Sautéing is without a doubt one of the single best techniques for summer cooking.
It’s simple, efficient and, best of all, fast. So, while it does require intense heat, it doesn’t need it for long: You’re in and out of the kitchen before it and you get overheated.
The one drawback, if you want to call it that, is that getting most foods ready for sautéing is more labor intensive than just slapping one big hunk of it onto the grill. But the prep is done before the cooking begins, when the kitchen is still cool, and can often be done hours ahead.
What’s more, all summer produce and most of the animal proteins that are seasonal in summer (poultry, shellfish, and meaty fish) take well to this technique.
The other great thing about sautéing is that it doesn’t require any special tools. All that’s needed is a large, heavy-bottomed skillet with sloping or curved sides and a spatula or spoon large enough to flip the food and keep moving in the pan.
If, however, by chance you happen to own a wok, it’s actually an ideal pan for sautéing, since it’s exactly the same technique as stir-frying. Award-winning cookbook author and wok guru Grace Young is constantly reminding us that this versatile pan needn’t be limited to Asian-style cooking, and she’s so right.
If you’ve never invested in a wok and are considering adding one to your kitchen, choose one that has a flat bottom and a long handle on one side. My own preference is a well-seasoned carbon steel wok, but woks with a non-stick finish are available if you prefer them.
The drawback of nonstick pans is that the high heat needed for sautés is hard on their finish, especially if the pan is preheated while still empty. Never do that: At least put in the fat before warming it over no more than medium heat. After the food is added, you can raise the heat, but a nonstick pan’s finish will last longer if you never use more than medium-high heat.
Note on sautéing
I’ve shared this information before, but in case you’re new to this column or to cooking in general, sautéing is often described as “to lightly fry” but that’s not entirely accurate. It’s a French word that literally means “jump” and in a proper sauté, the food is constantly doing just that: being moved around by tossing or flipping it so that it cooks evenly. Professional cooks do this by shaking the pan but it can be done just as well with a spoon or spatula.
Sautéed Green and Yellow Summer Squash
The secret here is to cut the squash into sticks instead of rounds. They’re easier to toss and keep flipped and therefore brown more evenly. Serves 4.
• 2 small zucchini
• 2 small yellow crookneck squash or yellow zucchini
• 1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, halved lengthwise, and peeled
• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive or canola oil
• 1 small clove garlic, lightly crushed and minced
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1. Trim stem and blossom ends of both kinds of squash, cut crosswise into about 3 equal pieces. Stand pieces on round cut end and slice off about ¼-inch of one side. Lay flat and slice lengthwise ¼-inch thick then cut each slice into ¼-inch sticks. Lay onion halves flat side down and beginning at top, cut lengthwise almost to root, cutting on angle toward center. Cut off root, separating onion layers into strips.
2. Put oil and onion in large sauté pan over medium high heat. Sauté until onion is translucent but not yet browning, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 15-20 seconds, then add both squashes and toss until evenly coated with oil. Sauté, tossing often, until squash and onions are beginning to color and squash are tender, about 4-5 minutes longer.
3. Sprinkle with oregano and toss well, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and serve at once.
Sautéed Chicken with Summer Vegetables
This looks like a lot of ingredients, but it’s very simple and goes quickly, especially when the beans, carrots and celery have been blanched first. While it can be served over rice or pasta, this makes a great one-pan meal served with crusty bread. Serves 4.
• ½ pound slender green beans, trimmed and strung if necessary
• 2 medium carrots, peeled
• 2 ribs celery, washed, trimmed, and strung
• 1 medium sweet red pepper, stemmed, cored, and seeded
• 1 medium zucchini, washed and trimmed
• 1 medium yellow summer squash, washed and trimmed
• 1¼ pound skinned, boneless chicken breast or thighs (or a combination)
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (can omit and use 3 tablespoons olive oil)
• 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
• 1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, and cut lengthwise into strips
• 1 large or two medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed with side of knife, peeled, and minced
• Minced fresh hot chili pepper, hot pepper flakes, or hot sauce, to taste
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or thyme leaves
• Whole black pepper in a mill
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley or basil
1. Bring 3-4 quarts water to boil in 6 quart pot over high heat. Meanwhile, snap beans into bite sized lengths. Cut carrot, celery, and pepper into sticks same size as beans. Cut squash crosswise into 3 equal lengths and cut each into sticks same size as beans (see Sautéed Green and Yellow Summer Squash for method). Cut chicken into bite-sized chunks.
2. When water is boiling, stir in small handful of salt, then add beans, carrots and celery. Cover and let come back to boil, uncover, and cook 2 minutes. Drain into colander, rinse under cold running water, and spread on platter or rimmed sheet pan to cool. Can be done hours ahead.
3. Heat butter and oil in 14-inch wok or large skillet over medium heat. When hot, raise heat to medium high and add chicken. Sauté, tossing, until almost cooked through, about 3-4 minutes. Remove chicken with slotted spoon to platter and season with salt and pepper.
4. Add onion and pepper to pan and sauté, tossing often, until onion is translucent and pepper is bright, about 2 minutes. Add squash, beans, carrots, celery, garlic, hot pepper to taste, and oregano or thyme. Toss until almost crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Return chicken and juices that have accumulated to pan. Toss until chicken is cooked through, about 1-2 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasonings, add parsley or basil, and serve at once.
Sautéed Shrimp with Fresh Tomatoes
This is also very nice with boned chicken or pork loin cut into bite-sized pieces. Like the Sautéed Chicken with Summer Vegetables, this can be served with pasta or rice or just a nice crusty loaf of bread. Serves 4.
• 8-10 medium, ripe Roma tomatoes
• 3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1 medium sweet green bell pepper, stemmed, cored, seeded, and cut into strips
• 1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and cut lengthwise into strips
• 1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed with side of knife, peeled, and minced
• 1¼ pounds medium to large shrimp, peeled and if desired deveined
• Minced fresh hot pepper, hot pepper flakes or hot sauce to taste
• 8-12 fresh basil leaves
1. Bring large teakettle of water to boil over high heat. Put tomatoes in heatproof bowl. Cover with boiling water and let stand 1 minute. Drain, cut out stem end, and slip off peelings. Cut in half lengthwise, remove and discard seeds, and cut into strips. You’ll need 2 cups
2. Warm oil in 14-inch wok or skillet over medium heat. When hot, raise heat to medium-high and add sweet pepper and onion. Sauté, tossing often, until onion is translucent and pepper is bright green, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and toss until fragrant, about 15-20 seconds. Add tomatoes. Toss until tomatoes are hot through but not breaking down, about 1 minute.
3. Add shrimp, a large pinch salt, and hot pepper or pepper flakes to taste and sauté, tossing almost constantly, until shrimp are curled and uniformly pink, about 2 minutes. Season with salt, taste and adjust hot pepper, and toss a few seconds longer to blend seasoning. Cut basil leaves into chiffonade (very thin strips) and scatter over top. Serve warm.
Sautéed Sweet Corn
Freshly-cut corn kernels cook quickly and are easy to flip and keep moving, so they’re a perfect candidate for sautéing.
You can add a quarter cup of finely chopped sweet red or green pepper, a minced medium to large clove of garlic, and an herb such as thyme or basil at the very end, but don’t mess with it too much. The whole point of this is the sweet, fresh flavor of the corn, so don’t smother that by adding too many other flavors.
Another great variation is sautéed succotash: substitute cooked small green butter or lima beans for half the corn and add them together with the corn in step 2. Serves 4.
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 medium shallot, minced or ¼ cup minced yellow onion
• 3 cups corn kernels freshly cut from the cob (about 6 ears of corn)
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1. Warm butter, oil, and shallot in 14-inch wok or large skillet over medium heat. Sauté until shallot is translucent and softened but not at all colored, about 3 minutes.
2. Raise heat to medium-high and add corn. Tossing almost constantly, sauté until thoroughly heated, about 3-4 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper, toss well, and cook half a minute longer. Remove from heat. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Sautéed Blueberries or other Summer Fruit
I’ve used blueberries here, but this simple sauté is great for almost any summer berries or stone fruits such as cherries, diced peaches, or sliced plums. Serve over ice cream, slices of pound cake or biscuit shortcakes, or on their own with perhaps a dollop of whipped cream. Serves 4.
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 2 cups blueberries, rinsed well and picked over for stems
• 2-3 tablespoons raw (turbinado) sugar or regular granulated sugar, to taste
• Ground cinnamon in a shaker
• Whole black pepper in a mill
• Freshly squeezed lemon juice or wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons bourbon
1. Melt butter over medium high heat in 10-12 inch skillet or 14-inch wok. Add berries and shake pan to coat with butter. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon to taste, and dash of pepper (about 2 light twists of mill).
2. Sauté, shaking pan constantly, until fruit begins to shed juice and sugar is dissolved, about 1 minute. If berries are not very tart, add a little lemon juice or vinegar to taste. Standing clear, add bourbon and continue to shake pan, rolling berries, until vapors are no longer sharply alcoholic. Remove from heat and serve at once or transfer to a bowl, cool, and serve at room temperature.