By Chris Watson
When we ask ourselves, “what’s for dinner” what most of us really mean is fish, chicken, pork or beef? This is where vegetarians and vegans have a great leg up on omnivores; they don’t have to deal with large, slow cooking proteins. This is also the driving force to why many of us eat out or buy precooked, overly preserved, and shockingly expensive meats. When cooking for two we struggle with the preparation of the meat protein. The answer is to take a lesson from stir fry and make quick proteins.
Large and In Charge
The two biggest problems with meat proteins are size and time. Many cuts of meat are simply out of our households size range. Likewise, many cuts of meat benefit from long, slow cooking times. Things like roasts, loins, and bone in chicken (or whole chicken) are amazing meals. However, they take a lot of time. This is fine for a Sedate Sunday but not practical for a Manic Monday. The key to embracing this problem is to reduce the size of the meat and use high heat cooking in a flat skillet.
Unlike in stir fry, where the whole dish is cooked together in a wok, quick proteins benefit from medium high to high heat in a flat pan. You can certainly cook pork and steak as a quick protein, just like in a stir fry. However, the two best options are chicken breast and shrimp.
Shrimp is tailor made for quick cooking techniques. Many markets carry peeled and deveined shrimp, ready to coat and cook. In most markets this shrimp is in the 20-30 count
per pound range, which is perfect for sauteing. Meat counters also carry half chicken breasts. Today the size of half chicken breasts is at least 12 oz and can skew up towards a pound. That is more than enough for one person and may be enough for two.
Like all quick cooking techniques, it is important to reduce our proteins to a uniform size. With shrimp, especially already cleaned shrimp, our job is already done. With chicken breast we have to cut the breast up in the same manor as for a stir fry. With today’s size of chicken breasts you can make one cut lengthwise then slice as thin as possible down both halves. This process is so easy that there isn’t any reason to buy chicken tenders or pre cut up chicken. Just spend a couple of minutes getting it ready right before you cook.
Stirred not Soaked
We are not marinating our proteins but coating them. The easiest thing to do is simply coat with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. However, this is only a base. From here you can add some hot sauce for a buffalo chicken or fire shrimp feel, lemon, garlic, onion powder or juice, or change the profile and use curry powders, soy sauces, sesame oils and flavored olive oils. Finally grill seasonings and seasoning salts are excellent ways to liven up a quick protein. It really is a wide open field. Of course there are also bottled marinades and sauces. Most of these aren’t as good as seasoning your own. However, if you do want a quick flavor solution, use a clean, gluten free, salad dressing and marinade like Garlic Expressions. One to two tablespoons is plenty.
Once you have coated your protien place your flat pan on medium high heat and allow to heat up. When the pan gets uniformly hot put a tablespoon of higher heat oil (or more if your are cooking for 2) into the pan. Sunflower, safflower, grape seed, canola, peanut, and avocado oils are all fine for this level of heat. Coat the bottom then add your protein.
Shrimp will cook in 2-3 minutes. Chicken breast in 3-5. In both cases don’t overcook. When you are done immediately remove from the heat and serve.
Your serving options are endless. For quick meals, either one of these proteins will go on top of pasta or rice. You can also serve alongside a baked white or sweet potato. A southern favorite is to place the quick cooked shrimp on top of cheese grits. Finally, you can also serve with a sauce to richen the dish. Quick cooking chicken buffalo style almost demands either ranch or bleu cheese dressing. This would be a good time to make a white sauce as well.
Whether trying to plan a meal at home after a hectic day or simply wanting to control your portions and leftovers, in the smaller household cooking proteins at high heat in a flat pan is definitely the answer. Plus, utilizing this process gives us a great landscape of flavors to experiment with. Finally, the whole process is very healthy, especially if we stay away from bottled marinades and coatings. So, master the technique of quick proteins. They are the gateway to a time efficient and healthy meal.