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.
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.
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.