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Dinner's in the Bag

July 29, 1993|MICHAEL ROBERTS

One of the most theatrical food presentations of classic French cuisine is a dish served en papillote. The main ingredient, traditionally a piece of fish, is placed on an oval piece of buttered parchment paper with a vegetable garnish. A few spoonfuls of liquid (usually white wine or Sherry) and a small nut of butter are added. The paper is gathered up and folded. The papillote is placed on a baking sheet in a preheated oven and baked for about 20 minutes, then brought to the table by the maitre d'.

When he dramatically slices open the envelope, a cloud of aromatic steam escapes to the oohs and ahs of all those at the table who, for the moment, wish that they too had ordered this marvelous dish. The fish and vegetable garniture are then arranged on a plate and served.

I was once served the ultimate extravagance, truffle en papillote --a whole fresh black truffle. The truffle is cooked with a nut of butter and some Madeira wine in parchment paper, and nothing of its essential magical aroma and flavor escapes until the papillote is opened at the table.

The advantage of cooking en papillote is that all of the liquid essences of the ingredients are preserved. The juices from the meat and any vegetable garnish that you may add remain in the papillote.

Now this does not have to be fancy cooking. When I went camping as a kid we used to wrap the fish that we'd catch (or, if we didn't catch anything, the emergency chicken breasts that our mothers had packed) in foil and cook them on the side of the open fire. A rustic papillote it was, but still a papillote.

Parisian home cooks consider cooking in aluminum packets to be papillote cooking and it's le dernier cri , the latest thing, in home cooking. There's no mess, and one can prepare a tasty dish in a sauce with less butter and cream than by another method. Parisians love sauces. You can cook en papillote in the microwave by using a microwave-proof brown paper food bag in place of the foil.

Here are some guidelines for cooking en papillote.

* Choose a piece of fish, white meat or poultry that weighs 6 to 8 ounces and that cooks quickly. Red meats that cook quickly benefit from being seared and do not benefit from papillote cooking.

* Choose a vegetable that, when cut up into small slices, shreds or dice, will cook in the same amount of time as the meat, that is flavorful and that will add moisture, such as onions, shallots, leeks, tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots or celery.

* Add 1 to 2 teaspoons butter, margarine or olive oil and 1 to 2 tablespoons wine, broth or water to each papillote. Substitute cream for all or some of the liquid and butter if you like.

* The presence of herbs and spices is maximized in the sealed papillote , so use sparingly. A dash should do for each.

As you'll see in the following recipes, papillotes are cooked rapidly in hot ovens, and all the ingredients steam together.

PAPILLOTE OF SALMON AND LEEKS 3 large leeks, white parts only 4 (1-foot-square) pieces foil 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 cup white wine 4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets 6 teaspoons butter 1 teaspoon dried tarragon Freshly ground pepper 4 lemon halves, cut saw-tooth style

Finely slice leeks and rinse to remove sand. Place foil on work counter and arrange bed of leeks in center of each. Sprinkle each with 1/2 teaspoon salt and moisten with 1 tablespoon wine. Arrange 1 salmon fillet on each bed. Dot each with 1 1/2 teaspoons butter. Sprinkle with tarragon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Gather up sides of foil and seal all edges tightly. Place packets on baking sheet. Bake at 425 degrees until done, about 20 minutes. Place each packet on plate with lemon crown and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

CHICKEN BREASTS AND MUSHROOMS EN PAPILLOTE 1 medium onion, quartered 1 pound mushrooms 1 teaspoon dried thyme 1/4 cup whipping cream 1/4 cup dry Sherry 2 teaspoons salt 4 (1-foot-square) pieces foil 4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves 4 teaspoons unsalted butter Freshly ground pepper

Place onion in food processor and pulse several times to chop. Add mushrooms and process until mushrooms are pureed. Transfer contents to bowl. Add thyme, cream, Sherry, 1 teaspoon salt and mix well.

Place foil on work counter and arrange bed of mushroom puree in center of each. Place 1 chicken breast half on top. Dot each with 1 teaspoon butter. Sprinkle with remaining salt. Season to taste with pepper.

Gather up sides of foil and seal tightly. Place packets on baking sheet. Bake at 425 degrees until done, about 20 minutes. Place each packet on plate and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

PAPILLOTE OF GOUDA AND VEGETABLES 4 (1-foot-square) pieces foil 4 teaspoons unsalted butter 2 cups shredded carrots 3 celery stalks, thinly sliced 2 medium onions, thinly sliced 1 large zucchini, cut into thin rounds 1 teaspoon salt 1 baby Gouda cheese or 4 (2-ounce) pieces Gouda cheese Freshly ground pepper

Place foil on work surface and spread each piece with 1 teaspoon butter. Place mound of carrots, celery, onions and zucchini on each piece of foil, leaving well in center. Sprinkle with salt. Place Gouda in center. Season to taste with pepper.

Gather up sides of foil and seal tightly. Place packets on baking sheet. Bake at 425 degrees until done, about 20 minutes. Place each packet on plate and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

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