French cooking isn’t *all* about the butter.
The words “French cuisine” don’t exactly conjure up images of slim and trim meals—perhaps it’s something about all that butter, wine, and cream. But there is a lesser-known cooking technique straight out of culinary school handbooks that not only helps you cut calories and fat in stovetop vegetable cooking, it can save you time, too.
This simple technique doesn’t require any special skills, and the only “special” pieces of equipment you’ll need (other than your pan and a wooden spoon) are a piece of parchment paper and a pair of scissors.
The name of the game is “cartouche,” and that’s the word for the shape you’ll make with the parchment paper. A cartouche is essentially a makeshift lid for your sautée pan with a small hole cut out of the middle. (Here’s a helpful video on how to make one). When you add vegetables to the pan along with a generous splash of liquid, placing a cartouche on top—instead of a lid—allows the liquid to evaporate in a slow and controlled manner. Meanwhile, the liquid acts as a conductor of heat, cooking your vegetables faster than dry heat, such as roasting.
You’ll want to keep the heat at a moderate simmer to optimize the cooking/evaporation time. Test for doneness by removing the cartouche and poking a paring knife into one. If it pierces easily, and/or slides off the knife easily, you can ditch the cartouche and crank the heat to finish evaporating the liquid. If it needs more time, but the liquid is almost gone, just add more back in, replace the cartouche, and keep cooking.
Most French cooks who use this method also add a little bit of fat, such as butter, to the pan. When the liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are almost cooked, remove the cartouche and increase the heat. The remaining fat in the pan will have coated the vegetables evenly, and you can use your wooden spoon to sauté them over high heat—this will result in that golden-brown, caramelized flavor that makes stove top veggies taste so delicious.
So why not just skip the liquid/parchment step and sauté them traditionally? The liquid (you can use stock or water) is an efficient carrier of heat, and speeds up the cooking time. While this is convenient for busy weeknights, it also means that the vegetables need less fat to get the job done. If you sauté vegetables with just the fat, you’ll have to use more to avoid sticking or burning while they cook to perfection. With the cartouche method, you’re using the sauté stage to caramelize and finish the vegetables, rather than actually cook them (it’s already been done with the liquid.)
This method works with any vegetable you’d typically saute. Keep in mind that the hardier and firmer the vegetables, the more liquid (and thus longer cooking time) you’ll need. For example, tender spring peas will require less liquid than chopped sweet potatoes.
What you do with those saved calories is up to you, but it’d certainly be the French way to enjoy them in a glass of wine or small but satisfying dessert. C’est bon!