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Hy-Vee Dietitian: Give the Gift of a Skillet

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Scratching your head over the gift for a new graduate or newly-weds? A skillet may be the perfect present, reminding the recipient of you every time it's used. "The flat-bottom, shallow pan with a lid can be one of the most useful cooking utensils in the house," says Judy Fitzgibbons, Johnson Avenue Hy-Vee dietitian. On today's segment, Johnson Avenue Hy-Vee chef, Jack Craft joins Judy to show you the features to look for in a good skillet as well as ideas for using it to the max.

Whether you call them a frying pan, skillet or sauté pan, skillets have multiple uses:

· Grilling: Instead of firing up the grill for a small meal, use the skillet. Follow these basic directions for grilling meat in the skillet: Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a medium skillet (ideally not nonstick) over medium high heat. Season one pound of steak, chops or chicken breast and place in skillet. Cook about 3 minutes on each side, for medium-rare beef, or until desired doneness. Remove meat from pan and keep warm while making a sauce or cooking vegetables in the pan.

· Sautéing: Heat transferred from oil in the skillet cooks whatever you put in it. To sauté, heat the pan on medium-high until drops of water "skitter" on the surface. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of cooking oil and continue heating just until you can see currents in the oil. Add only enough vegetables or meat to make a single layer. Cook several batches rather than over-fill. Control heat so that it does not smoke.

· Frying: Similar to sautéing, but cooked with enough oil so that food floats in it.

· Simmering: Instead of oil, use water or broth to cook vegetables or fruit. Fill the skillet half-full of liquid, bring to a boil and then add food. Reduce heat to a simmer and then cook to desired doneness. Drain and add seasonings.

Stores and internet sites offer dozens of skillets. Chef Jack offers these tips for choosing a skillet that will be useful for a very long time:

Material: A copper pan lined with tin or stainless steel is the best for cooking heat-sensitive foods like shellfish. For everyday cooking, stainless steel-wrapped aluminum or anodized aluminum work well. Cast iron is still a favorite of many cooks, but the pans are heavy and can rust easily.

Stick or non-stick? Non-stick finishes allow cooking with less oil, but don't brown foods as well as traditional pans. They also should be used for only moderate-temperature cooking.

Shape: Look for a solid, flat bottom with moderately high sides that flare out. Eight, 10 and 12-inch sizes are most useful. Choose pans with a heavy, heat-conducting, thick gauge base.

Handle: Handles should stay as cool as possible during cooking. Look for hollow handles made from a different material than the pan. "Phenolic" handles stay cool, but can't be put under the broiler.

Lid: Be sure the lid fits tightly. Clear lids are convenient for watching cooking, but not necessary.

Personalize: Consider who will be using the skillet. It should feel balanced when you pick it up and be light enough to easily hold with one hand.

Our recipe featuring asparagus offers two ways to cook a flavorful spring dish using a skillet.

Sautéed Parmesan Lemon Asparagus

Source: adapted from and

To sauté properly and safely you will need to give your sautéing food all of your attention until it is cooked and off the stove. If you have to leave it switch the heat off however quick you think you are going to be.

All you need:
1 bunch thin asparagus, about 1 lb.
2 Tbsp. olive or canola oil
2 Tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp freshly grated lemon rind (lemon zest)
Salt and freshly ground pepper

All you do:
1.Cut the asparagus into short even lengths and cut lengthwise if the spears are particularly thick
2.Place a heavy wide sautéing frying pan/ skillet on the stove and heat it up. It is hot enough when a teaspoon of water dropped on the surface evaporates into a ball on touching the surface. Be very careful this will be a very high temperature.
3.Pour a small amount of your chosen oil into the pan
4.Add the asparagus pieces and a little seasoning to the pan being sure that they only form a single layer on the surface of the pan
5.Sauté for a few minutes 2 – 4 minutes will be sufficient at this temperature, keep the asparagus moving all the time by little jerking actions of the pan and using a spatula*
6.Remove skillet from heat. Stir in parmesan cheese, grated lemon rind and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately or cool and serve over lettuce as a salad.

*At no point should the oil smoke as this means the fat is breaking down and will give an unpleasant flavor to the asparagus.

Alternative skillet cooking method:

Fill skillet about half-full of water. Bring to a boil, add asparagus and lower heat to a simmer. Simmer asparagus for 2 minutes. Drain the hot water then toss in a bowl with olive oil, cheese, lemon rind. Season with salt and pepper.

Judy Fitzgibbons represents Hy-Vee as a nutrition expert working throughout the community to promote healthy eating and nutrition. Judy is a Registered Dietitian and member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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