This year's declaration of independence takes place in the kitchen: It's too hot to cook. It's too late to cook. We're too liberated to cook.

Thus, since nature abhors a vacuum, new shops have been opening week by week ready to fill our dinner plates and picnic baskets with home cooking -- somebody else's. Haute carryouts, we have dubbed them, to distinguish them from the ham-and-swiss or chicken-in-bucket carryouts of old. They offer salads inspired by the cuisines of the whole world, and hot entrees you once had to order ahead from a caterer or stew over for half a day. In fact, they are impromptu caterers, restaurants-on-the-run. Most of them are, indeed, retail and ready outlets of caterers, and some are carryout arms of restaurants. Many of them equal the cooking of some of Washington's best restarurants, and most of them sell far more delicious and varied food than one found to-go anywhere in Washington a few years ago.

Haute carryouts are expensive; when we designated some inexpensive in this survey, that term was meant to be relative -- inexpensive by haute carryout sells its chicken salad for about $5 a pound, while an expensive one sells it for around $9 a pound. A seafood salad might go as high as $18 a pound, a potato salad as low as $1 a pound. But the price is for handmade food, not factory stuff -- restaurant food for which you don't have to pay for table space, linens and service. The picnic pictured here (with tarragon chicken and brownies that weren't photographedj), from Fete Accomplie, could serve six or more people; it cost about $50, including the wine. That's a lot if your picnic mode is hot dogs, but not much for top-quality feasting.

Buying a whole meal is only on way of taking advantage of haute carryouts. A salad or side dish, a main dish or a dessert can add luster to a simple meal of your own making. You can get just appetizers, perhaps a salmon mousse in the shape of a fish. You can carry out a lamb stew or a lasagna made with homemade noodles, then add your own tossed salad. A seafood salad can be the centerpiece for your own vegtables. Or grill a chicken and accompany it with marinated vegtables from a haute carryout. Add their dessert to your beginnings.

One of the distinguishing features of today's carryouts is the attention to visual details. At the best ones, the food not only tasted wonderful, it looked gorgeous. Brightly contrasting vegetables were uniformly cut. Meats and seafoods were in identifiable pieces. They were displayed with garnishes, often packed in containers that showed them to advantage.

Washington has dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of ethnic groceries and delicatessens that sell homemade carryout food. But we concentrated on those that were international, leaving the others to future surveys. While every carryout had its own specialties -- which we tried -- they had dishes in common that allowed across-the-board comparisons. We tasted chicken salad and potato salad everywhere, and sampled the range of hot dishes, cold dishes, breads and desserts. Never has research ended so reluctantly. We realized early on, though, that as food-obsessed Washingtonians, we have been pate-ed about to our limit. We skipped meat pates unless they were unique, but did try whatever seafood and vegtables pates we encountered. By the end, we were also pastaed out, not because we could ever tire of pasta salad, but because pasta salad is the Achilles' heel of the salad world. There are a lot of pasta salads around town, but few that are not bland, mushy, acid or otherwise a chore to eat.

After they get their pastas in order, the haute carryouts could do the world one more favor. Most of them close before 7 p.m.; we would like more of them to stay open late enough to accommodate late cravings, late working or late decisions not to cook or not to eat out.

In the meantime, this is one story in which we have been happy to eat our words.