February 22, 2006 2:10 AM | By Adam Roberts | 22 Comments

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"]

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

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:


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:


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



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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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
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.


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:


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]
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


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?


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


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.


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:


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.


I don't think I'd worry too much about a bit of raw fish in the middle. A lot of the chefs I see (on TV, koff koff) tend to cook it (especially salmon) until it is cooked outside but still fairly rare in the middle. They say that is the way it is supposed to be done.

That said, I must add the caveat that I don't know much about cooking fish. I am sure it depends on what kind of fish, etc etc.

That looks even sexier big than it did on your bitty camera screen...

Don't test potatoes for doneness using a sharp knife (which will readily slide into a slightly underdone potato); use a fork (which won't).

As to the shallot thing: you're right, they cook in the blink of an eye. In fact, when I'm cooking shallots with mushroom, I add the shallots when the mushrooms are nearly done.

Shame on Mario! I wonder how many of his on-air smoking pots end up getting surreptitiously tossed.

If you get your fish from a quality store or fishmonger having it undercooked will not hurt you...though I find undercooked scallops a bit too slimy. Both of those dishes work great. If you want a really good Scallop dish, wrap the edges in prosciutto and use a thick rosemary sprig as a skewer. Cook just like you did and drizzle with some olive oil and if you like it, more finely chopped rosemary.

Think about sushi. It is raw fish. So under- or even uncooked fish is perfectly ok if you are sure that you have best quality and freshest fish....

Congrats, Adam! It is certainly thrilling when you start cooking dinner entrees at home that you realize are similar/equal/better than what you can get at restaurants.

It is also daunting - once you have that skill, going out is more challenging.... But there must be a price to pay for high standards, eh? *grin*

Ohhh the scallops look delicious! I need to stop being such a fraidy-cat & turn up the heat!

Your post reminds me of a joke:

A photographer is invited to a dinner party. He decides to bring some pictures he recently took to share with the guests.

At seeing them, the hostess exclaims, "These are beautiful pictures. You must have a great camera."

A little chagrinned the photographer says nothing.

The guests (photographer included) enjoy a magnificent meal.

Just before the photographer leaves for the evening, he seeks out the hostess to thank her for her hospitality and the wonderful meal.

"That was a fantastic dinner," he says. "You must have some great pots."

A very fun cooking story. The mushrooms do not seem to be chanterelles: chanterelles are yellow or black (the latter more rare), your mushrooms are brown and also do not have the distinct shape of chanterelles. I do wonder what those mushrooms are though.

To see chanterelles, click below:


Raw fish can be safe, depending on the cut, the handling, and species. Some fish (like Swordfish or Eel) are almost always riddled with tons of parasites, and so you'll almost never see them used raw in sushi... and I'd be leary of eating an under-cooked bit of it. On the other hand, fish like Tuna can be treated like good steak. Just a little sear to kill any nasties on the outside, and raw in the middle is fine.

About the burning... I think you're running into the gas vs. electric thing. High heat on a gas stove doesn't necessarily translate into full blast. You'll likely be able to get the oil to the smoking point on med. high. Then the shallots won't burn so quickly (and the oil won't scorch). I have to look at the size of the flame on my stove and completely ignore the dial... it's markings are useless.

Nice pans. :-) We have the same saute pan... and I love mine.

It took me a while, and many burnt and stuck-on foods, before I finally learned how to use my All-Clad pans, but now I really can tell the difference between them and my previous cheaper set of cookware.

Those scallops look fantastic, I think I'm definitely going to have to make me some this week.

First I have to say that I love love love my All-Clad pan. I often use to to roast as well as saute. For example I've placed a whole chicken in the pan on a bed of carrots and onions and when it's done roasting I whip it out and onto the burner to make the pan sauce/gravy. Delish.

Second, when I first got the pan I had the tendency to cook at too high a heat. Whatever I cooked was way too brown on the outside and under cooked in the middle. Rather unpleasant, especially for chicken and pork. I suspect that that's what happened to the fish and especially the scallops. Oil will reach the smoking point even on low, if you let it sit long enough. These kinds of pans distribute heat really well so you rarely ever have to cook over anything higher than medium-high.

As I said, when cooking meat and fish I often do is do a combination of sautee and roast. I put chicken, fish, pork, what have you, in the saute pan to get a good sear on the outside (usually 3 to 5 minutes) and then finish cooking it in the oven (usually at 400 degrees - it all depends on the thickness of what you are cooking but an average chicken breast will be done in 12 to 15 minutes and for fish, probably 7 to 12). The results are almost always well cooked and moist. I highly recommend it.

Yes, better pans make for better _food_, they, however, don't made you a better _chef_.

Patty's still cute.

try using a wok and see if pan is good or not. Controlling heat for wok is such a hassle that it took me ages and even now, its kinda hard to master

Heat oil to smoking isn't the same as cooking on high heat. Oil can get to the smoking point at less than that. So, try startig at medium and see if that gets the oil hot enough, then you won't have to worry about burning food.

Also, when you throw shallots or garlic into hot oil, you need to keep them moving. And turn down that heat. ;+)

Well, I have to say, though I've been a lurker for a long time this is my first comment - this topic is so close to my heart.

I come from a long line of great cooks. Not fancy cooks, just the kind of people that can make cake, bread, pie and fudge from scratch (from their heads - no recipe) and have them come out perfect again and again. As I'm now getting older, it has fallen on me to take over some of the traditional family recipes, but there is one I could never master. Pudding. Any kind - anywhere, any time. I always either burned it or under cooked it. Now - if you don't know (and I'm sure most of you do - but I will say it for the benefit of those who don't)real pudding does not come from a box. It is eggs milk, cornstarch and sugar - you can add to it from there.

One day when I was shopping the local discount place (TJ Maxx), they had these lined copper pans. They were so beautiful I needed them. Lo and behold, the copper heated so quickly and so evenly that they were the PERFECT pan to cook pudding in. Now I can make a perfect pud EVERY time. So I say YES, DEFINITELY. Pans can make you a better cook. They can and they will!!!!

I'll second Grant's recommendation of the saute/roast method.

I hope your book is going to be illustrated with your own photos!

When I went through the U.S. Air Force water survival course 30 years ago, they told me that any salt water fish that looks like a "regular" fish - skip the blowfish and eels - is safe to eat raw. Of course, in that case - floating in a one-man raft in the middle of nowhere - the fish would necessarily be extremely fresh if not still kicking. This does not include fresh water fish and, I suppose, no one expected us to land a swordfish.

There is some concern about overheating non-stick surfaces, so be careful with the high heat using the non-stick pan.

I am officially now an AG geek. In the past two days, I've cooked both these recipes -- they looked too good to resist! In practice, they lived up to their promise. YUM! I've always been more of a seat-of-my-pants kind of cook, which to me means a saute'er (always afraid of the precision of baking) and usually I take a concept from a recipe and create my own variant, but for these two recipes I followed your directions exactly and was pleased with the result. I think now that you've discovered the joys of sauteeing and pan searing, your true creative powers will be unleashed and we will witness the true, terrifying power of the Amateur Gourmet Unleashed!

Oooh! that looks really tasty. I just started reading your blog, but I am already horribly jealous of your Le Creuset dutch oven :)

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