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Sear-Roasting for Crisp and Juicy Results

An ovenproof skillet and two quick steps give you fish, chicken, or steak that's seared but still tender outside, moist and perfectly done inside

by Isabelle Alexandre

Sear-roasting has two steps: After browning one side of fish, chicken, or meat in an ovenproof pan, flip it and give it a brief blast in a super-hot oven.
At Pastis restaurant in San Francisco, the kitchen gets pretty intense when dinner service is in full swing -- heat, noise, bustle -- and it's my job to make sure every dish goes out the door cooked to perfection and looking beautiful. It's often fast and furious: on a busy night, I cook more than 120 individual dinner orders. For many of them, I rely on a technique that I call sear-roasting, where I quickly brown one side of a piece of steak, chicken, or fish on the stove and then finish it in the oven with a brief roasting. The skillet searing gives a delicate, golden crust on the outside -- and the enveloping blast of high heat from the oven ensures that the food cooks completely and stays moist inside without developing too much of a crust.

At the restaurant, of course, we use professional-strength burners and ovens. But cooking this way works just as well in my tiny apartment kitchen, when I have a couple of friends over for a bottle of wine and the type of dinner I'm apt to make at home -- a fillet of salmon with a dollop of compound butter, a boneless chicken breast in a crushed peanut crust, or a strip steak coated with peppercorns and finished with a lusty pan sauce made with red wine and butter. Many other dishes can be prepared this way as well.

Seared outside, perfectly cooked inside
Just as the name implies, there are two steps to this cooking method. The initial searing is where you get good color and flavor; the roasting phase gently completes the cooking without toughening the outside of the food.

Make sure you take the fish, poultry, or meat out of the refrigerator in time to bring it to room temperature so that it cooks thoroughly. It's also important that whatever you're cooking is thoroughly dry before you season it and put it into the hot pan; moisture will interfere with the browning.

A hot skillet creates a delicate, tasty crust.
"I cook this way every night at the restaurant, turning out lots of orders," says Isabelle Alexandre, "but it works just as well in an apartment kitchen."

You'll heat the pan over a medium-high flame and use just a little bit of oil. The pan is hot enough when you see the bare beginnings of smoke. When you tilt the pan, the oil will look ripply. But I caution you, don't let the oil actually smoke: have everything right near the pan so you're ready to sear your ingredients the second your oil is hot enough.

To get that nice, brown crust, you'll need to leave the food alone in the skillet (no poking or nudging). But at the same time you need to make sure the food isn't sticking: here's where pan temperature is key. You can check by holding whatever you'll be cooking with a pair of tongs and touching one edge to the pan surface. If the pan is hot enough, the food will slide easily on the light film of oil. If it sticks, the pan needs to be hotter.

A very hot oven produces a juicy interior. You'll need to turn the oven on as soon as you start getting ingredients together so it has plenty of time to reach 500F. As soon as the searing part is done, you'll flip the food over and transfer the skillet to the hot oven. By the time you close the oven door and wipe down the stovetop, it will be time to check if dinner is ready.

A heavy, ovenproof skillet is an essential tool
The only equipment you need for sear-roasting is a skillet and a spatula or tongs.

Choose a skillet that's oven-safe up to 500F, which is the oven temperature I'm using here.
Obviously, a pan with a wooden or plastic handle is not acceptable.

Poke the salmon to feel for doneness. With fillets this size, a two-minute roast gives you medium-rare salmon.
Heavy-duty aluminum, an aluminum-stainless combination, cast iron, or commercial-weight nonstick all work well (Analon and Circulon Commercial nonstick pans, available in most well-stocked kitchen stores, are both safe up to 500F). I'd advise against nonstick for the steak, though, because the recipe involves making a sauce by deglazing the brown bits that stick to the pan.

If your skillet is small, work in two batches. When you crowd the pan, you run the risk of each piece of meat or fish steaming and not getting the intense heat it needs to create a proper crust. If you're making any of these recipes for a dinner party, you could use more than one skillet or sear in batches.

The pan -- and the handle -- will be blazing hot, so watch out
A final safety warning: the pan's handle will be extremely hot when you take it out of the oven, so use a thick kitchen towel. As soon as you rest the skillet on the stove, the handle will be sticking out, inviting you and anyone who walks through the kitchen to grab on -- and get burned. For safety's sake, I strongly advise you to adopt the restaurant kitchen habi
of wrapping a dishtowel around the handle, which serves both as a shield and as a warning flag.


Sear-Roasted Salmon Fillets with Lemon-Ginger Butter:
Sear-Roasted Salmon Fillets with Lemon-Ginger Butter
Warming the lemon juice makes it easier to mix it into the softened butter.
Wrapped well, the compound butter keeps for weeks in the freezer.

Serves four.
6 Tbs. butter, well softened at room temperature
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice, warmed slightly
2 Tbs. minced fresh ginger
2 Tbs. snipped fresh chives
Olive oil for the pan
4 salmon fillets (5 oz. each), skinned if you like, patted dry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a bowl, blend the butter, lemon juice, ginger, and chives well. Set aside at room temperature.

Heat the oven to 500F. Set a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat and add just enough oil to make a light film. Sprinkle the salmon lightly with salt and pepper. When the oil is very hot, add the salmon, skin side up, and cook until nicely browned, about 1 min. Flip the fish over and put the skillet in the oven. Roast for 2 min. for medium rare; 4 min. for medium well. Check for doneness with the tip of a knife. Remove the pan from the oven, transfer the fish to serving plates, and immediately top the salmon with a dab of the lemon-ginger butter.


Boneless Chicken Breast with a Crushed Peanut Crust:
This is delicious with a Burgundy, or a Pinot Noir from Oregon or California.
Serves four.
1/2 cup salted peanuts
2 eggs
Pinch cayenne
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (5 to 6 oz. each), patted dry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil for the pan

Heat the oven to 500F. In a food processor or coffee grinder, pulse the peanuts just until finely crushed; be careful not to grind them to a paste. Transfer the crushed nuts to a plate or shallow bowl. In a second plate, beat the eggs with the cayenne. Put the flour in a third plate. Line up the flour, eggs, and nuts in that order.

Between two sheets of plastic wrap, lightly pound the chicken breasts to even them out (if you don't have a mallet, use a heavy pan or the side of a cleaver). Lightly season the chicken with salt and pepper. With one hand (this will be your dry hand), dredge a chicken breast in the flour, making sure it's coated evenly. Shake off the excess. Transfer the chicken to the other hand (this will be your wet hand) and dip it in the egg. With the same hand, dredge the chicken breast on one side only in the crushed peanuts, patting to coat the chicken. Set aside, nut side down, and repeat with the three remaining chicken pieces.

Set a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and add just enough oil to make a light film. When the oil is very hot, add the chicken, peanut side down, and cook until the crust is light brown, about 2 min. Flip the chicken over, put the skillet in the oven, and let the chicken roast for about 4 min. Remove the pan from the oven, check for doneness with the tip of a knife, and serve immediately.
Boneless Chicken Breast with a Crushed Peanut Crust


Steak au Poivre:
This dish is a classic in France and always wonderful with a frise salad, french fries, and a bottle of red wine.
For sear-roasting steak, a cast-iron pan works best.

Serves four.

4 New York strip or sirloin steaks (6 to 8 oz. each), 3/4 inch thick, patted dry
3 Tbs. coarsely ground black peppercorns
Olive oil for the pan
1 cup red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir)
4 to 6 Tbs. butter, sliced

Heat the oven to 500F. Sprinkle the steaks with salt on both sides, and then press the ground peppercorns into the steaks on both sides. Set a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and add just enough olive oil to make a light film. When the oil is very hot, add the steaks, cooking until nicely browned on one side, about 3 min. (If the pan is small, work in batches.) Flip the meat over and put the skillet in the oven. For medium-rare steaks, roast for 3 min. for 6-oz. steaks; 4 min. for 8-oz. steaks. Check for doneness with the tip of a knife or by pressing with your fingertips, keeping in mind that the steaks will cook a bit more as they sit. Transfer the steaks to a warm plate and tent with foil.

With a spoon, remove any fat from the skillet. Put the skillet back on the burner and heat to medium high. Add the wine and cook until it's reduced to 1/4 cup, about 7 min., scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spoon. Whisk in the butter a slice at a time, whisking until completely melted. Taste and adjust the seasonings, drizzle the sauce over the steaks, and serve immediately with more sauce on the side.

Steak au Poivre

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