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Wrap It Up and Poach It

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thomas Keller is probably the hottest chef in America. His Napa Valley restaurant, The French Laundry, has won every award possible. Today he and co-writer Michael Fuhlman begin an exclusive monthly column for The Times Food section dedicated to teaching restaurant techniques to home cooks.

In the real world, manipulation is bad, but in the professional kitchen--honest as it may be--manipulation is everything. A good example of this is cooking poultry in plastic wrap (a.k.a. bird-in-a-bag). Its ingenious mechanics give you a combination of flavorful, fat-free cooking and elegant final presentation.

It’s a method used in restaurants everywhere, but not nearly enough at home. The concept is simple: Tightly wrap fish or fowl in plastic wrap--typically into a cylindrical shape--and drop it into simmering water. The result can be extraordinary when the meat being cooked is bundled in a colorful sweet wrapper or stuffed with juicy aromatic vegetables.

For example, spread a layer of thinly sliced zucchini, eggplant and roasted red pepper onto a piece of plastic wrap and lay a seasoned chicken breast on the vegetables. Roll this package carefully into a cylinder and poach it in simmering water for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove it from the water, let it rest to finish cooking through, and then remove the wrapper and cut the meat into 1-inch slices. You’ve got a gorgeous, healthful roulade of chicken.

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You can take that idea a step further and roll the breast around a few spoonfuls of ratatouille, for a unique Provencal interpretation of the overworked chicken breast.

Thinly sliced mushrooms such as cepes (porcini) or even portabellos also work well as a wrapper, or you can use them as a stuffing, turned into duxelles (finely chopped mushrooms sauteed with shallots).

Duck wrapped in cabbage is extraordinary. Fish, likewise, is excellent to stuff and wrap and serve with a simple butter or wine sauce.

Bird-in-a-bag is a great method either for entertaining or to have ready after work because the items can be prepared days ahead of time. You don’t need to watch them or turn them to keep them from scorching. They will cook perfectly uniformly because they are surrounded by simmering water.

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Outer wrappers are simply a matter of imagination--savoy cabbage or romaine lettuce, for example. Some of the tougher ones, such as chard or leeks, should be cooked ahead of time.

Other than that, the main tips are:

* Salt the meat aggressively because it will not pick up additional flavor from added fat or searing. The only flavors you will end up with are the ones contained in the plastic.

* Make sure all of the vegetable wrappers are patted dry before using.

* Most important: Roll each item tightly. This is easy if you have a stainless steel surface, but because plastic wrap won’t stick to most kitchen counters, you may want to have someone hold one end to create the proper tension.

* Use an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the package to check doneness (a chicken breast should read 160 degrees). Let the packages rest for several minutes after cooking.

Some of our most satisfying work as cooks and chefs is manipulation. A simple idea--cooking in plastic wrap--can lead the imagination to endless variations, transforming even the honorable but boring chicken breast into something visually dynamic and exciting to eat.

Roulade of Duck Breast With Mushroom-Cream Sauce

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Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes

Adapted from “The French Laundry Cookbook” (Artisan, 1999)

2 boneless duck breast halves, 3/4 to 1 pound

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Whole allspice, as needed

2 large outer leaves of savoy cabbage

3/4 cup sliced mushrooms (a variety is best, but white button are fine)

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1 tablespoon minced shallot

1 tablespoon oil

1/2 cup cream

1 teaspoon butter

* Remove and discard skin from duck breasts. Remove tenderloins from undersides of each breast. Trim away any membranes, veins and cartilage. Trim ends of meat to form rectangular shape. Sprinkle underside of each breast with salt and pepper and grind five or six small slivers of allspice over each piece (a hand-crank or regular cheese grater will work if you don’t have an allspice grinder).

* Bring pot of heavily salted water to boil. Add cabbage and cook gently until tender, about 2 minutes. Remove to ice-water bath. Transfer to paper towels and pat dry.

* Place leaf of cabbage on cutting board, with inside of leaf facing upward. Carefully cut large rib from leaf.

* Tear off piece of plastic wrap about 20 inches long and lay it horizontally across work surface. Roll duck breast width-wise to form long cylinder. Place cylinder of duck in center of widest part of cabbage leaf. Trim leaf to length of breast, so leaf will easily wrap around roulade once. Roll up duck breast in leaf. Place roulade in center of bottom of sheet of plastic wrap. Roll up roulade in plastic, holding center, and rolling as tightly as possible.

* Twist one end of plastic wrap several times against duck. This will secure shape of roulade. Repeat on other side, twisting in opposite direction. You should have perfectly shaped cylinder. Bring both ends of wrap over to center of roulade and tie excess in knot. Repeat with remaining breast and leaf. (These can be refrigerated for 2 to 3 days.)

* When almost ready to serve, bring pot of water to boil, then reduce heat so water is just barely simmering, about 200 degrees. Place roulades in water and cook to internal temperature of 130 to 135 degrees, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from water and let rest for 2 to 3 minutes.

* While duck cooks, cook mushrooms and shallots in oil over medium-high heat, 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. When tender, add cream, bring to simmer and reduce by about 1/2 to sauce consistency, about 5 minutes. Stir in butter and remove from heat. Serve as is or, for a finer sauce, blend and strain.

* Discard ends of each roulade if you like for better appearance, and slice roulades into three equal pieces. Discard plastic wrap. Serve on top of mushroom sauce.

2 servings. Each serving: 433 calories; 323 mg sodium; 176 mg cholesterol; 30 grams fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 34 grams protein; 0.37 gram fiber.


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