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.
Choux pastry dough
In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, gently heat one-half cup water, the butter and the salt over medium-low heat until the butter is melted.
Bring the butter mixture just to a boil (prolonged boiling evaporates the water and changes the proportions of the dough). Remove the saucepan from the heat and immediately add all the flour. Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon for a few moments until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan to form a ball. Beat for about 3 minutes more over low heat to dry the dough. Take the pan off the heat.
In a small bowl, beat one egg until mixed; set it aside. In a separate small bowl, beat the second egg; mix it directly into the dough. Then beat in enough of the reserved egg (about 1 tablespoon) so the dough is shiny and just falls from the spoon. Beat the egg quickly into the dough -- it needs to incorporate into the heated dough so it does not scramble. Cover the dough in the pan lightly with plastic wrap to prevent a skin forming, and set it aside until cool.
Wash and dry the fish fillets and cut them into about 1-inch pieces. Puree them in a food processor until smooth, continuing until the fish forms a ball that pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Using a bench scraper or spatula, push the fish puree through a tamis or fine mesh strainer to remove any bone fragments and sinew.
Place the fish puree back in the processor, and with the blades running, gradually add the egg whites, taking 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a metal bowl and set it over ice. Chill until very cold, stirring occasionally, 15 to 20 minutes. Return the mixture to the food processor and beat in the cooled, choux pastry dough using the pulse button. Gradually beat in 1 cup creme fraiche or cream, followed by 1 teaspoon salt, one-fourth teaspoon pepper and one-eighth teaspoon grated nutmeg, or to taste. If the quenelle mixture is soft, you’ll find the salt will stiffen it slightly. Return the mixture to the metal bowl and chill again over ice until very cold.
To poach the dumplings, fill a shallow stockpot with a 3-inch layer of water, add about 2 teaspoons salt, and bring to a simmer. Holding a large tablespoon in each hand, dip each spoon in the pan of hot water so the quenelle mixture does not stick, then take a spoonful of mixture and shape, forming an oval. Drop the dumpling into the simmering water and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. If this test dumpling starts to break up, add another lightly beaten egg white to the remaining mixture and beat for 2 to 3 minutes over ice. If the dumpling holds together, continue simmering for a total of 10 minutes. Lift out and taste the cooked quenelle, and adjust the seasoning of the mixture if desired. Shape more ovals and drop them into the simmering water. Poach for about 10 minutes depending on size, or until they are firm when you press them with a fingertip. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. This makes about 20 quenelles.
Sauce Nantua and assembly
Melt one-third of the butter in a large shallow pan and saute the onion and carrot about 2 minutes over medium heat. Add the crayfish, cover and saute over high heat, stirring often, until they turn red, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the Cognac off the heat, then carefully tilt the pan over the flame to ignite the Cognac and flambe the crayfish until the flames die out.
Add the white wine, fish stock, bouquet garni, salt and pepper -- the crayfish should be partly submerged, and if necessary add more stock. Cover the pan and simmer the crayfish 8 more minutes to fully cook (10 minutes if the crayfish are very large).
Remove the crayfish from the pan until cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes. Pull the heads from the tails, and shell the tails as with shrimp. Make sure to remove the intestinal vein (this runs lengthwise along the top of the tail). If it does not come off with the shell, it should pull off easily. Set the tail meat aside. Put the shells in a heavy-duty plastic bag and pound with a rolling pin to crush them. Return the shells to the cooking liquid over high heat until it begins to simmer, then reduce the heat and simmer 10 to 12 minutes to allow the shells to steep in the liquid. Strain the liquid into a bowl, pressing hard to extract maximum flavor from the shells, and set the liquid aside.
In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt a second portion of butter over medium-low heat, whisk in the flour and cook until it foams, about 1 minute. Whisk in the crayfish liquid and bring to a boil, whisking constantly until the sauce thickens. Whisk in the creme fraiche or cream, bring just back to a boil and, if you like, add tomato paste to deepen the color of the sauce. Season the sauce with one-half teaspoon salt, one-eighth teaspoon pepper, a pinch of cayenne pepper and a trickle of Cognac, or to taste. Remove the sauce from the heat and whisk in the remaining butter, cut into one-half inch pieces.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange three quenelles, each in buttered, individual (6-inch) baking dishes, or all in one large (9-inch by 13-inch) baking dish, and scatter the reserved crayfish tails around them. Coat the quenelles generously so they bathe in the sauce. They can be prepared up to this step a day ahead and stored covered in the refrigerator.
Bake the quenelles until bubbling and puffed, 10 to 15 minutes for individual dishes, 20 to 25 minutes for a large dish. Serve very hot in the baking dishes.
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