Feather light, fluffy fish dumplings bathed in a creamy, intense shellfish sauce -- quenelles Nantua is a legendary dish and one of the highlights of French regional cooking. Chefs strove to perfect their quenelles, knowing their career would look up if they could get them just right. And the classic dish, which has all but disappeared in the United States, is making a comeback in France, where it’s on the menu in half a dozen trendy Parisian bistros.
Traditional ones have reappeared, such as herbed fish quenelles in white-wine-butter sauce or quenelles of chicken breast in Madeira sauce with wild mushrooms. And new spins include tuna quenelles with shrimp in a miso broth.
At fashionable Galeries Lafayette, a department store with an impressive food hall, a whole counter is devoted to “Soupe de Poissons et Quenelles” -- snowy white quenelles made of the traditional pike, or trendy ones dyed a stark black with squid ink. Baby quenelles are ready to float in bowls of fish soup, and giant ones invite a classic coating of lobster sauce or a creme fraiche-laden puree of morels. But still most popular of all, says cheerful Henri behind the counter, are crayfish quenelles in luscious sauce Nantua, a recipe that dates back at least 200 years.
The finest quenelles are light as a cloud, a sumptuous combination of pureed white fish, egg whites, the same choux pastry that is used for cream puffs and heaping spoonfuls of thick cream. It’s the choux dough that inflates as well as binds the mixture, a trick of classically trained chefs.
Equally crucial to a luxurious dish of quenelles is the sauce (there should be lots of it) -- maybe a fish veloute or simple cream sauce with a bit of cheese, but the queen of them all is Nantua. This aromatic essence of crayfish is extracted by simmering the shells with a mirepoix of onion and carrot, white wine and fish stock. What more could be needed but a final swirl of butter?
Once tasted, never forgotten. My perfect quenelle memory revolves around a back street bistro and a hefty cylinder of fragrant fish in a lake of sauce. With a basket of fresh baguette, this was a main course for me, though I noticed my French neighbors awarded them appetizer status. So popular are quenelles in their native habitat, the chilly town of Nantua to the east of Lyon, that locals bring them as a dinner gift to thank their host instead of a bouquet of flowers.
When making the dough, lightness and flavor must be balanced against a tendency for such a delicate mixture to fall apart during cooking. I start with the binder, the choux pastry. Choux is based on a combination of butter, flour and water cooked to a stiff paste (a panade) on the stovetop. Then eggs are added. When baked, or poached in water in the case of quenelles, the eggs puff and lighten the dough.
For the fish, full-flavored pike is customary, as its white, close-textured flesh holds the dumpling together well. Sea fish such as flounder, sole or sea bass are less traditional (Nantua is hundreds of miles from the sea). Salmon quenelles emerge pale peach-pink. When served in Nantua sauce, chicken or veal quenelles are as delicious as fish, so boneless chicken breast or veal escalope can be substituted.
Pureeing the fish takes only a minute or two in a food processor. Working the puree through a tamis sieve ensures a silken texture and removes any tiny bones (pike is a culprit in this regard).
Egg whites go in next. Some cooks omit the choux pastry and rely on whites alone to bind the quenelles. Not me. I find egg-white-based quenelles granular and soggy, and such a mixture, technically called a mousseline, is better baked in a mold.
Quenelles are cooked, like poached eggs, in a large shallow pan of simmering water. The characteristic oval that results when shaping with two spoons has become so popular that pates (and ice cream and mousses) are shaped the same way. A tablespoon is the most common size, but mini-quenelles are good for garnishing soup. The traditional dumpling from Nantua, a 6-inch cylinder, is readily available in French supermarkets and exported to Paris and beyond.
For sauce Nantua, the trick is to extract maximum flavor from the crayfish. They look like tiny lobsters, and like lobsters, they must be alive when you cook them. Tiger shrimp are an alternative (the bigger the better); they must be raw and come with their heads, but can be frozen.
The crayfish are simmered, then shelled to extract the tail meat. All of the heads, bodies and shells with their juice are valuable for the sauce and so are set aside to pound and simmer again in the cooking liquid. The sauce is then a simple matter of binding the ambrosial juices with creme fraiche and a butter-flour roux.
With these two preparations in hand, the cooked quenelles and the crayfish sauce, presentation is a matter of choice. The elegant option calls for individual porcelain baking dishes. I prefer rustic terracotta. A single, family-size baking dish can be substituted. All should be deep enough for a generous layer of sauce that will bubble around the edge.
As you may have gathered, quenelles Nantua take half a day to create, but they have the enviable advantage of waiting peacefully in the refrigerator for a day or more, needing only to be quickly baked before serving. In brisk heat, quenelles puff like tiny souffles and arrive at the table lightly browned in a bubbling lake of fragrant sauce, a triumph indeed.