When people recount fond memories of New Orleans restaurant meals, they are especially effusive about pompano en papillote, a specialty at Antoine's in the French Quarter. Part of the dish's allure is purely theatrical: The fish, along with shellfish and a white cream sauce, is served in sealed parchment paper packets that puff during baking. When the bags are cut open tableside, they unveil tantalizing aromas.
But the fish itself steals the show. Pompano is one of the most highly prized gulf coast fish. The meat is firm, sweet and sublime and usually commands a high price. If you must substitute, use mahi-mahi.
For this version, the fish is sauteed, placed on beds of blanched vegetables and topped with a thick crawfish sauce. (Use shrimp or crab in addition to, or instead of, crawfish, if you prefer.) Adding vegetables to the packets creates a full meal. The added bonus: Cleanup is a breeze.
The recipe calls for Creole seasoning, usually a combination of onion and garlic powder, thyme, oregano, basil, paprika, salt, pepper and cayenne. You can make your own, but using an excellent store-bought brand, such as Tony Chachere's or Emeril's Bayou Blast, is a time-saver.
Make Ahead: Prep the vegetables and the sauce (and even saute the fish) the day before. Assemble the bags several hours in advance and refrigerate, but remove them from the refrigerator to bring to room temperature 30 minutes before baking.
- For the fish
- 1 pound (5 medium) leeks, trimmed, white and light-green parts, cleaned, cut in half lengthwise and then into 1/2-inch slices (about 5 cups)
- 8 ounces (5 medium) carrots, trimmed, peeled and cut into very thin strips (julienne; about 3 cups)
- 1 pound (2 medium) sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (about 3 cups)
- 4 teaspoons Creole seasoning
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 8 five-ounce pompano fillets, bones and blood lines removed (may substitute mahi-mahi)
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- For the sauce
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup clam juice or fish stock
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon Creole seasoning
- 1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 pounds cooked, peeled and deveined crawfish tail meat (defrosted if using frozen)
- For assembly
- 6 scallions (trimmed), white and light-green parts, chopped (1/2 cup)
- 3 tablespoons chopped tarragon
For the fish: Have a large bowl of ice water with ice cubes at hand. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat.
Blanch the leeks, carrots and sweet potatoes separately by submerging them, via a mesh basket or large strainer, into the pot for the following times: leeks for 4 minutes; carrots, 2 minutes; sweet potatoes, 3 minutes. Transfer each vegetable to the ice water once it has been cooked. Drain the vegetables, blot them dry on paper towels and combine in a bowl. Season them with 4 teaspoons Creole seasoning and salt and pepper to taste.
To prepare the sauce, first make a light roux: Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Slowly add the clam juice, then the cream, whisking continuously so the sauce remains smooth. Stir in the Creole seasoning, smoked paprika, salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the sauce for several minutes, until it is thickened and dark orange and does not taste like flour. Remove from the heat and fold in the crawfish meat. Adjust the seasoning and let the sauce cool to room temperature, loosely covered.
Line a platter with a few layers of paper towel.
Generously season the pompano fillets on both sides with salt and pepper. (If the fillets are small and thin -- about 2 1/2 ounces each -- overlap the thinner sides of two of them for each serving and do not bother to sear them.) Heat the oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the fillets and sear on each side for 2 minutes, until they are lightly browned. Transfer to the paper-towel-lined platter.
To assemble, cut 8 sheets of parchment paper that are 20 inches long. Fold each sheet in half on the 20-inch side (15 by 10). Unfold the sheets and pile 1 cup of vegetables in the middle of each sheet just under the fold. Top each pile of vegetables with a pompano fillet and 1/2 cup of the crawfish sauce.
Combine the chopped scallions and tarragon, then divide them evenly among the packets on top of the sauce. Fold the sheets over the fish mounds (loosely; the paper should touch the sauce but not smash it. You must leave room for the packets to expand.) Tightly crimp and roll up the edges to form a semicircular seal around the fish.
Line the lower oven rack with a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the packets on the foil and bake for 14 minutes.
To serve, place a packet on each dinner plate. Use small scissors to cut open the packet just inside the crimped edge. Fold the opened flap back and tuck it under the packet.
From Real Entertaining columnist David Hagedorn.
Tested by David Hagedorn.
Email questions to the Food Section at firstname.lastname@example.org.