When I was among the young nerds in cooking school, there were certain foods that we all fetishized. Some of these—like French omelets, roast chickens, ethereally light gnocchi—are benchmarks of how seriously you take the craft. They draw in cooks because they’re simple on the outside, but crazy complex once you peek under the hood.
But there were others, too—ones that represented a culture, a tradition that we could choose to inherit as French-trained cooks. The classics that the old-school chefs would mention, wistfully, as if talking about forgotten friends. Dishes they loved to cook and eat, but that are unwanted by younger, less Francophilic restaurant goers. Dishes like quenelles de brochet.
Of course, as an inveterate lover of the underdog, butter, and shellfish, I ate up their stories. How could I turn down a meatball made of mild fish and cream, poached until just set, and then baked so that it puffs and soaks up a bunch of crawfish bisque?
So I order them every time I can. But even though I’ve had the pleasure of trying them in their ancestral home of Lyon, France, the best version I’ve ever tasted is in my backyard, at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan called Benoit, a sister to the famed Paris bistro. Their flavor is rich as Jay-Z, but the quenelles are so light in texture, puffed and tender, they’re like clouds on the sea. (The sea is better when made with bisque.)
When he showed me how to make them, Benoit’s chef Philippe Bertineau said the key to his recipe is pretty much the reason people don’t make this kind of stuff anymore: time. Sure, you can slap together some ground fish and whirr it up with cream and call it a day, but to make it really float, you have to make a pastry dough and let it rest overnight, then make the fish mixture, and let that rest overnight as well. It’s not hard, really, but you have to give it time.
But time, in the larger sense too, is what makes his recipe special. It links this restaurant in New York to its 100-year-old Parisian namesake, which is known for them. And it connects this restaurant, he says, to La Cote Basque, one of the most important French restaurants in American dining history, which used to live in this same space. La Cote Basque, too, was known for their quenelles de brochet.
After he put the gratin dishes before me, bubbling hot, he said, “You see the process takes a long time?” This kind of cooking is disappearing. “Now, you can have a good restaurant, a good concept, and bing bang boom, get the food ready. I’m not saying that’s bad, but I grew up on a farm. To me, food takes time.”
I put my spoon in the dish, and seconds later, my head was spinning with plushness, the softness of the quenelles, and the linger of their flavor. Flavor that lasts a long time.
Quenelles de Brochet
Adapted from chef Philippe Bertineau of Benoit
This is a real project kind of recipe, at least in terms of planning ahead. Not that it’s actually very hard, or even that it takes that much work, but you first have to make the panade – a dough – and let it rest for 12 hours before making the quenelle mixture, which also has to rest for 12 hours before cooking. So start two days ahead, or at least the morning before your dinner party. Since making the traditional crawfish sauce would really make this a marathon, Chef Bertineau suggests using purchased lobster bisque for the sauce.
For the panade
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour, sifted
2 egg yolks
Salt, to taste
For the fish
1 pound pike filet (or other mild white fish), cut into rough 1” cubes
½ pound panade (from above)
3.5 tablespoons butter
1 cup heavy cream
Fine sea salt & fresh ground pepper, to taste
Espelette pepper, to taste (or cayenne)
1 quart lobster bisque
1 cup heavy cream, whipped (optional)
Special equipment: Stand mixer with meat grinder (or just a meat grinder if you’re old school).
Make the panade
1. Two days before serving (or, at least, the morning of the day before your dinner party), make the panade. In a large, wide sauce pan, bring the milk and butter to a boil over medium heat with a generous pinch of salt.
2. Once the milk is fully boiling, remove from heat and add flour all at once. Stir it with a wooden spoon or heat resistant spatula. Place the pan back over the heat and cook, stirring constantly, to “dry out” the mixture. The flour will absorb the milk mixture, and as you stir, it will eventually lose its tackiness and pull away from the pan.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and keep stirring occasionally to let it cool a bit. When it’s still very warm but not hot, beat in the egg yolks one by one. (You have to let it cool do the eggs don’t cook on contact.)
4. Place the panade in a container and cover it with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. Let it cool to room temperature, and let it rest in the fridge for at least 12 hours.
Make the quenelle mixture
5. Make sure all your ingredients are quite cold, except for the butter, which should be room temperature and pliable. Fire up your meat grinder (I’ve always wanted to say that) with the ¼” die plate, and set the stand mixer workbowl under it. Drop the fish through, once or twice, your call. (Twice makes it super-smooth; once gives you a little more contrast and chew in the final product.)
6. Set the workbowl up with the mixer’s paddle attachment. (Or get ready to work it with a rubber spatula by hand.) At medium-low speed, beat the panade, one quarter-sized chunk at a time, into the fish. Don’t worry too much about over-mixing; you actually want to develop the protein a bit so that the quenelles will hold together. Then add the butter, also in chunks. When it’s all in, everything should look like a rough paste, sticking a bit to the bowl, and kind of holding peaks. (If you need to, stop the mixer and scrape down the sides with a spatula to make sure it’s all mixed well.) Now add the eggs, one at a time. Don’t worry, it will look horrible, with floppy bits floating around. Ghastly. But let it work, and add a healthy pinch of salt, white pepper, and a touch of espelette or cayenne pepper. When the mixture starts to come back together, pour in the cream.
7. Increase the mixer speed to medium or medium high to get some air into the cream. The mixture will come together like a very thick batter, weirdly jiggly and tacky. Give it a quick taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Transfer to a container, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest in the fridge, at least 12 hours.
Forming and poaching the quenelles
8. Cover a tray in plastic wrap. Using two large spoons, form 4-ounce footballs of the fish mixture and lay them gently on the tray. (That shape is actually what “quenelle” refers to, and if you don’t know how to make it, watch this video and give it a little practice!)
9. While you’re still forming the quenelles, get a large pot of water simmering hot, just under boiling. Salt it with commitment, like you would for pasta. When the quenelles are ready, gently lower them in, only as many as will still give them room to float about. Keep the water at a bubbleless poach, 165⁰F, and poach them for about 6-7 minutes, flipping them occasionally. They will float almost instantly, so you can’t judge their doneness that way. When they’re ready, they will be set, but not stiff— they’ll still be a little jiggly. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain them on paper towel.
Note: If you’re not serving them for a while, you can cool and chill them from here, but bring them back up to poaching temperature when it’s time to finish.
Finish and serve
10. Preheat oven to 365⁰F and bring the lobster bisque to a simmer. Roll the quenelles in the lobster bisque and place in a gratin dish (or in individual gratin dishes, fitting 2 at a time). Surround the quenelles with the hot bisque, up to maybe ¾ their depth. Bake for 10 minutes, until the quenelles have puffed up and absorbed some of that delicious, delicious bisque, and just started to lightly brown on top.
11. Serve immediately, and, if you believe you only live once, with a dollop of whipped cream.