A quenelle is a fish mousse. Poached in a court bouillon, it is napped with a sauce of your choosing. I was introduced to quenelles when I worked in Paris. I can no longer remember the place, but it was an amazing dish to taste: the quenelles were light and fluffy and the sauce was Sauce Nantua, a very classic french sauce built from a bechamel with the stunning addition of crayfish butter.
Now, this blog entry was inspired by finding perch at my not-so-local supermarket. Perch is a fresh water fish (sometimes combined with pike). I was wondering what to do with it (I bought it "on spec"). Then, on my way to teach my class I suddenly remembered quenelles.
If you look at the recipe in Julia or even the more classic Escoffier, you'll see they both make a panada by combining flour with melted butter and then adding the ground fish. But I have tried this and found that this is more like a dumpling than a mousse. Other recipes (like Pepin's) go straight to the fleshy part: combine the fish with an egg white and cream. Blend in the food processor. This is what I elected to do.
One of the hints in making quenelles is to have cold ingredients. The friction of the food processor blade will heat up the mixture, so keep everything cold until the last minute. You can even refrigerate the the processor bowl and blade. I used a pound of fish, one egg white and cream. How much cream? Well, in theory more than a cup. But I quickly ran out of cream (not something I typically have at home) but fortunately I have creme fraiche. This makes a great substitute. I added this until I felt the texture was right. I think it's better to have less than more. One can also add pepper (I recommend white pepper, not black).
I should add a note on the fish: I used my salmon slicer (a very thin knife used for slicing lox) to remove the skins from the flesh. Basically, I slice vertically and then angle the knife along the skin. It works perfectly.
Now, while I was preparing the mixture I started the boullion. I elected to go simple and used just celery and very large bay leaf. When you're ready, take the bowl of fish mix and using two tablespoons, scoop and smooth the top of the mixture. Then push this out of the spoon and into the waiting bubbling (but not boiling) broth. When you're all done, you should have a pot full of tasty pillows!
While they are cooking a little, make the sauce. Again, I elected for a simple sauce (I don't happen to have crayfish butter hanging around). My first thought was a mushroom sauce. But then I remembered I had shucked oysters. So, that lends itself to a sauce veloute' ... You start with a roux (1:1 ratio of butter and flour) and then I added white wine (a NZ Sauvignon Blanc). I proceeded to add more and more liquid from the poaching broth. When it smoothed out, I finished it with the oysters (n.b. if I had added mushrooms, I would have sauteed them first and then added them to the sauce veloute' in place of the oysters).
Then to serve, I removed the quenelles from the boullion and napped them with the sauce. I elected to serve them with simple white rice. And yes! They were light and fluffy! The sauce could have used a bit more to it I thought. But it was still a nice light addition to this very cream based classic french dish.
Perhaps one of the big surprises was how little time this took. You can schedule it by making the broth first, then making the quenelles, then the sauce. The rice can cook before the quenelles if you wish. There's really no reason why you can't do this as a standard weekday dish. And when I taste a quenelle, I think of Paris. Maybe you will too?