Light, fluffy dumplings swimming in a flavorful pool of delight, inspired by a character from the past.
Dec. 31, 1985, was memorable on several counts. First of all, I made a lavish New Year’s Eve feast inspired by the vintage cookbook “Francatelli’s Modern Cook” 1887, a revision of earlier editions. I had picked this up for a buck at a bookstall, and loved browsing its yellowed pages. Francatelli, a British cook of Italian parents, loved the French touch and grand displays. He was chief chef to Queen Victoria for several years, chef to other nobility, famous club houses, and hotels. He was also a noted cookbook author, this particular book being in print for a half century with 29 editions. You may have enjoyed this flamboyant character in the PBS series “Victoria,” a series I highly recommed.
Francatelli was quite a character indeed, a celebrity chef of the time, known for his difficult personality in his kitchens. In the introductions to his books, he refers to himself entirely in the third person, The Author. (see below)
Now, this “modern cook” for whom the book was written must certainly have had wealth and resources, and quite a staff! While there are elaborate menus for just six, some of the plans are for hundreds, and many of the menus are for special meals served to the Queen. I can only imagine how many people it took to prepare and serve them. A village’s worth, I’m sure.
Many of the sample menus in the book consisted of only two courses. However, and this is a big however, each course could have as many as 10 or 12 dishes, including lots of fishes, shellfish, and rich meats, creamy filled savory puff pastries and vegetable sides, but always far more protein than greens! The finish was often an egg course such as a soufflé or omelet, followed by a few sweet dishes. Some of the menus for Queen Victoria included over two dozen dishes per course!
I didn’t do all that. But I did make six courses, for six people, cooked by me, and served with the help of my friends. No pheasant or quail, no haunch of venison, and no sheep’s tongue in creamed spinach. I remember fussing over a few special dishes such as Potatoes Dauphinoise and Whitefish Quenelles, but much of the food was made in advance and kept warm. We grazed the courses through many hours while we waited for the New Year to arrive, and even without footmen, it was a really special experience.
A night to remember
The second memorable event of the night was the news that Ricky Nelson’s airplane had crashed killing all aboard. What a shock! We heard the news on a radio playing softly in the background, just a news flash, there was little else to report. We put on a record or two (I vaguely remember singing Garden Party), then toasted in the New Year with prosecco (I spent the bulk of the budget on the food!). Well after dessert, we finished the evening, or rather morning, with more prosecco and omelets with fine herbes in early morning.
The third memorable event was after everyone else had left, my husband-to-be and I decided to get married. Was it the meal? I’d like to think so!
Of course, we’ll change them up a bit
I’ve made the quenelles only now and then over the years, changing the recipe along the way, but just for fun, I’ve included the original instructions below. My most recent change was to use mashed potatoes rather than a breadcrumb/milk panade as a binder. I also whipped the egg whites to give them even more texture. They are beautifully light and fluffy, with lots of flavor. I used haddock because it is so flavorful and in season, but as in the original recipe, you can use any whitefish you like!
I made my own fish stock from shrimp shells and haddock bones, but you can usually find a nice one at your fish market if you don’t have the time, or the kitchen staff…
Haddock Quenelles in Saffron Fish Broth
- 2 cups mashed potatoes
- 1 lb. haddock or other white fish, chopped
- 1 scallion, chopped
- ½ cup light coconut milk
- Salt and pepper
- Few grates of nutmeg
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 egg whites
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 leek, whites and light green, sliced
- 1 bulb fennel, diced, reserve fronds
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1 celery rib, diced
- 1 tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 quart fish stock
- 1/2 tsp. sweet or hot paprika
- Generous pinch of saffron
- 4 or 5 mini sweet peppers, fine slice
- 1 Jalapeño pepper, finely minced
In a food processor, combine potatoes, fish, scallion, coconut milk, salt, and pepper, nutmeg, and yolks. Process until very smooth and pasty. Remove to a large bowl. It should be smooth and sticky.
In a small bowl, whip egg whites to soft peak. Add 1/3 of the whites to the fish mixture to lighten it up. Then, gently fold in the rest of the whites, and salt and pepper to taste. Place in refrigerator for two hours to completely chill.
Make the broth. In a large saucepan, sauté the leek, fennel, carrot, and celery until soft and tender. Add the tomato paste and garlic and sauté for another minute or so. Add the fish stock, paprika, and saffron, season with salt and pepper to taste, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 30 minutes. Strain, correct seasoning if necessary, return to the pan, and keep warm.
Shape the fish mixture into the classic quenelle form using two large spoons. Fill one, place the second over the top like a mold, press to compact, then scoop on the other spoon. You want the finished product to be egg shaped. However, if you don’t care about the shape, just use a packed, small ice-cream scoop, quicker and more uniform.
Bring a large pot of water to a gentle boil. You want them to float, not touch the bottom of the pan. Place the quenelles in the water and poach until firm, it only takes a few minutes, turn them over to cook evenly.
While the quenelles are poaching, lightly sauté the peppers for about a minute in a little olive oil. You want them to just soften, but keep their vibrant color. Add these to the broth.
When ready to serve, place the desired number of quenelles in a soup bowl and spoon over broth. Three is supper, one in a pretty little dish is a perfect starter for a grand New Year’s Eve feast. Garnish with fennel fronds.
Quenelle of Whiting –– C.E. Francatelli
“Filet four large whitings, after having previously skinned them; pound them in a mortar, and force the produce through a wire sieve with a wooden spoon. To this substance, add equal proportions of bread panada and fresh butter; pound these effectually, so as to mix them well together, add two whole eggs, and the yolks of two others gradually; season with pepper and salt and grated nutmeg. Mix well by pounding the quenelle vigorously, and then take it up into a basin for use as required. Quenellles of any sort of delicate fish is prepared in a similar manner.
“Roll it with a little flour into the form of a round ball, put it into a small stewpan half full of boiling water; place it by the side of the fire to simmer for three minutes, after which take it out and cut it into halves, taste it in order to ascertain if it be correctly seasoned, and see, that when cut asunder, the inner part presents a smooth, light, compact surface.”
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