This was a sort of herring-inspired tapas supper, if you will, or perhaps smorgasbord would be more appropriate to northern provenance of the fish, and the Nordic twist I administered to a classic French preparation, fish quenelles. Whatever you want to call it, a superior supper, indeed.
Quenelles de brochet, pike dumplings, is a standard in the cuisine of Burgundy and the northern Rhone. Like most dumplings, it probably had humble origins--a way to use up bits of fish for the dumplings and the bones for the sauce. But most of the quenelles recipes I'd encountered were from the haute cuisine end of things, exceedingly rich and fussy to make. In these high-end versions, the fish was there to hold as much butter, cream, and eggs as possible. The traditional lobster, shrimp, or crayfish sauce that anointed these ethereal pillows of poisson does not scrimp on the fat, either. Which is okay with me, from time to time, but since we planned to sample a variety of dishes, I didn't want that much richness in the quenelles.
This was a preparation that had intimidated me for a long time--well, until last week, to be honest. It seemed to have the potential to be phenomenally delicious, but the one time I tasted it in France, the dumplings were kind of rubbery, and fishy tasting, and the one time I tried to make it at home, following a New York Times recipe, was an expensive, extremely messy disaster--turned out the recipe in the paper was wrong, and my email prompted a correction, which was very small consolation, indeed. I never made the corrected recipe.
I'm not sure what prompted me to try fish quenelles again--perhaps just to test the versatility of my splendidly fresh herring. In one of Rick Stein's books I found the streamlined quenelle recipe I'd long been looking for. This one used bread soaked in milk--a "panade"--to hold things together without too much butterfat. Also, unlike every other quenelle recipe I had encountered, it did not ask you to push the fish paste through a sieve (how appetizing does that sound?!). Before the days of the food processor, sieving the puree was probably necessary to achieve a smooth texture in the dumplings; modern technology has eliminated the need for that step, but a lot of French recipes have not caught up. (Madeleine Kammen notes that she could never forget learning to make quenelles, pounding the fish in a mortar and pestle; she was always reminded by the painful bursitis in her shoulder....)
Although rich, most classic quenelle preparations make a dumpling that must be pretty bland. There is rarely any seasoning besides salt and perhaps a bit of white pepper. I wanted my dumplings to be flavorful independent of rich sauce, so I gave them strong, northern notes with apple cider vinegar, grain mustard, and shallot (and a nod to Mme Kammen with the pinch of quatre-épices, "confit spice," that I learned from one of her books; I have a tin of that in my spice drawer at all times).
Carrying on the Nordic theme, my chowder sauce is heavy on the hardy roots--rutabaga, parsnip, and celery root. I toned down the smokiness of the bacon by first water-blanching the meat. The sour cream and lemon added at the end of cooking gives this sauce a nice acid lift; it would be a bit flat without it.
Do not worry if you don't have herring caviar. A garnish of chopped herbs would be nice, too--some snipped chives, perhaps, or a little dill. I think thyme leaves would suit it, too.
While I was roasting my potato slices in duck fat for the caviar canapé, I added the "tails" of the parsnip and rutabaga, sliced in half the long way. They made for a charismatic, savory garnish, and a very rustic-looking counterpoint to the elegant dumplings and roe.
For the other dishes in our Nordic tapas spread, Mary mixed leftover broiled herring with its homemade chile mayo accompaniment for a lovely canapé served on toast:
I combined smoked whitefish, apple, and roasted beets in a dressing of Smude sunflower oil, cider vinegar, some honey, about a quarter teaspoon of mustard seeds and a generous pinch each of caraway and cumin seeds, some shallot, I think. A bit of a mess in the plate, but fresh and flavorful:
And then those luxurious rounds of duck-fat-roasted potatoes with sour cream and a liberal topping of the herring roe, home-cured:
I think we're going to start seeing more and more chefs exploring the possibilities of Lake Superior herring. Anybody out there need a menu consultant? I'm available....
Herring Quenelles with Nordic Chowder and Caviar
6 ounces skinless, boneless Lake Superior herring
1 tablespoon minced shallots
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
1/3 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon grain mustard
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
Pinch confit spice
3/8 teaspoon salt
A few grinds of black pepper
2 tablespoons sour cream mixed with ¼ cup cream
Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the shallots. Just as the butter starts to sizzle, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the bread crumbs, then the milk. Refrigerate until well chilled.
Cut or scrape away the line of brown-gray fat running down the herring fillets and discard. Cut the fish into ½-inch cubes and place in the bowl of a food processer with the bread-shallot-milk mixture, the mustard, vinegar, confit spice, egg, salt, and pepper. Process to a very smooth puree, about 2 minutes. Then, with the processor running, add the cream mixture and process just long enough to incorporate. Refrigerate this mixture until you’re ready to make your quenelles.
Bring a saucepan of water to a simmer.
Using two kitchen tablespoons, shape quenelles, little football shapes, from the fish mixture. They should be about 2 ½ inches long and just over an inch wide. Poach the quenelles in the water, adjusting the heat to keep a gentle simmer, for 3 to 4 minutes, until they are firm. Keep warm in a warm oven until ready to serve.
Root Vegetable Chowder
2 tablespoons each celery root, rutabaga, parsnip, and onion, in very small—less than ¼-inch—dice
1 ounce slab bacon, blanched in boiling water for 2 minutes, drained and minced
1 teaspoon butter or oil
2 teaspoons flour
½ cup fish, chicken, or vegetable stock
½ cup whole milk
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons sour cream
Heat the bacon and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, and as the bacon begins to render fat, add the vegetables. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the onion becomes translucent. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables, stirring with a wooden spatula. Combine the stock and milk and slowly add to the pan, scraping with the spatula to deglaze. Add a couple of good pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
The chowder can be made two or three days ahead to this stage, and finished just before serving. When you’re ready to serve, heat the chowder and stir in the sour cream and a squeeze or two of lemon juice, if you like. Taste for salt and pepper and add more if needed. Ladle some chowder into shallow soup bowls, place the warm quenelles atop the chowder. Sprinkle herring caviar here and there on top of the chowder and the quenelles. Serve.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw