The problem: It's dinner time. Maybe not right this minute, but soon. It happens every night. But so do a lot of other things, all of which conspire to keep cooks out of kitchens. The simplicity of the skillet can pull them back in.
A skillet, frying pan, saute pan, whatever the trusty vessel happens to be called, can be a cook's secret weapon for getting dinner on the table in a hurry. No other piece of equipment, not even the microwave oven, offers so many self-contained mealtime solutions. And just about everyone has one, and often two or three.
Consider that a skillet fries eggs, onions, cheese sandwiches and chicken. It browns burgers, pork chops and piles of peppers. It can coddle delicate asparagus with the same facility with which it chars a fish fillet or a lightning-quick stir-fry. Anything from paella to omelets to eggplant to bacon lies within the capabilities of a skillet.
Providing the handle is heat proof and the pan doesn't have a zTC nonstick finish, a skillet can go in the oven or under the broiler; some cooks even plop it on the barbecue as an adjunct to a grilled meal. And yes, it even can be used to boil water.
Cooking teacher Monique Hooker, owner of the Cooking
Academy of Chicago, believes that a skillet, fresh ingredients and about 10 minutes are all that stand between a motivated cook and quick and easy suppers.
Success with a skillet is not quite as simple as putting food in pan, pan on stove and heat under pan. But the proper technique is barely more complicated than that and applies to almost all foods that are cooked in a skillet. According to Ms. Hooker, a few simple points should forever banish fear of frying.
"Never put anything in a cold pan. Not even oil," she says.
Instead, she says, heat the pan briefly over a medium-high flame. When it is uniformly hot but not smoking, add a small amount of oil, swirl it around and let the oil heat briefly. Then add the food.
"This way, every pan is nonstick, even those without a coating," she says.
"Pat the food dry before you put it in the pan," she says. This allows it to cook more quickly, without steaming.
She also stresses that the proper heat level is key. "Flames shouldn't be up the sides of the pan. Yes, you often do want to cook over high heat, but not too high. You need control."
Another important lesson, one that cooks often try to get around, is not to cook too much food at the same time. When food is crowded in the skillet, the heat doesn't circulate properly. Instead of browning, the food will steam.
Middle Eastern Chicken with Tomato Feta Relish
Makes 2 servings
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 4 minutes
1 whole chicken breast, boned, skinned, split
4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
1 large tomato, seeded, diced
3 green onions, sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 tablespoon olive oil
1. Put each breast half between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Flatten to a uniform thickness of 1/4 inch; set aside. Mix vinegar, mustard and seasonings in a small dish. Combine tomato, green onions, mint, feta, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the oil and 1 1/2 teaspoons of the vinegar mixture in a small bowl; set aside.
2. Brush both sides of chicken breasts with remaining vinegar mixture. Place a large skillet over high heat. When it is hot, add remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons oil. Heat about 30 seconds. Add chicken breasts; cook, turning once, until they are cooked through, about 3 minutes total. Transfer chicken to two dinner plates.
3. Add tomato mixture to skillet, cook and stir about 20 seconds and divide between chicken breasts. Serve at once.
Shrimp and Noodle Stir-Fry
Makes 2 to 4 servings
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 7 minutes
1 tablespoon Oriental sesame oil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon chili paste
12 ounces large, peeled shrimp
1 small red bell pepper, seeded, cut into slivers
1 package (7.7 ounces) stir-fry noodles, see note
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar
3 green onions, cut into slivers
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped peanuts or cashews
1. Place a large skillet over high heat. When it is hot, add the oil and chili paste. Let it sizzle for a minute, then add shrimp and bell pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, until shrimp turns pink, 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Add the noodles, chicken broth and vinegar; boil until liquid is slightly reduced, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the green onions and cilantro and remove from heat. Serve topped with peanuts.
Note: Packaged, stir-fry noodles are increasingly available at many supermarkets. We used Fortune Brand, carried in the refrigerator case. If they are not available, 2 cups of cooked linguine or soba noodles may be used instead.
Zucchini and Green Herb Frittata
Makes 4 servings
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 small zucchini, diced
salt, crushed red pepper flakes to taste
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1/3 cup minced fresh herbs, preferably a mix of several kinds such as thyme, basil, oregano and/or tarragon
3 ounces mozzarella cheese (preferably fresh), diced
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
grated Parmesan cheese
1. Heat the broiler. Place a 10-inch skillet over high heat. When it is hot, add oil. Heat briefly then add zucchini, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until zucchini begins to soften, about 3 minutes.
2. Reduce the heat to medium-low; add the eggs, green onions and herbs. Cook gently, using a fork to lift the cooked portion from the sides of the pan so the uncooked center flows underneath. Cook until the frittata is almost set, 4 to 5 minutes. Scatter the mozzarella over.
3. Transfer pan to the heated broiler. Broil just until the top is lightly browned and set, 30 to 45 seconds. Brush with the vinegar and sprinkle Parmesan over. Serve hot or at room temperature.