We’re at that time of year again when households and dinner tables tend to dwindle. Children leave for college or the family gets caught in a whirl of after-school activities, play and chorus rehearsals, night classes, committee meetings, and off-hours work projects.
Which also means it’s time for a reminder that having only yourself or spouse to cook for is not an excuse to give up on the kitchen. Cooking for one or two people can be a challenge, but it need not be a chore. We still have to eat, and we might as well eat well.
One of the solo cook’s best friends is sautéing. It’s quick, easy to break down into a small batch (in fact, is easier to do in small batches), and with few exceptions, dirties up only one pan.
Derived from the French verb “to jump,” that’s literally what goes on in a proper sauté: the food is constantly agitated, either by stirring or tossing. If that sounds like “stir-frying” to you, it’s because they’re exactly the same technique going by two different names.
The only drawback to the technique is that it demands our undivided attention once it begins. And while the kitchen is no place to be in a bad mood (I speak from experience), it’s especially true when the task at hand requires complete focus.
Put on some relaxing music. If you’re too warm, for goodness’ sake, turn down the thermostat. Stop thinking of it as a chore and start thinking of it as an opportunity to play. And if that doesn’t work, focus on how much you’ll enjoy the finished product.
And speaking of that, when you do sit down to eat, don’t just shovel it in “to get it over with,” but take the time to really dine.
What I mean by that is, even if you’re alone, set the table or at the very least, a tray, with attractive dinnerware, flatware, and linens (yes, real cloth napkins), and make sure you add something nice to look at — a flower in a bud vase or a favorite small object — a seashell, small carving, or piece of porcelain; even a perfect piece of seasonal fruit will suffice.
Turn off the television, put away your cell phone and keep that soothing music going. Take your time to savor each bite: You’ll feel full more quickly and will feel a lot more satisfied.
But back to the cooking: Here’s a quick review of sautéing, the tools you’ll need for it, and a few notes on prepping for small-batch cooking:
• For most other small-batch cooking, you’d use a smaller pan, but for sautéing, you need a big one for room to toss. Since it’s the same as stir-frying, a wok is ideal for sautéing.
• Professionals flip the food by shaking the pan. Unless you’re a pro, you don’t need to master that. All you need is a wide tool to scoop and flip, such as a bamboo stir-frying paddle or wide, shallow wooden spoon. If your pan is non-stick, don’t use a metal tool.
• If you find chopping and prepping small amounts tedious, some things like onions, carrots, and celery can be prepped in quantity and stored in the refrigerator, well-covered, for up to five days. They’d keep longer frozen, but if they’re intended for a sauté, don’t freeze them.
• When you find a bargain in a large package of meat or poultry that you can’t pass up, get it all pan-ready at once, then individually bag portions and store them refrigerated for up to 4 days or frozen for up to three months.
• Unfortunately, you can’t mince garlic and herbs ahead, but they’re easy enough to do in small quantities. Resist the temptation to buy pre-chopped garlic in a jar: Goodness knows what’s been done to it to keep it fresh, and if you’re cooking for just one or two people, you won’t be able to use it all up before it spoils.
Creating a single serving
Here are a few notes on breaking down a favorite sauté (or any other recipe) to a single serving:
• Solid foods (proteins, vegetables, grains) are a simple one-to-one division: To get the amount needed for a single portion, divide the amount given by the number of servings. (If a recipe that yields 4 servings calls for 1½ pounds (that’s 24 ounces), you’ll need 6 ounces.
• Liquids are also one-to-one division, but a lot can depend on the method and size of the pan. If you find that you need more liquid, add water, not more of the flavoring wine, broth, vinegar, or lemon juice. Otherwise, it will overpower the rest of the ingredients.
• For most other recipes, fats aren’t as straightforward and decrease exponentially. To divide 4 servings down to 1, the fat can only be cut by half or at most two-thirds. But fortunately, for a sauté, measuring the fat isn’t all that important: All you need is enough to lubricate the pan.
Shopping for one
A few tips on shopping for one:
• Shop more often: It’s not really practical for single cooks to stock up on perishable food, so instead of one weekly trip to the market, shop at least twice a week. More often, if you can.
• Shop where you can actually just buy what you need from a bulk display, like at farmers' markets, where things are always sold loose, or the open bins of the supermarket’s produce section.
• Supermarkets package meat and produce to their advantage, not yours, and rarely take single cooks into consideration. When they offer small packages, they often cost more. You can buy larger packages and freeze what you can’t use right away, but most grocers will repackage a smaller portion for you if you ask.
• Shop the supermarket mostly around its perimeter, where all the uncooked produce, dairy products, meat, poultry, and fish are displayed. Minimize prepared, packaged food, which is rarely packaged to a single cook’s advantage and isn’t great for you anyway.
• That said, there are things that are already done for you that are a great help for single cooks. Look at quality jarred marinara (leftovers keep refrigerated for at least a week), small cans of cooked beans, paste stock base (keeps indefinitely, refrigerated) and wonton wrappers for stuffed pasta.
Looking for more guidance? Email me through my website, damonleefowler.com, or find my author’s page on Facebook.
Basic Sauté for Beef, Chicken, Pork, or Shrimp (Master Recipe)
The technique for a quick sauté of boneless protein is the same regardless, but there are slight adjustments to make for each type. Shrimp can be left whole, but for quick, even cooking, large pieces of protein should be cut into bite-sized pieces.
Put the fat in the pan before heating it and start with lively heat, letting the pan and fat get thoroughly heated before adding the protein. Brown it well on all sides and then moderate the heat to medium to finish the cooking so that the surface doesn’t get scorched.
I’ve included finishing suggestions at the end of the master recipe, but you can add your own finishing touches, or fold it into the Sautéed Vegetable Medley included in this column. Serves 1-2.
• 4-6 ounces per serving beef sirloin, sirloin tip, or filet tips; boneless, skinless chicken breast; boned chicken thighs; pork tenderloin (about ¼ of tenderloin); or a 6-8 large shrimp
• Extra virgin olive oil
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• 1 small shallot, split, peeled, and minced
• ¼-½ cup chicken broth, beef broth, or water
• 1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, oregano, rosemary, or sage, optional
1. Prepare chosen protein: Trim cartilage and fat from chicken; trim fat and gristle from beef; trim silverskin from pork. Cut into uniform bite-sized chunks. For shrimp, peel and devein if desired and leave whole. Wrap in paper towels and thoroughly pat dry.
2. Film pan with olive oil and put over medium high heat. When hot, add chosen protein and finish as directed below.
For Beef: Sauté until browned and done to your taste, about 3-4 minutes for medium rare. For medium-well to well done, adjust heat to medium to keep outside from browning too much and sauté 2-3 minutes longer. Remove from pan and add shallot. Sauté until golden, about 2 minutes, then deglaze pan with beef broth (¼ cup for 1 serving, ½ cup for 2). Bring to boil, stirring and scraping, and boil until reduced by two-thirds. Add any accumulated juice from meat, stir, and turn off heat. Return beef to pan, add optional herbs, toss to coat, and serve.
For Chicken: Toss until surface is white and opaque, about 1 minute. Season to taste, adjust heat to medium, and continue sautéing until just cooked through, about 4-5 minutes. Remove from pan and add shallot. Sauté until golden, about 2 minutes, then deglaze with chicken broth (¼ cup for 1 serving, ½ cup for 2). Bring to boil, stirring and scraping, and boil until reduced by two-thirds. Turn off heat, return chicken to pan, add optional herbs, toss to coat, and serve.
For Pork: Sauté until well browned (about 3 minutes), adjust heat to medium, and continue until done to your taste, about 2 minutes for medium/medium-well. Remove from pan and add shallot. Sauté until golden, about 2 minutes, then deglaze with chicken broth or water (¼ cup for 1 serving, ½ cup for 2), and boil until reduced by two-thirds. Add accumulated juice from meat (if any) and stir. Turn off heat, return pork to pan, add optional herbs, toss, and serve.
For Shrimp: Sauté until pink, curled, and just cooked through, about 2 minutes. Remove from pan and add shallot. Sauté until golden, about 2 minutes, then deglaze with water, stirring and scraping, and boil until reduced by two-thirds. Off heat, add shrimp and optional herbs, toss, and serve.
Optional flavorings: After deglazing, you may add a dash of Worcestershire or soy sauce (for any of them), a teaspoon or so of lemon juice (for chicken, pork, or shrimp), or a heaped tablespoon of your favorite barbecue or hoisin sauce (for chicken or pork) and let it heat through.
Garlic Déglacé: Add 1 large minced clove garlic to pan with shallot (or use 2 cloves garlic and omit shallot) and when golden, deglaze pan as directed, either with broth or water or with the same amount of dry white wine or dry white vermouth as directed below.
Wine Déglacé: Allow ¼ cup per serving dry white wine, dry white vermouth, dry sherry, or Madeira (for any of them) or pinot noir or cabernet (for beef). After shallot is golden, deglaze pan with wine, bring to boil, then add broth or water and boil, stirring and scraping pan, until reduced and syrupy. Off heat, whisk in 1-4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (cut into chunks) and herbs. For chicken, pork, and shrimp, you may add a teaspoon or so of lemon juice. Return chicken, meat, or shrimp to pan, toss to coat, and serve.
Sautéed Fall Greens
Greens don’t have to be slow-stewed with ham in big batches. This serves one or two in just minutes, and the smoked salt lends that smoked-pork taste without adding extra fat. Serves 1-2.
• ½ pound kale (about 1 large bunch)
• About 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1 small shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
• ½ small clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
• Smoked sea salt (available from specialty grocers), regular sea salt or kosher salt
• Whole black pepper in a mill
1. Wash greens in several changes water and strip away tough stems. Stack greens, roll into a cylinder, and slice crosswise into ¼-inch ribbons.
2. Film a large deep skillet or wok with oil, add shallot, and put over medium heat. Sauté until golden, then add garlic and toss until fragrant, about 10-15 seconds. Add greens by handfuls, stirring constantly, and let wilt before adding more.
3. When all greens are wilted, season lightly with salt and pepper, and continue sautéing until tender enough to suit you, about 1-2 minutes longer. For more tender greens, add splash of water, cover pan, lower heat, and cook until greens are tender, about 5 minutes more, adding a spoonful of water as needed. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, and enjoy.
Sautéed Vegetable Medley
A meal doesn’t have to be a slab of protein with vegetables on the side. This medley of vegetables is just as satisfying all by itself and involves only one pan. If you want to add a protein, sauté it in the pan first (see Basic Sauté of Chicken, Beef, Pork, or Shrimp). Take it up, omit the deglazing, and cook, proceeding as directed here. Stir the protein back in at the end. Serves 2.
• 1 stalk broccoli
• 1 small zucchini
• 1 medium carrot
• 3-4 scallions or ½ small yellow onion
• Extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 small clove garlic, minced
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• 5-6 grape or cherry tomatoes, halved lengthwise
• 2 teaspoons minced flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, oregano, or basil, optional
1. Wash broccoli and trim, peel away woody skin on stem, remove florets and break into bite-sized pieces. Cut stem into bite-sized chunks. Keep separate from stem. Scrub zucchini under cold running water, trim, split lengthwise, and cut into bite-sized chunks. Peel carrot and cut into chunks the same size as broccoli stem and zucchini. Wash, trim, and cut scallions into 1-inch lengths, keeping white and green part separated, or if using, dice yellow onion.
2. Film wok or large, heavy-bottomed frying pan with oil and add garlic. Put over medium high heat until garlic is sizzling and fragrant, but not colored. Add broccoli stem, zucchini, carrot, and white part of scallion or diced onion and sauté 2 minutes or until stem is bright green and hot through, tossing constantly.
3. Add broccoli florets and sauté 1 minute, tossing constantly. Season liberally with salt and pepper, add about ¼ cup water, and cover pan. Cook 2 minutes or until carrots and broccoli stem are done to your taste. They should still be slightly crisp, but easy to bite.
4. Uncover and add green parts of scallions and tomatoes. Toss until both are wilted and liquid is evaporated, about 1 minute longer. Turn off heat, stir in optional herbs, and enjoy at once.
Sautéed Apples in Bourbon-Cinnamon Caramel
• 1 firm, slightly tart apple, such as Gala, Honeycrisp, or Granny Smith
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 1-2 tablespoons Cinnamon Sugar in a shaker (recipe follows)
• 2 tablespoons bourbon
• 2-3 tablespoons heavy cream
• Ground cinnamon
1. Scrub apple under cold water. If desired, peel (I never do). Stand stem-side up on cutting board. Cut off each side about ¼- to ½-inch from stem. Lay resulting half-globe sides flat on cutting board and thinly slice, cutting straight down. Lay center part flat and cut through on either side of center core. Stand resulting half-moon slices on flat side and thinly slice.
2. Melt butter in skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. When hot and foaming subsides, add apples and sauté, tossing often, until beginning to color. Sprinkle with Cinnamon Sugar to taste and continue sautéing until apple and sugar caramelize.
3. Leaning away from pan, add bourbon, carefully ignite, and cook, shaking constantly, until flames goes out. Add cream, bring to a boil, and cook until cream is thick and caramelized. Turn out onto serving plates, garnish with a light sprinkle of cinnamon and serve immediately.
Cinnamon Sugar: For each cup sugar, allow 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon or more, to taste. Combine in bowl and whisk together until evenly mixed, or put in jar with tight-fitting lid, cover, and shake until evenly mixed. Keeps indefinitely in airtight container.