Do Better Pans Make You A Better Chef? We Examine This Question With Two Dishes: Spicy Sea Bass with Olive-Crushed Potatoes & Sauteed Scallops with Wild Mushrooms and Frisee

Careful readers of this site will attest to the fact that in the two years I’ve been running it I’ve very rarely, if at all, sauteed anything for dinner. My primary method of food production is the oven: I like to roast. I like to bake. I like that you put something in looking one way and that it comes out looking another way. Sauteeing requires careful attention, masterful heat control and–perhaps most importantly–quality pans to do the job right. Quality pans don’t necessarily mean fancy pans (Mark Bittman argues for the cast iron skillet) but since I received fancy pans for my birthday, I figured I’d put them to work. And look, mama, what I made using them these past two nights:

Spicy Sea Bass with Olive-Crushed Potatoes [from “Daniel’s Dish”]

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Sauteed Scallops with Wild Mushrooms and Frisee [from “Simple Italian Food”]

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I can’t help but look at those pictures and feel like they rival pictures I’ve taken of dishes at some of New York’s finest restaurants. That’s not to say they rival them in quality–(the fish was undercooked, the scallops slightly–ever so slightly–burnt)–but they rival them in beauty. Or am I deluding myself? Am I just pan-happy? What exactly went down when I put my pans to work? Proceed: all the answers lie within.

For my first foray into the world of fancy pan cooking, I whipped out my “Daniel’s Dish” because I associated it with fancy pans. Since I hadn’t had fancy pans until my birthday, I never used the book. But now that I had fancy pans, I went right to it. And of all the recipes in it, the recipe for “Spicy Sea Bass” appealed to me most because it was simple, it required a large non-stick skillet (one half of my birthday bounty) and because it was fish and I never cook fish. When I had dinner with Clotilde in Paris she said: “You never cook fish? Fish is the easiest thing to cook! It takes so little time!”

Yes, but fish is scary. Uncooked fish can kill you, can’t it? At least Lauren put the fear of fish into me when I lived with her: she freaked out the one time I attempted it. (This episode comprises the Introduction to my book, which is developing ever so slowly because I take so much time to blog for you people. I hope you appreciate it!) Yet fish is something worth cooking because it’s light, it’s a great vehicle for flavor and it’s good for you. Fish is brain food. Brain is fish food. Ahhh!

Daniel’s recipe begins with potatoes: Yukon gold. You bake until tender:

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This takes between 40 to 50 minutes. Here’s the thing: I did the full 50, felt the knife go through and considered that tender. But retrospectively, I wish I’d let it cook longer. As you will see in a moment, non-tender potatoes don’t mash with a fork.

But before we fail to mash, we must burn our hands peeling. Daniel asks you to peel the hot potatoes and place them in a bowl:

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Pretty but plain. Potato plain and tall. Can we get some flavor up in this biznitch?

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Pow!

That’s flavor if I ever saw it. Specifically:

2 Tbs of butter

2 Tbs of olive oil

1/8th cup quartered, pitted Nicoise olives

1/8th cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves

zest of half a lemon

juice of half a lemon

2 tsps capers

1/8th tsp sweet paprika

1/8th tsp cayenne

salt and pepper

It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t. You probably have most of these things already. Now, Daniel says: “Mash with a fork!” But the potatoes won’t mash. What do we do?

We place them in a food processor:

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I know, I know: mashing potatoes in a food processor makes them gummy. But what choice did I have? I’d already added the flavor POW. So process I did:

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You know what? It tasted fine. Sure, the potatoes were chunky and undercooked but the flavor POW was mighty powerful.

Now on with the fish:

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That’s sea bass: a 6-oz filet. (I don’t know why it looks so bloody, it didn’t look so bloody in real life.)

Here’s what you do. Season the fish with salt and pepper and heat 1 Tbs of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. What’s that? You don’t have a large non-stick skillet? I do! It was my birthday present, y’all.

Slip the fish into the pan, skin side down:

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It’ll crackle and hiss but that means the fish is cooking. Let it cook on this side for 2 to 3 minutes and then flip it, add a Tbs of butter and continue to cook for 2 to 3 more minutes. Here Daniel writes: “If the fillets are very thick, cover the pan with a lid while cooking the second side.”)

Indeed, my fillet WAS very thick so I did cover the pan:

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As it turned out, I should’ve let it cook a minute or two longer: the thickest part of the fish wasn’t cooked through in the middle. But my fish fears were softened by the fact that all the surrounding fish was cooked. And I’m still alive, aren’t I? *THUNK*

Now for the best part. You remove the fish from the pan and place on top of the potatoes which you’ve mounded on the plate. Meanwhile, you’ve set aside a bowl of all the same items you put in the potatoes:

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That’s:

1/8th cups olives

1/8th cup parsley

zest of half a lemon

juice of half a lemon

2 tsps capers

1/8th tsp paprika

1/8th tsp cayenne

PLUS

1 Tbs minced scallions.

Now this is the best part. Are you ready? It’s amazing what happens here. I want you to feel the electricity in the air. Here we go: you add that bowl of stuff to the pan juices and watch it sizzle.

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I loved this moment. This was the moment I knew I was entering a new phase of my cooking career. The smell was awesome. I took it off the heat, added some salt and pepper and poured it over the fish and potatoes, yielding the result you see in the picture above and again in this alternative photo here:

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Conceptually it seems difficult, but in practice it’s not that hard. And it tastes wonderful. Except for the non-cooked parts, but we’ll fix those next time, won’t we? (Oh and our potatoes will be more tender too.)

The next night–this is last night–I felt inspired to plow forward with my new pans, to continue on this journey fate has laid out for me under the archway “Williams Sonoma.” I whipped out Mario Batali’s “Simple Italian Food” and found a recipe that required not just one but BOTH of my pans: a large non-stick skillet and a large saute pan.

This part of the post should be subtitled BURN BABY BURN because it’s all about heat. For this dish–a scallop dish–Mario has you heat oil in BOTH pans to the smoking point. This was some of the most intense cooking I’ve ever done. My apartment REEKS right now of smoke and vinegar and fish… but it’s worth it. It’s like living in a restaurant. Here’s what you need:

As many scallops as you think you can eat [I bought 6]

pepper

olive oil

a shallot or two

some wild mushrooms (oyster, chanterelle or cremini) (I think I bought chanterelle but I’m not sure)

2 Tbs balsamic vinegar

frisee or mixed baby lettuce

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As you can see, the prep work’s pretty simple (especially when you buy pre-washed greens like I did.) Put pepper (but no salt) on your scallops. Slice your mushrooms 1/4-inch thick. Slice your shallots thinly.

Now for the pans: heat 2 Tbs of olive oil in each pan (non-stick, and saute pan) until smoking. That’s high heat, everyone. This isn’t for amateurs. (Uh oh, I better change my site name.)

When it’s smoking, you add the scallops to the non-stick pan and you do NOT move them. You let them cook like this for 5 to 6 minutes “until golden brown.”

Meanwhile, to the smoking oil in the saute pan you add the shallots. Here’s my question Mario Batali: You heat oil to the smoking point and then add shallots? But they burn, Mario, they burn! Is this what you want? Isn’t it known that onions and garlic burn when they cook too fast? Or is it different with shallots?

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You can see in that picture what the shallots look like. If not, look here:

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They’re not exactly black, but they’re suspiciously dark. It frightened me so.

After they’re soft, you add the mushrooms. And when those are soft–and this part is where splattering and chaos happens–you add the vinegar and then the lettuce. It sizzles, it pops, you’ll feel like you’re cooking in a volcano. It’s fantastic.

Toss quickly, season with salt and pepper, place on a plate. Hopefully you’ve timed it so your scallops are done now too.

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That’s what it looks like when they cook, but as you saw above and as you’ll see again here when you pull them out the other side is beautiful and golden:

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With this dish, I really felt like I’d cooked myself a restaurant quality meal. I served it with a baguette to mop up all the juices and I patted myself on the back when I was done. I have the balsamic vinegar fingerprints to prove it.

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