Pompano en Papillote
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Pompano en Papillote is a dish created by Jules Alciatore at Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans for a banquet honoring the Brazilian balloonist Alberto Santos-Dumont. The dish was based in turn on a dish that Jules's father Antoine Alciatore had created—Pompano Montgolfier--honoring the brothers who had created the first balloons. A filet of pompano is baked in a sealed parchment paper envelope with a white sauce of wine, shrimp, and crabmeat. With a bit of luck the steam will puff up the parchment a bit, suggesting a hot air balloon.
Notes on Preparation
Pompano is a particularly appropriate choice for this kind of preparation. The fillet is uniform in thickness, thus it will cook evenly. A salmon fillet, for example, tends to be thicker at one end than at the other, making it difficult to produce an even result when baking. The texture of pompano is very firm, and so it will not break down when cooked in a sauce, like a trout fillet might. Finally, pompano has a delicate but distinct flavor that will not be lost in the richness of the sauce.
The traditional preparation calls for cutting a heart shape out of a piece of parchment paper. A velouté made with shrimp stock is combined with white wine (or champagne), shrimp, and lump crab meat. The sauce is spooned onto one side of the paper (which has been oiled) and the fish placed on top of that. The other side is folded over and the edges sealed all around. The packet is then placed on an oiled cooking sheet and baked in a hot oven (400 degrees) for about 10 minutes. The browned packets are placed onto plates and served as quickly as possible. Each guest slices open the paper, releasing the aroma.
As a Symbol of New Orleans Grand Creole
It is tempting in the modern culinary world to view Pompano en Papillote with some derision—a gimmicky old warhorse of a bygone era. But it is important to understand its place in culinary history. It is in some ways the epitome of New Orleans grand Creole cooking; to understand the dish is to understand the cuisine and the nature of the grand dames of New Orleans restaurants.
The presentation of baked fish in a paper envelope is about theater and spectacle. There are no purely culinary reasons to do it. The same effect can be had by baking fish in a shallow dish with a tight lid. As long as the contents can be heated quickly and most of the steam retained, you will get the same basic dish. But grand restaurants are not simply about the food. At their best, they create a sense of specialness, of celebration, of achievement, and even a bit of mystique. Great restaurants today do this. Antoine's has been doing it since the mid 19th century. The presentation en papillote is an attention getter in the dining room, much like a soufflé has always been, and much like the now played-out towering architectural food of the 1990s was.
A tie to France is part of the very concept of New Orleans Creole. The city had come into the United States when Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803—over a hundred years after its founding. It remained an American center for French culture, tradition, and immigration into the twentieth century. The velouté is one of the 'mother' sauces, foundational in French cuisine. New Orleans took from France, but also began to impart its own spin. The traditional seasoning in the French version would be diced onions (sauteed briefly), salt, white pepper, and a pinch of ground nutmeg. A bouquet garni consisting of parsley, bay leaf, and thyme may have been added to the shrimp stock. New Orleans chefs would have added more onion, a bit of garlic, and a pinch of cayenne pepper (or a splash of hot sauce) in addition to the white pepper, producing a spicier version compared to the classic. Not the tongue searing hotness that came out of the caricature of Cajun food in the 1980s, but rather a piquant that added interest.
The final driving force shaping the nature of New Orleans cooking was the richness of the local food products—in this case, pompano, shrimp, and lump crabmeat. New Orleans (and southern Louisiana) is uniquely situated. It is close to the Gulf of Mexico which yielded pompano, snapper, drum, trout, flounder, mackerel, shrimp, and sea turtle. But it is also part of the Mississippi River delta system and is just south of the wetlands abutting Lake Pontchartrain. From these regions came crab, crawfish, and oysters.
So, in the dish of Pompano en Papillote, one can see all three elements that essentially define haute Creole cuisine—the spectacle of a grand restaurant, the foundation in French cuisine (with a twist), and the richness of the local region in the amount and variety of seafood. It should be obvious that it is one thing to illuminate the defining characteristics of a cuisine, and quite another to be judged as the best dish. To contemporary sensibilities, baked fish in a rich seafood sauce would not usually be worth a special trip. When well made (a flavorful stock, just enough of a light sauce to bind the shrimp and crabmeat, in and out of the oven and to the table) the dish can be wonderful even sensual. Too often, though, the stock is insipid, the sauce gummy, the final result overdone and a mess.
- Stanforth, Deirdre. The New Orleans Restaurant Cookbook, p.14. Doubleday & Company, 1976.