Monday, June 14, 2010

Operation Free-from-Recipes phase 1

Good Monday and happy new week to everybody!

As promised, I'm embarking on a journey to the recipe-free world! Here is the first post out of a series explaining the different cooking techniques and some recipes that demonstrate how simple it is to achieve success in the kitchen, without the old enemy of creativity, the recipe book.

So first -- Sauté. Why first? Because even if you’re no kitchen expert, even if the only use for your counter in the kitchen as storage for old junk mail; even if the only appliance you use in your house aside from your TV is the microwave; even then, I can assure you that at one incident in your life you’ve sautéed something. Have you ever fried an egg?

While by definition frying an egg is not a “sauté”, it still uses the same principles of application. Sauté in French is literally “to jump”. In cooking, that would refer to “jumping” in a hot pan (picture your favorite TV chef tossing some chopped vegetables 2 feet up in the air in a sizzling hot pan). Sautéing is a dry-heat method of cooking in high heat with just enough fat (oil, butter…) to prevent the product from sticking to the pan. If the items are small enough (chopped vegetables, shrimp or other small diced proteins etc.) then they may be tossed or “jumped” in the pan. Otherwise, in the case of a steak, a whole chicken breast or the fried egg, you would pan fry both sides till done. These days, sauté has more modern interpretation along with tossing. It now includes anything that is pan-fried.

The main purpose of sautéing is to create that magically attractive brown crust on the outside of any product, be it a piece of meat or a slice of mushroom. That brown crust is the visual result of proteins and natural sugars caramelizing (a.k.a. the Maillard Reaction). Caramelized sugars and proteins are desired because they enhance the flavor of the product, while giving it a much sexier, tanned look. When exposed to the high heat, any moisture in the product would ideally be released immediately, and allow for maximum color to be created.

Several principles to keep in mind while sautéing:

1. Get the pan really hot with a minimal amount of oil. Make sure the pan is as hot as it can be without the oil burning. Different oils have different smoke points (the point where the oil gets burnt and is no longer usable). Oils with high smoke points are ideal, such as canola oil, peanut oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil. Olive oil, while giving a great nutty flavor, has a lower smoke point and will not allow for a high-heat sauté.

2. Make sure the product is as dry as possible. As I mentioned earlier, a key to a good sauté is the quick release of the moisture in the product. If possible, it is best to eliminate any excess moisture. If there is plenty of water present, it will first have to allow for the water to evaporate and only then is caramelize. But by that time, the product will be steamed and will overcook. Steamed beef? Bad idea. So, especially when it comes to meat, pat it dry before dropping in the pan, and remove as much of the natural moisture as possible.

3. Allow the product to get close to room temperature. If a piece of chicken is pulled straight out of the fridge, and is immediately dropped into a pan, it will have to get up to temperature first, and only then start caramelizing. Also, a cold product is much more likely to stick to the pan. This is even more crucial when dealing with meat still on the bone. All you need to do is remove it from the fridge and let it sit on the counter for 20-30 minutes. Don’t worry; nothing will get spoiled from sitting out for that short time.

4. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Remember, one of the most important requirements is to have a very hot pan. When you drop all the mushrooms you have into a pan that is not necessarily wide enough to contain them all, the temperature will drop instantly. Now the pan has to reach that high heat point first before it starts browning the mushrooms. Also, a cold pan will not release the moisture fast enough. This is especially crucial with mushrooms, because they have a high content of water naturally, that must be released. The solution is to sauté in batches, if necessary. The same goes with sautéing meat for a stew like the classic Beef Bourguignon. Sauté the cubes of meat in batches, brown from all sides and remove. Add more fat if needed, and sauté the second batch. That way the pan temperature will stay at a desirably high level.

Hopefully this explanation was straightforward enough to get you pumped so “jump” in there and sauté something! Anything!

The most rewarding thing in comparison to the effort put into preparation, has to be onions. Nothing smells better the just plain chopped or sliced onions! It fills the house with an aroma that makes others believe a masterpiece is in the making. And all it is, is onions. So, slice an onion and toss into a sizzling hot pan with a little bit of oil from the ones mentioned above. Perhaps a green bell pepper, cut into strips (julienne). Add 2-3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped. Keep tossing and slowly you’ll start to see the vegetables getting golden brown. Season with salt, pepper, perhaps some ground coriander seed, maybe some fresh chopped mint to finish and you have a tasty side dish! Add strips of seasoned chicken tenders (salt & pepper), sauté till done and you have a Mediterranean style stir-fry. Now how easy is that? Don’t forget to pat the chicken dry and allow it to get close to room temperature, remember?

So there you have it. I’ve passed on the knowledge, hopefully in a helpful and approachable manner. The most important thing is to simply have fun with it! Follow the basic guidelines but other than that, just enjoy the experience! Season well, taste as you go and come up with your own creations! This is a movement towards freedom from recipes! Act 1 is in the books so sauté away my friends!

And stay hungry for more!



  1. I love this post Lee, thank you for sharing your gift!!!

  2. Lee, you have an amazing talent and a way with words! I'm watching you on Masterchef and every week I'm crossing my fingers for you (and shouting your name at the tv). I think you have what it takes to win and I'm telling you right now, I'd buy your book as soon as it hit the shelves, and I've never bought a cookbook before in my life! Best of luck though I know you don't need it.

  3. Lee I love you!!
    I watch you on masterchef and you are the best!
    I wish i could cook with you, it seems like so much fun!
    Do you have some recipes without vegetables for me? my uncle who is also a cook promised to cook me some with yummy vegetables but he lives far away and for now I need some new recipes without vegetables!Pleace help me I know you can come up with some great recipes..

  4. Lee... We miss your posts... Start writing again please!!!!

  5. Thanks for your comment on the incline treadmill and good luck. I wrote some tips to you at