Not too rich, and very thin

Special to The Times

BACK in the '80s, a Paris chef came up with one of the smartest ideas for cooking meat ever devised. He cut veal thin and pounded it even thinner to make it as tender as possible, then seared it so that the edges turned crisp and the center cooked through in only a minute or two. The chef's boss modestly called his gift to the world by his own name: Paillard.

Actually, that was in the 1880s. But the paillard was a favorite of chefs for a century, especially in the 1980s, and then it just faded away.

Now it may be ripe for revival. Not only are paillards made for today's formula for cooking and eating -- they're fast, they're easy, they're sauce-free -- but they also have the vintage credentials that seem to be so valued in this age of cautious cooking for comfort. With chefs exhuming old ideas that deserved to die, like chateaubriand and baked Alaska, paillards are that rarity in food: retro, but revolutionary.

A paillard (pronounced pie-YAHR) is literally a flash in the pan, with the meat on and off the heat in just a couple of minutes. It's the fastest-cooking, most easily varied recipe known to five-minute gourmets. You can do paillards in a skillet, or on a grill or even under a broiler. A microwave would probably take longer and still not produce the same results.

Back in the heyday of nouvelle cuisine, when they were as common as raspberry vinaigrettes, paillards were inevitably finished off with a pint of reduced-cream sauce, which is probably what finished them off in contemporary restaurants. To this century's enlightened eye they look better naked. With a little balsamic vinegar, lime juice or fresh herbs, you get flavor without stodginess. Serve them over mesclun and they taste even lighter.

Traditionally a paillard was made from veal, and veal only, and it's easy to taste why: The more you pound it, and the less you cook it, the more tender veal will be. But pork, lamb and venison also benefit from the paillard treatment.

In the 1980s, Jeremiah Tower took a far different tack with paillards. Two of his signatures at Stars in San Francisco were a chicken paillard with ancho chile butter melted over it and a fish variation that may be the best paillard ever conceived. Two-ounce slices of salmon, tuna, halibut, red snapper or sea bass were pounded out very thin, then laid onto plates briefly heated under the broiler. The plates cooked one side of the fish, and a topping of hot fish stock with ginger, garlic and tomato concasse did the other.

Pounding is not always essential for paillards, though. Donna Hay, the Australian kitchen whiz with half a dozen super-simple cookbooks to her credit, developed a variation on the paillard. She just cuts swordfish very thin, then sautes it with plenty of fresh sage. The result is as stunning as Tower's: fast, simple and with none of that sawdusty texture swordfish seems to take on when it's grilled or broiled in a slab.

Stranded too far from a good fish market, I use turkey breast for paillards when we need a quick dinner. Depending on how thick the slices are, it does have to be pounded, but it cooks even quicker than the instant couscous we make to go with it. Like veal, it also takes to just about anything I find in the refrigerator for a sauce: salsa, chutney, black bean chile paste.

Last week I had time to marinate the turkey with cumin, garlic, jalapeno and Mexican oregano, which has a more harmonious flavor with Southwestern seasonings than the Mediterranean kind does. The paillards were good all by themselves, with just a little lime juice, and even better paired with yellow hominy simmered with salsa.

Paillards can be served in one big slice, or as two or three medallions, or scallops, which is what they tend to be called these days. If you mention the actual name, people look as if you're dropping some actor's name from the European version of "The Vanishing." And you might as well be. According to "Larousse Gastronomique," the word is obsolete in France today.

Paillard does have a nice ring to it, though, which is partly why the Culinary Institute of America still teaches the pounding technique and time-honored presentation. Interestingly, though, its bible, "The Professional Chef," defines the term as "a pounded cutlet that is grilled rather than sauteed or fried." That's also what Webster's New World says, but that is not what the few cookbooks and Web sites that still include recipes for paillards indicate. In reality, nearly any cooking method works, including braising, which was the path Paillard's chef followed.

James Beard, who was Tower's inspiration, proclaimed that a paillard should be broiled so that the edges turn particularly crisp. Not surprisingly, he was also partial to a heavy butter basting of the meat.

But there are smarter ways to intensify the flavor of the meat or fish. You can coat it with grainy mustard and fresh herbs, or with coarse chile powder, such as Aleppo, before you pound it. You could even use chopped pine nuts, pistachios or pecans to create a crisp crust.

The best way to pound out a paillard is to lay it between two sheets of wax paper and then pound from the thick center outward, toward the edges, until the meat is uniformly thin. Turkey and fish will dissolve if you pound them too much, though, so don't try them when you're looking for that other great benefit of paillards: working out aggression.

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Swordfish paillards with sage olive oil

Total time: 10 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: This recipe is adapted from "New Food Fast" by Donna Hay (Whitecap Books, 1999). Have your fish market thinly slice the swordfish.

1/4 cup fruity olive oil

About 24-30 small fresh sage leaves

4 teaspoons grated lemon zest

Cracked black pepper

Salt, optional

4 swordfish paillards cut from steaks, each about 1/4-inch thick (about 1 3/4 pounds)

1. Heat the oil in 2 large skillets over medium heat. Divide the sage and lemon zest between the skillets, add pepper to taste and cook until the sage is crisp, 2 minutes.

2. Lightly salt the swordfish and add 2 paillards to each pan. Cook over medium-high heat until almost cooked through, 1 minute per side. Transfer the fish to warm serving plates and spoon the sage and oil mixture over the top.

Each serving: 302 calories; 179 mg. sodium; 78 mg. cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 0 carbohydrates; 40 grams protein; 0.19 gram fiber.

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Grilled turkey paillards with jalapenos and garlic

Total time: About 10 minutes, plus 1 hour marinating

Servings: 4

1 pound turkey breast cutlets

1 clove garlic, minced

1 jalapeno, seeded and minced

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt, pepper

Chopped cilantro, for garnish

1 lime, quartered, optional

1. Place the turkey slices between 2 sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap and pound until uniformly thin, about one-fourth inch. Place in a large shallow dish. In a bowl, whisk together the garlic, jalapeno, oregano, cumin and olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the turkey and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.

2. Heat a grill until very hot. Carefully place the marinated turkey paillards on the grill and cook just until cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes per side; do not overcook. Transfer to serving plates and sprinkle with cilantro. Serve with lime wedges for juicing, if desired.

Each serving: 239 calories; 152 mg. sodium; 78 mg. cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 1 gram carbohydrate; 34 grams protein; 0.24 gram fiber.

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Mustard-crusted veal paillards with mesclun

Total time: 10 minutes

Servings: 4

1 1/4pounds veal cutlets from the leg

About 1/2 cup coarse-grain mustard

1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 (4 1/2-ounce) bag mesclun or mixed greens

Coarse sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1. Lay the veal slices on wax paper. Coat each side with the mustard and sprinkle with thyme. Place a second sheet of wax paper on top and pound the veal until uniformly thin.

2. Arrange a bed of mesclun on each of 4 serving plates and set aside.

3. Heat the oil in 2 large skillets over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. Season the veal well with salt and pepper. Add to the skillets and cook until seared on one side, about 30 seconds. Turn the veal and cook the second side until browned around the edges but still slightly pink inside, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes more; do not overcook. Divide the veal among the serving plates. Immediately add the vinegar to the hot skillets and swirl, then pour over the veal and mesclun and serve.

Each serving: 344 calories; 262 mg. sodium; 129 mg. cholesterol; 20 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 35 grams protein; 0.98 gram fiber.

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