the right pan temperature. A thin piece of meat can be flash-cooked over high heat. But a thicker piece of meat, such as a chicken breast, requires a lower temperature. If you want crisp brown vegetables, you'll want high heat; if you want soft brown vegetables, you'll want a lower burner. In any event, the pan should always be hot enough to concentrate meat juices as they collect. A pan that's too cool soon has food simmering in its own juices.
Finally, and this may be the real beauty of sautés, those dark brown crusty bits of meat that stick to the bottom of the pan are a miracle of flavor. Add sliced onion, an herb, a healthy splash of wine and a diced tomato to a "dirty" pan and you get two things: a delicious sauce and a pan that is easier to clean.
So here is your homework. Make these four recipes sometime this month. No need to turn in the assignments, I have confidence that you'll grade your work just fine on your own.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created September 1999
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