THE RECIPE says, "saute until lightly browned." Sounds easy. But for the beginning cook the term "saute'" can hold a dozen pitfalls.
Saute is a French word that means "to jump". It is probably the most loosely interpreted term in "franglais" cooking lingo--many cookbooks ask the cook to saute onions, for example, when the process is really slower or longer than saute. The word actually means to cook food quickly in a shallow pan using high heat and a small amount of oil and/or butter. It's an easy process, if you just keep a few simple rules in mind.
* Choose the correct pan for sauteing. It should be shallow and have a heavy bottom. A skillet is perfect and so is a sauteuse, a French pan that has straight sides and is equipped with a cover. Deeper saucepans should not be used because they will not allow moisture to evaporate as quickly, and are not likely to have a surface area as large as the shallower pans. A heavy bottom allows heat to accumulate in the metal, making it hold the temperature after the food is added; it also makes for even browning.
* Use a small amount of vegetable oil or butter, only enough to coat the bottom of the pan. When sauteing a large amount of meat, it is best to use half butter and half oil. Because the oil can be heated to much higher temperatures than butter, combining the two allows you to raise the temperature without burning the butter.
* The pan should be heated for two minutes before adding the oil or butter. It should be hot enough to make a drop of water dance on its surface before the oil is poured. Heat the oil for a minute, then add the ingredient to be saute'ed. It's very important to keep the temperature high enough to keep the food cooking quickly. Remember the French word means "jump." If the initial temperature is too low or the heat drops after the food is added, the food begins to lose juices into the bottom of the pan and it stews rather than saute's. This results in tough meat and soggy vegetables.
* The ingredients to be sauteed should be relatively dry; when wet ingredients are added to the pan, the temperature drops and, again, the food stews in its juices. With meat, this means air or towel drying or dredging it lightly in flour. Vegetables are usually dry enough. The exception is eggplant or zucchini, which should be tossed with salt and left to drain in a colander to rid excess moisture. This procedure causes moisture to rise to the surface of the vegetable. It can either be patted dry with paper towels or dredged in flour before cooking.
* Even a properly heated pan and dry ingredients won't saute' properly if you crowd the pan. Too many ingredients, too close together, lowers the temperature. Same results. Be sure that there is at least 1 inch between chops or steaks. It's better to heat two pans than to ruin your meal in one. This applies to finely chopped vegetables as well. It's important to have a single layer in the pan even if it means sauteing two batches.
* When meats like scallopini or chops are sauteed, it is quite important to allow some browning to occur. This concentrates the flavor and makes the meat taste better. Some vegetables are enhanced by a little browning as well. Mushrooms are a very good example. Their flavor is greatly intensified if they brown in a little butter rather than stew in it. VEAL SCALLOPINI FRANCAISE (2 servings) Salt and pepper 8 to 10 ounces veal scallops, pounded thin 1/4 cup flour for dredging 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 tablespoons butter Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper the veal. Dip it in flour, shaking off any excess. Heat a sauteuse or skillet over a high flame for 2 minutes. Add a drop of water. If it dances, add the oil and butter. Heat for another minute. Add two or three of the scallops. Remember not to crowd them. Saute for 30 seconds on each side. Remove from the pan. Add more butter and oil if needed. Reheat pan for 30 seconds. Finish the remaining scallops and remove from pan. Squeeze the lemon juice into the pan and swirl. Pour the juices over the scallopini.
Note: This same dish may be done with turkey fillets or chicken breast. Just slice thin and pound with a veal pounder until thin. SAUTEED MUSHROOMS (2 servings) 8 ounces mushrooms 4 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons minced onion Salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste
Early in the day, wash the mushrooms well to remove all dirt and sand. Place the mushrooms on a wire rack and allow to dry. This will take two or three hours unless the day is dry. Slice the mushrooms. (Any extra will keep well in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator. The washing seems to improve their shelf life if they are dried well afterward.) At serving time, heat a saute' pan and add the butter. Heat another minute and add the onion. When the onion is soft, add the mushrooms. Be sure that the temperature is high enough to brown the mushrooms. Shake the pan as the mushrooms cook. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. They should be ready in 3 minutes. The mushrooms may be reheated in the same pan if you want to cook them in advance.