Cook Without a Recipe — Part Two

This is the second in a series of Cooking Tips on how to Cook Without a Recipe. Part one talked about stocking your pantry, how to taste and how to cook grains without a recipe. This Part Two will delve into cooking proteins without a recipe.

Unless you are a vegetarian or vegan, most people would like some animal protein served with their grain or veggies. Knowing some techniques will help you cook these proteins without a recipe. No matter what protein you are cooking, your goal is a piece of protein that is cooked properly but not over-cooked. As I have discussed before, there is no better way of achieving this than an instant-read thermometer. Knowing to what temperature to cook a piece of protein is important but if you do not want to memorize, by all means use a chart. Here is one (Temp Chart) produced by the FDA.

There are multiple cooking techniques for proteins and you should understand these to help you decide how you want to cook your piece of meat. If you want to cook stovetop, there is searing and sautéing. Searing uses a high heat with a bit of oil. It is preferable to coat your protein with oil rather than putting the oil in the pan. The meat is usually seasoned but there is no coating of any kind. Searing produces a brown coating on the meat with fond left in the pan – the basis of a sauce you can subsequently make.

With sautéing, you use a medium-high heat with oil put in the pan. The meat is usually cut into bite-sized pieces and often (though not always) dredged in flour or cornmeal. This is method that is great for meat that you are going to then add to a dish such as pasta, rice, a bowl meal and so forth.

Animal protein may also be cooked in the oven. This is a nice more hands-off method but you do not get the great browning and resulting fond. Because of this, you may start your meat on the stove with a quick sear and finish in the oven.

Another important concept to remember in cooking meat is that meat needs to rest after coming off the heat. The meat will continue to cook off heat for a few minutes before the temperature starts to drop. Ideally, you want your final resting temperature to be about 5° less than the maximum temperature. How long this takes depends on the size of the meat. For a chicken breast or a steak that is about 1½ inch thick, it will be about 10 minutes. For a very large piece of meat, it could need about 45 minutes. Resting also allows the liquid to stay within the meat rather than leaking out when you cut it, giving you a moister result.

One of the easiest ways to produce a flavorful meat dish without a recipe is to create a Pan Sauce. You need to remember some basic steps but then you can vary it to your heart’s content. Here are the basic steps.

  • Sear meat
  • Add aromatics
  • Deglaze
  • Add liquid & reduce
  • Finish with butter and adjust seasonings

Start by searing your meat and when done, remove to a plate and keep warm. Hopefully you will have some wonderful fond in the bottom of the pan, which represents flavor. You may pour off any excess oil that is in the pan but do not scrape out or clean the pan. Lower your heat to medium and add aromatics such as shallots, garlic, and/or spices. Cook until these are softened and aromatic. Now you want to deglaze the pan with a liquid. This allows you to scrape up the fond and incorporate it into the sauce. The most typical deglazing liquid would be wine or other alcohol. Continue to cook until the alcohol is almost totally cooked off. At this point, add a liquid such as stock and reduce it again. When it is reduced to a sauce consistency, take it off heat and add a pat of butter. This thickens the sauce and adds a wonderful richness to the pan sauce. Taste and season as necessary. You are aiming for a creamy, thick and opaque sauce. That’s it to a basic pan sauce.

Now, dress it up as you wish. What can you do? Add mushrooms along with the aromatics. Add a touch of mustard with the butter. You may add fresh herbs to complement the rest of your dish. A squeeze of lemon or lime juice will add brightness.

Another option is to make a Gastrique rather than a pan sauce. The definition of a gastrique is a sweet & sour sauce or a savory caramel sauce. Rather than being made in the meat cooking pan with the fond, it is made in a totally separate saucepan.

You start your gastrique by making a “caramel” sauce. Put ¼ cup of sugar and 3 Tbsp water in a pan over low to medium heat and cook until you have a caramel sauce. Now, add an acid in equal parts to the sugar. For example, add ¼ cup vinegar, fruit juice, wine, etc. Stand back as the sauce will bubble vigorously. It will also harden but continue to cook and it will return to a more liquid state. Add whatever flavors you want – herbs, ginger, caramelized shallots, fresh fruit/berries, citrus peels, chilis. Simmer to what is termed “nappé”, which merely means a consistency that will lightly coat the food. When done, serve with your choice of protein.

To get you started, here are a few ideas.

For a Cherry Sauce, try:

  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Champagne vinegar
  • Cherry liqueur
  • Dried cherries

For an Apricot Sauce, use:

  • Rice wine vinegar
  • Orange zest and juice
  • Ginger
  • Dried apricots

Another option to serve with your meat is a Salsa. It could be a tomato-based salsa but with meat & seafood, a fruit-based salsa can be wonderful. Use your favorite fruit or combination of fruit. Other great additions are red onion, shallots, chili paper, bell pepper and herbs. After combining everything, it helps to chill to allow the flavors to develop. Just remember to taste and adjust the seasonings before you serve it.

Your challenge this week is to grab your favorite protein, cook it and make either a pan sauce or salsa. Let me know what you make and what you think!