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.