Art of Sauté in the Italian Kitchen

My favorite way to cook is to sauté. Give me a few great ingredients, a carbon steel pan frying pan (lightweight and easy to manage) or a carbon steel wok, some oil or butter, and let me prepare some food. Two of the most popular preparations of this style from Italy are piccata and saltimbocca, but there are many variations available to the creative cook as you will see below.

*In this series, you will learn Italian cooking techniques and gain the confidence to cook a delicious and healthy meal using what is on hand and without a recipe.

sauté in the Italian Kitchen

As mentioned before, and here I repeat, do not worry about getting bogged down with rigid adherence to “recipes” or “shopping lists.” Take piccata, for example. When going to dinner at an old-line Italian American restaurant, “piccata” always meant “Piccata di Vitello”—veal, lightly-floured, sautéed in butter with lemon juice, lemon zest, white wine and capers. Maybe a little garlic. Who needs more? “Piccata” is the presentation, the style of cooking and seasoning, but it is not ironclad that you must use veal. If your butcher does not have veal, use chicken breast or pork tenderloin. The creative chef has many options.

The technique: a sauté is made by heating a carbon steel pan (frying pan, sauté pan, wok) and adding fat (butter, ghee, or a butter/oil combination). When the fat is hot (but not smoking) the prepared food is added and quickly cooked on one side, turned over and cooked on the second side, seasoned, and served. This only takes a few minutes (sometimes even seconds!). If the cooking fat begins to smoke it is too hot. The pan has reached the “burning” point, not the nice “tanning” or browning point. So watch carefully.

NOTE: It is pretty easy to judge if the pan is at the right temperature. Sprinkle a few drops of water in the pan. If the pan does not sizzle and the water does not “jump around a little” it is too cool and needs more heating. If you add oil and it begins to smoke the pan is too hot. You want a temperature somewhere in between, maybe 350 to 375 degrees. (An infrared thermometer will measure the temperature of the metal on the bottom of the pan.) The choice of cooking fat is also important. Olive oil is great to give foods flavor but it will start to smoke in the range of 350 to 375 degrees. It is better to use avocado oil, grapeseed oil or other similar oils with smoke points higher than 450 degrees. Butter has a very low smoke point which is why it is often suggested that if you wish to sauté in butter for its flavor, use a mixture of butter and oil.

To make a veal, chicken or pork piccata, the first step is to prepare the meat. Take a veal or pork roast and make slices in the range of a quarter-inch to a half-inch thick. For chicken, take a whole boneless chicken breast, and slice it almost through with a long flat very sharp knife from the thin, long side edge to the other, thicker side. Try make the two parts of equal thickness. This is often easiest done if you rest the palm of one hand on the piece of meat on the cutting board and allowing your hand “to feel” the knife slicing through the “filet.” Then open it up into a larger piece twice as wide by half as thick. This is called “butterflying” because you are making it look like the wings of a butterfly. Careful not to slice it all the way through, and then you can open it like a book (or a butterfly!).

Now flatten the slices in this way: spray two pieces of wax or parchment paper with cooking oil. Place a slice of one of the loins or a butterflied chicken breast on one of the oiled sheets and place the other oiled sheet on top. Using the flat side of a meat mallet, or the bottom of a cast iron fry pan or other heavy implement, pound on the meat to flatten it out. The goal is a cutlet that is an even quarter inch thick all the way across, for quick and even cooking.

Remove the top paper and sprinkle Wondra Flour (pre-cooked “instant” flour) over the meat. Turn the meat over and sprinkle flour on the other side.

Spray cooking oil on a heated pan [see note above]. Place the cutlet on the pan or griddle and cook until “golden brown,” then turn it over. When the second side is also “golden brown” you have cooked the cutlet enough. Do not overcook. The meat will dry out. Just a minute or two per side. Remove to a heated serving platter and keep warm while you repeat with additional cutlets until you have prepared enough for everyone.

There should be a brown “fond” on the bottom of the pan, that is, the sticky stuff that sticks to the pan after browning. This can be deglazed by immediately pouring a couple of ounces of white wine in the bottom of the pan, adding a pat or two of butter and stir to emulsify, sprinkling in the capers. If you wish you can press some garlic through a press. Then cook on low heat for just half a minute or until you can smell the garlic vapors, being careful not to burn it. Squeeze in the juice of a lemon or two, grate in some lemon zest, heat the sauce (reducing it a little if you would like it to thicken) and pour over the cutlets. Sprinkle with some chopped parsley, salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy.

Would you rather make a “saltimbocca” than a piccata? Easy. Repeat the steps up through cooking the meat on one side and having turned it over. Immediately place a slice of melting cheese such as fontina on the cutlet, then a slice of prosciutto, a sage leaf If you would like, and cover the pan until the cheese melts. Remove to a warmed platter, deglaze the pan with white wine or brandy and pour over the meat.

The cutlet does not even have to be chicken, pork or veal. Why not make an eggplant cutlet and sauté that? It will take a little longer to cook so use lower heat so as not to burn the flour. Or sauté a piece of white fish. My favorite fish to sauté is basa, a fish from Southeast Asia that is a member of the catfish family. It has little “fish smell,” so you do not have to be so worried about it spoiling if left an extra day in the refrigerator. Most importantly, it holds together very nicely. I find a fish such as Dover sole much harder to work with when making a sauté, because it tends to cook very quickly and can fall apart if not carefully handled.

Please remember that sautéing is not “dipping in batter and deep frying.” That is a different cooking technique which leads to Southern fried chicken or Austrian “schnitzel.” In that case, the oil is deeper, and after sprinkling with flour, the meat, fish or vegetable is dipped in beaten egg, dredged in seasoned bread crumbs, (or alternatively dipped into a prepared batter), then placed into the hot oil until cooked.

Other wonderful sautéed preparations include sliced zucchini, sliced baby artichokes (season with mint, yum), shrimp (no flour needed, just peel and quickly stir-fry, a wok is ideal), sliced or whole mushrooms (no flour needed). Some chefs like to add chopped fresh little red peppers, particularly in Calabria. You can also flambé after the sauté. It will always amuse your guests to watch you try to set your house on fire by using brandy or 150 proof rum in this process!

Experiment. Just have fun and enjoy.

Contributor: Ron Fenolio, CEO Veedercrest Estates and Chair – Family Winemakers of California | © 2022 Ronald L. Fenolio

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