After all the effort you've put into getting through the holiday season, it's time to allow yourself some instant gratification in the kitchen. That's why I want to help you get back to the basics by talking about one of the easiest and quickest cooking methods around: sauteing.

The French sauter literally means to jump, and that's a perfect way to describe how hopping-quick sauteing can be. All it takes to saute the right way is to start with good-quality ingredients that are naturally tender enough to cook quickly; make sure they're in uniform, small pieces that will cook evenly; and then prepare a quick sauce based on the glaze of delicious juices left in the pan.

Yes, it's that simple. But you still must pay attention to details.

The most important detail is the heat, and that means you need the right pan. A good, wide saute pan will have enough surface area for the food to move around freely in a single layer without crowding. This will allow moisture to escape, so the food cooks by direct contact with the pan rather than by steaming. And the pan should be heavy and made from a material that conducts heat well and evenly, such as stainless steel or anodized aluminum. Many cooks prefer stainless-steel pans with bottoms containing a sandwiched layer of aluminum or copper, which holds and conducts heat well. Some cooks also prefer nonstick pans, which enable them to use less oil.

Whatever kind of pan you use, preheat it well before you add a touch of oil. Then, when the oil is good and hot, in goes the food.

If you watch professional chefs saute, you'll often see them lifting their pans to toss the ingredients around. For home purposes, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon or spatula to keep the food moving will be fine. Once the food is done, add flavorful liquids and seasonings to the hot pan, quickly stir and scrape to "deglaze" or dissolve the flavorful deposits that have formed on the pan's surface, add cream or butter if you'd like a touch of richness, season to taste, and serve the sauteed food and sauce together.

One of the best ways I know to master sauteing is a dish I've been making for almost 40 years: Sauteed Shrimp with Sherry, Dijon Mustard, and Tarragon. Follow the recipe and, in minutes, you'll have a terrific appetizer to offer with some crusty bread for soaking up the sauce. Or serve the shrimp and sauce over pasta or rice, add a side of steamed fresh vegetables, and you'll have a main course that's all the more gratifying for having taken you little more than an instant to prepare.

Sauteed Shrimp With Sherry, Dijon Mustard & Tarragon

Serves 6 as an appetizer, 4 as a main course

3 to 4 dozen medium-sized fresh shrimp, shelled and deveined


Freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons mild-flavored oil, such as safflower or canola oil

2 medium shallots, minced

1 small bunch fresh tarragon, leaves minced

1/2 cup dry or medium-dry sherry

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 pound unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives

Season the shrimp with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Divide the oil between two large, heavy saute pans. Heat the pans over high heat until the oil flows freely in the pans and shimmers slightly. Divide the shrimp between the pans and saute, stirring frequently, until the shrimp turn uniformly pink and look plump and firm but still slightly translucent, 6 to 7 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the shrimp to a warm plate, cover with aluminum foil, and set aside.

Divide the minced shallot between the 2 pans and add 1/2 tablespoon of the tarragon to each pan. Saute, stirring continuously, until the shallots begin to turn transparent and just slightly golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Divide the sherry between the pans and stir and scrape with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan deposits; then, pour the contents of one pan into the other. Stir the cream into the sherry and simmer briskly, stirring frequently, until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. A small piece at a time, whisk in the butter. At the last minute, reduce the heat to very low and whisk in the mustard, taking care that the sauce doesn't boil, which would turn the mustard grainy. Adjust the seasonings to taste with a little more salt and pepper.

Arrange the shrimp on serving plates or on top of beds of cooked pasta or steamed rice. Spoon the sauce over and around the shrimp. Garnish with chives and serve immediately.

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