Q & A: How to Heat Oil for Sauteing

Kitchen Tip (+ a Little Kitchen Wisdom)

At a recent Cooking Get Together we were preparing to saute onions for a healthy risotto.  As always, the recipe said, “heat oil until hot but not smoking.”  That directive led one of the participants to ask:

Picture of Heating Pan for Sauteing

When sauteing, first heat (a/k/a "condition") the pan, then pour in the oil and heat until oil is shimmery and very thin, but not smoking.

Q.  When heating oil to saute, do you heat the pan first, then pour in the oil?  Or pour in the oil then heat the pan?

A.  The technically correct sequence is heat the pan first, then pour in the oil.

Q.  But what if you forget?  Is it ok if you mistakenly pour in the oil before heating the pan?

A.  It is ok.

While that’s the short answer to the oil heating question, I have begun sensing a deeper side to questions like these.

The Rise of Fear-Based Cooking  For example, did you feel a slight twinge of uneasiness when I just advocated a flagrant violation of “The Cooking Rules?”  I did so because I have frequently made the “mistake” of pouring in the oil before heating the sauté pan, yet I’ve still ended up with a perfectly fine dish–and perfectly fine dishes are the sum total of what’s required of everyday cooks.  However, for many everyday cooks, there seems to be an underlying uncertainty–maybe even a fear–about all the cooking rules floating around these days and whether we’re following them adequately.  This is likely the result of the cooking shows and competitions proliferating on TV and elsewhere.

Of course there is nothing wrong with being informed and educated about cooking rules, as long as we maintain perspective.  In other words, cooking rules do not define the line between good food and bad.  Rather, they simply identify ways to make food taste better or bring out flavors more fully.  We should never feel inadequate or cowed by rules that are oftentimes repeated with religious fervor.

Professional Cooks and Everyday Cooks  Bear in mind that the cooking rules are developed and propounded by cooking professionals, i.e., people who are paid and have all day to produce the spectacular food.  This does not accurately describe the everyday cook, who is throwing together meals after a long day of work, without any compensation, on a budget, around household chores and bill paying, with particular health needs,  and maybe with kids underfoot or  in between a variety of kid activities.

Permission to Relax   I cooked for years without ever knowing proper saute technique–or much or any other technique for that matter, yet both family and friends were perfectly delighted with the results.  This was before the days of cooking shows, so I think there was bliss in ignorance.  What counted for more than anything was the care and attention I gave meal making.  Gradually, I did begin to pick up pointers here and there as I could, and bit by bit my meals became better.

Think Guidelines, Not Rules  I’d like to recommend this more relaxed approach to anyone who counts themselves in the “everyday cook” category.  First, put your heart, care and attention into meal making.  This counts for as much or more than anything.  Then, think of cooking rules more in the vein of “guidelines. ”  Instead of feeling stressed about knowing  and following them perfectly all the time, just try to pick up one or two at a time and gradually incorporate them into your routines.    You’ll find that few, if any, merit “end of the world” status, rendering a dish inedible if they are not followed.  Following them simply adds up, bit by bit, to better and better meals.

Enjoy  Finally, don’t let anything stand in the way of enjoying your food and those you share it with , which is the point of it all anyway, right?

More on the topic of cooking fear:  Using Fresh Herbs at 11,000 Feet


A Little Inspiration for Everyday Cooks

Ever feel like good meals are as likely to show up on your table as $1000 checks in the mail?  Meal making has been made out to be so hard, so difficult and so impossible.  More than cooking skills, new gadgets and more recipes, I sometimes think what we need most is just a dose of plain old hope, i.e., a deep-rooted belief that making good, wholesome food each day is entirely doable.

As an example, I received this email from Carol right after she had registered for a Whole Kitchen Cooking Class:

“Looking forward to the class. I don’t know much about cooking. I try to eat healthy but it requires WORK.”

So it warmed my heart when, after class was over, Carol emailed again.

“Subject:  soup!!

Hey Mary,  Just wanted to share with you that I made the tastiest healthy soup this evening using leftover chicken breasts and good veggies from the fridge. It was quick, easy, and delicious, and I couldn’t have done it before your class. I’m so proud of myself!”Tulips

While the many skills, tips and strategies we learned in class undoubtedly contributed greatly to Carol’s confidence and enthusiasm, I have no doubt that a newly blossomed seed of hope will keep her cooking long into the future, and enjoying it, too.

Need a dose of inspiration?  Join one of our cooking classes where fun and inspiration are definitely main menu items, and cooking is cool again.

Recipe: Beef and Onion Saute with Rhubarb Gratin

Discover the Savory Side of Rhubarb

Rhubarb Gratin Picture

Accustomed to seeing rhubarb in fruit desserts, it may come as a surprise to learn that it is actually a vegetable.  This is good news, however, as it presents a whole raft of additional uses for this exotically red food that is so abundant in spring when the foodscape is dominated by simple leafy greens.  In this dish, for instance, rhubarb is lightly sauteed with breadcrumbs and a bit of agave nectar to make a crunchy, tart-sweet topping for tender beef and onions.

In spring, it’s always handy to have a stash of “betwixt and between” dishes for spring days that bounce between warm and cool.  This dish fills that bill, with the warmth and heartiness of a cool-weather stew combined with the  vibrant flavors of fresh herbs and lime, topped off with the unmistakably spring flavor of tart rhubarb.

In a further nod to seasonality, note that rhubarb, parsley and mint are all in their prime in the spring garden, as mentioned in the previous post on the joys of seasonal eating.

Beef and Onion Saute with Rhubarb Gratin

Step 1  Make Mushroom Broth (in the Morning)

  • 1/3 cup dried shitake mushrooms (or a combination of shitake and other wild mushrooms)
  • 2 cups water

Combine mushrooms and water in a small saucepan with a lid. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 15 minutes, while browning beef.  Remove mushrooms with a slotted spoon (keep for another use), then use broth as directed below.

Step 2  Brown Beef and Slow Cook (in the Morning)

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 lb. high quality, lean stew meat cut into small, 1” square cubes
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Heat oil in a large, heavy bottomed saute pan until hot but not smoking.  While oil heats, gently squeeze blood from beef cubes, if any, then spread cubes across a plate, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  When oil is hot, carefully lay beef cubes across pan in a single layer.  With heat on medium high, brown sides of cubes quickly, turning with a fork to brown two or three sides of each.  As soon as a cube is browned, drop into slow cooker, before it has a chance to cook much further than the surface level.
Use 1 ½ cups of mushroom broth to deglaze browning pan, then pour into slow cooker.  Cover and cook on low 7 to 9 hours, until tender.

Step 3  Saute Onions (at Dinnertime) 

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 4 med.  or 2 lrg. yellow onions, diced into large pieces, about 1” square
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste

In a large, heavy-bottomed, oven-proof saute pan, heat oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking.  Add onions and saute about 10-15 minutes until browned and sweet tasting.   Add turmeric and saute another 2 minutes, stirring a couple times.  Add tomato paste and stewed meat from slow cooker, stirring until everything is well-combined.  Reduce heat to low and simmer while preparing the rest of dish, stirring occasionally and allowing most of liquid to evaporate.

Step 4  Make Fresh Herb Sauce

  • 4 cups loosely packed fresh parsley
  • 1 cup loosely packed fresh mint
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice

Place parsley and mint in food processor, removing any very large stems.  Add lime and remaining ½ cup mushroom broth and process until fairly smooth but with some texture remaining.  Stir into onion-meat mixture, then cover pan and remove from heat.

Step 5  Make Rhubarb Gratin 

  • 2 cups rhubarb, cut in ¼ to ½” dice (about ½ to ¾ lb. stems)
  • ½ Tbsp. olive oil
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • ½ cup whole grain (not plain white) breadcrumbs, preferably made from a crusty bread
  • 1 Tbsp. agave nectar (or 2 tsp. sugar)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 450 (F).  In a second, large, heavy-bottomed saute pan, heat oil over medium heat until quite warm.  Add rhubarb and saute just 2 to 4 minutes, until it softens slightly.  Stir in nutmeg, then breadcrumbs and saute another 1-2 minutes.  Stir in agave nectar, then season to taste with salt and pepper.  Sprinkle mixture evenly over onion-beef mixture, then place in oven and bake about 10 minutes, until gratin begins to brown slightly.  Remove and allow to sit for 5 or 10 minutes, if possible, before serving.

Accompaniments:  For a light dinner, serve with just a simple salad of spring greens and carrots.  For a heartier meal, serve with brown rice –or buckwheat for something even more adventurous.

Time Saver:  Substitute ready made mushroom or beef broth for the homemade mushroom broth

No Ovenproof Saute Pan?  Pour the beef saute into an oiled casserole dish just before topping with gratin.

Why We Love Seasonal Eating

Mealtimes that are easier tastier and more fun

Rhubarb in the Early Summer Garden #1

Rhubarb is a lush addition to the Early Summer Garden . . .

Seasonal eating gets a lot of press these days.  Usually it’s in the context of eating locally, since the two go hand in hand.  Sometimes it’s in the context of saving money, since seasonal produce is  less expensive than produce grown in greenhouses or shipped from different climates.  Rarely is there mention of the best reasons to eat seasonally:  because it makes mealtimes easier and tastier as well as more interesting and fun.

This month’s Beef and Onion Saute with Rhubarb Gratin is a good case in point.   It is based on a recipe for Rhubarb Khoresh that I clipped from the newspaper years ago–long before seasonal eating became a common kitchen term.  Nevertheless, the recipe writer knew her seasons.  This became clear when I struck out into the rain last week to harvest the rhubarb from my garden, then the parsley, and then the mint called for by the recipe.  So there were the three main ingredients, all in their prime, in the garden, at the same time.  That’s seasonal sensibility.

More Rhubarb

. . . so gorgeous

The resulting dish was obviously local and economical, but it was a pleasant surprise to discover, once again, how well the season’s flavors melded together.   That’s where the easy and tasty part comes in.  It may seem splendid to have practically unlimited options in terms of grocery store produce and recipes; little do we realize how burdensome is the flip side of unlimited choice.  Somebody has to sift and think through hundreds of options to find just one thing for dinner!

With seasonal eating, however, only a dozen or so items are in their prime each month, which automatically narrows the options to a manageable range.  Better yet, what’s in season almost always tastes great with whatever else in in season, even with a pairing as odd as rhubarb, parsley and mint.  So it’s easy to come up with tasty meals.

More Rhubarb in the Early Summer Garden

. . . I had to include a couple more shots

Now for the fun and interesting part.  In late spring to early summer, rhubarb is everywhere.  That may seem like a sure recipe for boredom.  After all, what else is rhubarb good for besides strawberry rhubarb pie?  Just as necessity is the mother of invention, however, a commitment to seasonal eating is the mother of culinary innovation.  Who would have known rhubarb has a savory side?  Who would have used it to brighten up a beef and onion saute with springy, tangy sweetness after all the long months of winter?  Only someone dedicated to maximizing the bounty of the season, rather than being lured by the siren song of grocery store tomatoes, eggplant and peppers shipped in from warmer climates.  Their time will come in Colorado, and they’ll be filled with juicy goodness, but not now.  Now is the time for rhubarb’s springtime punch.  So be sure to try the stew right away, while there are still a few coolish days when a warming beef dish has appeal.

Building Your “Tasting Muscles”–and Putting Them to Good Use

Fast Food Hamburger Picture

Fascination with fast foods has led to more than flabby abs. Homogenized flavors have left our tasting muscles flabby, too.

The ill consequences of our couch potato culture aren’t limited to flabby abs and saggy triceps.  All the homogenized foods that comprise the bulk of our diet have gradually eroded our “tasting muscles,” too.

Never knew you had tasting muscles?  You’re not alone. I am just now discovering them from several pieces of evidence that have come my way.

  • First, I made a couple recipes that I developed a couple years ago.  I distinctly remember liking them at the time, but was disappointed in their lack of flavor when I revisited them.   Seems my tasting muscles had grown to desire more and fuller flavors.
  • Next came a wardrobe makeover.  Seems totally unrelated but hear me out:  My first exercise was holding up each item in my wardrobe to see if it was complimentary or not.  After the first few tries I was completely frustrated.  “Why can’t I tell the difference between complimentary and awful?” I complained to my personal “closet transformation” expert.  “Be patient,” she told me.  “Over time you build the ‘muscle’ to distinguish between the two.”  Sure enough, over a year or so, I developed the ability to see how her color choices were just right for me, and why my former black and white wardrobe was all wrong (even if it was convenient.)
  • The final piece of the taste puzzle came from our Whole Kitchen Meal Making Classes over the last year.  We do a lot of tasting and evaluating in those classes.  We taste dishes with a little spice and more spice, we taste vegetables cooked al dente and on the softer side, we taste with and without a sprinkling of  lemon, and we taste dishes that could use a little work and decide what to do with them.  While these exercises are very empowering for class members, they also reveal how we often lack the skill–or muscle–to wield this newfound power.

Piecing together these pieces of evidence has led me to a theory:  Could we have been spoon fed processed and prepared foods for so long that we’ve lost the ability to discern tastes, know which ones we like, and play with them to suit us?

One of the “greatest” food innovations in the last few decades has been the ability to homogenize foods across vast regions, so you can experience the same Big Mac flavor whether you are in Paris, Beijing or Denver.  While eliminating all risk from a food outing has some advantages, there are plenty of disadvantages, too,  like being unable to savor the magnificent array of tastes that lie outside the narrow, “processed foods bandwidth.”

But why bother training and building our tasting muscles to savor the flavors of the rainbow if we can just be spoon fed processed and packaged foods?  Because, simply put, those processed and packaged foods are killing us!  And we all know those sugar-laden yogurt cups, energy (a/k/a candy) bars, diet sodas and frozen meals are wreaking havoc on our bodies!

Not only do we know this, most of us would love to replace those havoc-wreaking foods with vegetable-rich meals filled with whole grains, nuts, beans and lean proteins.  That can’t happen, however, as long as we’re slaves to our flabby tasting muscles.    Having been stunted and malformed by a homogenized diet, those muscles won’t allow us to venture forth and relish and be happy with the taste of real, wholesome, healthful foods.

Sure we could go on a “diet,” forcing ourselves to eat just salads, dried out chicken breasts and toast with half a teaspoon of butter.  That route is no fun at all, however, which explains why “diets” routinely fail.  Who wants to live in a way that isn’t deeply pleasurable?

Alternatively, we could develop our tasting muscles to delight in the goodness and taste of real foods.  Trust me, there is a miracle waiting to be experienced here.   Local, seasonal foods  produced with care are magnificent–if your tasting muscles have been let loose to love them.  Learn what flavors make you feel good and how to apply those flavors in ways that make you feel deeply satisfied and happy with a meal.  Very quickly, you’ll no longer want the security of bland, homogenized, processed foods.  Instead you’ll want all the pizzazz and rewards of adventurous–and far more healthful–real foods meals.

Want to begin developing your tasting muscles?  Ready to begin challenging your taste buds with new, pleasurable flavors?  Join any of our cooking classes or demos and open the door to a lifelong tasting adventure and all its delicious rewards.

Take It From the Expert

Heart Box of Strawberries

“[Our] fast-paced, fast-food, fast-exercise lifestyle closes a doorway of perception that decreases our pleasure threshold.  We become acclimated to low-health, low-pleasure, mass-produced food.  Our pleasure vocabulary decreases and we live, unaware, in a world in which our experience of joy never measures up to its true potential.”

Marc David, The Slow Down Diet, Eating for Pleasure, Energy, & Weight Loss

Marc is a nutritionist and eating psychologist who has researched and written extensively on the possibility of pleasure in eating to transform and improve metabolism.  Listen to my interview with Marc on the importance of Vitamin P(pleasure) in our diet.

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