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Winning Chefs Choose Lean, Lighter Dishes

December 21, 1986|ANNE WILLAN | Willan, a cooking teacher and author, is founder and president of La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris. She lives in Washington. and

Each October, the Who's Who of Cooking in America gather at the invitation of Cook's Magazine to celebrate the election of the year's winners. I'm proud to say that this time, I was one of them.

Many of the 1986 winners had, like me, roots outside the United States. However, when I polled half a dozen for the dish they would most enjoy for the holidays, ideas were surprisingly in tune. All the cooks looked for light, fresh ingredients. They avoided rich sauces, cooking with oil rather than butter and cream, and all kept a close eye on the clock. Together, the Who's Who favorites add up to a lively holiday buffet.

True to the spirit of his 60-Minute Gourmet column, Pierre Franey suggests a quick scallop salad in which bay scallops are lightly poached, then marinated in dressing. A Mexican spicing of cumin and jalapeno chiles belie Franey's French background. "A cook must always be open to new ideas," declares Franey, whose "The Seafood Cookbook" (co-authored with Bryan Miller) has just been published by Times Books.

George Lang's Recipe for Snails

From New York restaurateur George Lang comes a recipe for snails. (Squid, poached in court bouillon and sliced, are a handy substitute.) Escaping from the traditional garlic butter, the snails are cooked with a "zestfully different" blend of onions, prosciutto and herbs. Lang's native Hungary is recalled by the pumpernickel bread on which the snails are served. "Be sure it is thinly sliced and crisply toasted," he cautions.

Meat for the feast comes from Giuliano Bugialli, who contributes some unusual Sicilian pastries filled with ground lamb flavored with garlic and Pecorino cheese. The rich yeast dough in which the lamb is wrapped forms a substantial crust, one I long to try with a French-style molded pate, or even with beef filet en croute. Bugialli does not mention preparing ahead, but I baked the pastries and reheated them the next day with success.

Two seasonal accompaniments, colored festively red and green, are contributed by Paula Wolfert and Jacques Pepin. Wolfert has recently been immersed in a new book project, on the cooking of the Mediterranean islands, and this recipe is a result. Onion slices are slowly baked so they caramelize in their own juices, then they are left to marinate in a vinaigrette dressing spiced with red pepper.

Teacher, chef and French to the core, Pepin suggests a two-cabbage salad from his book, "Everyday Cooking With Jacques Pepin" (Harper & Row: 1982). "The advantage of cabbage," remarks the practical Pepin, "is that it does not wilt as fast as lettuce, so it can be prepared an hour or so ahead." Indeed, I found the salad improved when left for several hours, although perhaps Pepin would not approve.

Finale to the feast comes from one of the grand dames of cuisine, Simone "Simca" Beck. From her villa in Provence, France, she sent this Christmas dessert, "an apple tart from my native Normandy," she said. Simca's Tarte Tatin is a heartwarming combination of apples cooked in caramel, then turned upside down so the pastry crust is topped with apples coated with a golden glaze. "Be sure to use firm apples like Golden Delicious so the pastry keeps crisp," adds Simca. "And don't forget to serve it with cream."

WHO'S WHO BUFFET MENU FOR 15

Pierre Franey's Scallop Salad With Cumin Dressing

George Lang's Snails With Prosciutto and Wilted Onion

Giuliano Bugialli's Sicilian Lamb Pastries (Pastiere Siciliane)

Paula Wolfert's Baked Onion Slices

Jacques Pepin's Red and White Cabbage Salad

Simca's Tarte Tatin

Suggested Wines: Offer choice of refreshingly tart Chablis, or light red Beaujolais or young Cabernet Sauvignon

Each dish can be prepared in its own time, with no last-minute flurry.

Up to two days ahead, bake the lamb pastries, then refrigerate. Chill the wine.

Up to 12 hours ahead, make the scallop salad, then chill. Prepare vegetables for cooking the snails, then refrigerate. Bake the onion slices, then marinate in the refrigerator. Set the table.

Up to four hours ahead, bake the tarte Tatin.

One hour before serving, make the cabbage salad and leave at room temperature. Let onion slices come to room temperature on buffet table.

Twenty minutes before serving, reheat lamb pastries in oven. Warm the tarte.

Fifteen minutes before serving, arrange the scallop salad in a dish with lettuce and place on the table.

Ten minutes before serving, cook the snails and transfer to heat-proof serving dish. Keep warm on table. Unmold the tarte and add glaze.

Just before serving, transfer hot pastries and tarte to table. PIERRE FRANEY'S SCALLOP SALAD WITH CUMIN DRESSING

1/4 cup Sherry or red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons freshly ground cumin seeds

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

1 cup olive oil

2 jalapeno chiles, seeded and finely chopped

2 quarts water

2 1/2 cups dry white wine

2 tablespoons thyme

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns

3 pounds bay scallops

10 green onions, chopped

3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

3 heads bibb lettuce or radicchio

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