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Who Needs Recipes When You've Got Technique?

Pam teaches you to sear and sauce

I love recipes — I'm a cookbook author after all — but I believe it's important for home cooks to internalize a few basic cooking techniques and formulas that don't require using a recipe. Wouldn't it be nice to open the fridge and automatically know how to create a meal with what you've got? Mastering a few techniques inspires confidence and allows you to think of recipes as guides.

See also: Help! There's zucchini at my door

One of the first techniques to learn is Sear and Sauce.  For a step-by-step explanation, read on.

You can sear just about any thin cut or thick cut of meat cooked to medium or medium-rare. These cuts include:

  • Boneless, skinless chicken breasts split to create 2 thin cutlets
  • Turkey cutlets
  • Pork tenderloin, cut crosswise into 3/4-inch or so medallions
  • Boneless pork chops
  • Fish steaks (e.g. tuna, swordfish, mahi-mahi)
  • Salmon fillets
  • Sea scallops
  • Beef steaks
  • Lamb chops, rib or loin

Start by turning your skillet on low. It takes a lot less time to bring a warm skillet to a hot state than if you wait until you're ready to cook. If you wait, you are more likely to drop the cut into it before the skillet's ready.

If you lightly drizzle the cut with oil rather than adding it to the pan, you'll use less of it and the skillet won't smoke. After oiling the cut, lightly season it with a little salt and pepper and toss to coat.

A couple of minutes before cooking turn your gas burner to high. (Electric stove owners may want to try a strong medium-high.) Once the pan is good and hot — I like to see wisps of smoke start to rise from my seasoned non-stick skillet — add the cut. If you don't get a solid sizzle, yank it out.

At this point keep your eye on the stove but walk away. Depending on the cut's thickness and density it should be done in 2 to 3 1/2 minutes per side, which is an eternity when you're hovering. To avoid the temptation to turn the cut more than once, set a timer and busy yourself with something else — set the table, make a salad, cook the vegetable. The only way to get it that delectable dark crust is to leave it alone.

Not only is browning crucial for the cut's flavor, it's important for the pan sauce as well. All those brown drippings left in the skillet contribute to the sauce's flavor.

Now it's time to make the pan sauce. It's such a quick simple step and it takes the eating experience from ordinary to extraordinary. Add about 1/2 cup liquid (there are three fine examples below) and reduce the sauce by about half. At this point you'll need to enrich and thicken the sauce by adding a couple of teaspoons of butter or a tablespoon or so of cream. If the sauce isn't too acidic — lemon juice or vinegar based — you can also thicken the sauce with a pinch of cornstarch dissolved in water. You may want a little of both.

I've created the following three "recipes" to exemplify the sear and sauce technique. The Tarragon Mustard Cream Sauce that I've paired with chicken would be equally delicious with the salmon or pork and the Orange Pan Sauce that I've got with the salmon would be just as good with chicken or pork.

Once you learn how to sear and sauce, add it to your menu once or twice a week. You'll find yourself looking into the fridge and saying, "I know just what to serve for dinner tonight."

The following recipes easily serve 4 — simply double the ingredients and switch to a large (12-inch skillet). You can also make it for one by halving the ingredients and using a small (8-inch) skillet.

Next: Chicken cutlets with tarragon-mustard cream sauce. >>

Watch Pam's Video for expert tips on sear and sauce techniques

Seared Chicken Cutlets With Tarragon-Mustard Cream Sauce

Serves 2

1 large chicken breast (about 8 to 10 ounces), tenderloin removed, breast halved crosswise to make 2 cutlets

2 teaspoons oil (olive, canola, vegetable)

Salt and ground black pepper

1/2 cup chicken broth

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon

1 tablespoon heavy cream

1/4 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 teaspoon water

Heat a heavy-bottomed medium (10-inch) non-stick skillet over low heat. Coat chicken and tenderloins evenly with oil, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Mix broth, mustard, and tarragon in a Pyrex measuring cup; set aside.

A couple of minutes from cooking turn on vent fan and increase heat under pan to high (or strong medium-high for electric stove owners). When pan is hot (a seasoned non-stick skillet will start to send up wisps of smoke) add chicken; cook without turning until well browned on one side, about 3 minutes. Turn chicken and continue to cook until well browned and cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a clean plate.

Add broth mixture to skillet; simmer, adding any accumulated chicken juices, until reduced by half, a couple of minutes. Whisk in cream and then cornstarch mixture; continue to cook until sauce is thick enough to coat the chicken, almost instantly. If sauce is too thick, simply add water to thin to proper consistency. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.

Next: Seared pork tenderloin with apple-ginger pan sauce.>>

Seared Pork Tenderloin With Apple-Ginger Pan Sauce

Serves 2

1/2 large pork tenderloin (8 to 12 ounces) cut crosswise into 6 medallions

2 teaspoons oil (olive, canola, vegetable)

Salt and ground black pepper

1/4 cup each: apple cider and chicken broth

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 teaspoon water

Heat a medium (10-inch) non-stick skillet over low heat. Coat pork medallions with oil, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Mix apple juice, chicken broth, soy sauce and ginger in a Pyrex measuring cup; set aside.

A couple of minutes from cooking turn on vent fan and increase heat under pan to high (or strong medium-high for electric stove owners). Add medallions; cook without turning until well browned on one side, 3 to 3 1/2 minutes. Turn and continue to cook until well browned and cooked through, 3 to 3 1/2 minutes longer. Transfer to a clean plate.

Add cider mixture to skillet; cook, adding any accumulated meat juices, until reduced by half, a couple of minutes. Whisk in cornstarch mixture and continue to cook until sauce is thick enough to coat pork, almost instantly. If sauce is too thick, simply add water to thin to proper consistency. Pour sauce over medallions and serve.

Next: Seared salmon with orange pan sauce.>>

Seared Salmon with Orange Pan Sauce

Serves 2

If you like, add a big pinch of dried herbs to the orange juice mixture. You can also add a few teaspoons of fresh herbs — basil, cilantro, parsley, tarragon or dill — to the finished sauce.

2 salmon fillets (4 to 6 ounces each)

2 teaspoons oil (olive, canola, or vegetable)

Salt and ground black pepper

1/4 cup each: orange juice and chicken broth

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 teaspoon cold water

Heat a heavy-bottomed medium (10-inch) non-stick skillet over low heat. Coat salmon with oil, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Mix orange juice, broth, and mustard in a Pyrex measuring cup; set aside.

A couple of minutes from cooking turn on vent fan and increase heat under pan to high (or strong medium-high for electric stove owners). When pan is hot (a seasoned non-stick skillet will start to send up wisps of smoke) add salmon; cook without turning until well browned on one side, about 3 minutes. Turn salmon and continue to cook until well browned and cooked to desired doneness, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a clean plate.

Add orange juice mixture to skillet; simmer sauce, adding accumulated salmon juices, until reduced by half, a couple of minutes. Whisk in cornstarch mixture; continue to cook until sauce is thick enough to coat salmon, almost instantly. If sauce is too thick, simply add water to thin to proper consistency. Pour sauce over salmon and serve.

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