Julia Child’s mousselines de poisson à la maréchale, unexpected starter of an unexpected year!

“We watched back-to-back episodes of Julia Child’s The French Chef, and on our first New Year’s Eve we made her delicate fish mousseline, blending haddock with cream and butter and parsley in the new red Kitchen Aid mixer we had bought the day before. We toasted with champagne and slurped down a tray of oysters before digging into the fluffy mousseline. After that first forkful, we looked up from our plates and smiled at each other—it was surely one of the best things we had ever tasted.”

Isabel Vincent, Dinner with Edward: an uplifting story of food and friendship

Why did I choose to try this?

The 2020 lockdowns have been all bad. For many the year has brought constructive change; discoveries have been made.

This dish is certainly a revelation. After months of frustrating Zoom sessions with two of my favourite couples an exciting moment came – meeting them again, IN THE FLESH!!! That was the good news: more concerning was the fact that they were coming to us for dinner (outside of course) and both wives are exceptional cooks, while both husbands are exceptionally discriminating.

Reading Isabel Vincent’s charming memoire, Dinner With Edward, I thought Julia Child’s fish mousselines might do the trick as a starter.

Had I made a terrible mistake?

I bought the ingredients and got cracking on the recipe, and then became increasingly concerned that I had overreached myself. There are four elements to this dish, and a couple of them are a tad tricky.

It also lacks ‘Wow’ factor (any chef out there with a suggestion as to how to improve the look of this dish please come forward). I was a bit worried when, serving it, I noticed distinctly underwhelmed expressions on my guests faces, with one eyeing his plate uncertainly and asking, “is it a poached egg?”. Julia Child describes this as ‘a delectable dish to serve when you want to be especially chic’ – but my version didn’t look as elegant as I would have liked.

It is now a favourite starter with everyone who tries it – and it is not that scary

But it turned out to be a huge success with everybody. “A magical evening, so rare… truly scrumptious dinner” commented one, and “most utterly delicious dinner, I would so love the recipe for the starter if it’s not a secret – it was divine” said another.

In fact, it is four very simple elements all of which can be cooked ahead of time

Very conveniently, you can cook the mousselines, the asparagus, and the creamed mushrooms well ahead of time.

And you can even make the beurre blanc up to an hour before you are due to eat and keep it just warm over lukewarm water.

NB You need a lot of ice for the mousseline recipe!

Does it have to be a starter, and what to pair it with

Serve this with a crusty French baguette, and you have a hearty lunch.

Julia Child suggests pairing this with a white Burgundy.

What does À la maréchale mean? – it’s both a cooking method and a garnish

What does the term à la maréchale mean? For once Wikipedia is not helpful on this – a rather confused entry. My mother’s Larousse Gastronomique is clearer, explaining that it could be used either to describe a cooking method or a garnish.

À la maréchale cooking method

For the à la maréchale cooking method, small dainty cuts such as poultry wings and breasts, or sweetbreads, brains, or fish are dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and fried in butter (à l’anglaise). Larousse specifies that the correct coating should in fact be a mix of two-thirds breadcrumbs and one-third truffles, while Escoffier, in his Le Guide Culinaire, says the original method used only truffles.

The results were often also garnished à la maréchale.

“And used you to do cutlets à la maréchal?” asked Nikolay. “No.” Nikolay shook his head reproachfully and said: “Tut, tut! You were not much of a cook!”

Anton Chekhov, Peasants

À la maréchale garnish

The à la maréchale garnish, Larousse tells us, is “asparagus tips in butter; sliced truffles”.

Why à la maréchale? Where does the name come from?

Again – there are two explanations, and it may be that one applies to the cooking method and the other to the garnish.

The first is offered by the Russian historian, William Pokhlyobkin, who theorised that the whole raison d’être of the method was to produce something so soft and tender that even a Marshal (effectively an old, toothless man, and not one without means) would be able to eat it. Hence the ‘small cuts’ approach.

The second is that La Maréchale was a person – La Maréchale de Luxembourg, the wife of Charles-François-Frédéric de Montmorency-Luxembourg. She was a society hostess, keen, evidently, on asparagus and truffles. In her recipe, Child substitutes mushrooms for truffles.

What does À la maréchale mean?
La Maréchale de Luxembourg

Beurre blanc

Ok, so what, exactly, is beurre blanc?

Beurre blanc is a butter sauce made from a reduction of white wine or vinegar and shallots, into which a quantity of softened butter is whisked away from heat to prevent separation.

Who invented it?

Wikipedia says that the sauce was a happy accident, created by Clémence Lefeuvre, who was making a béarnaise sauce to go with pike (her restaurant, La Buvette de la Marine, was just upstream from Nantes).

However, the restaurant’s website (it’s now known as Restaurant Clémence) gives a different version. They say that Clémence prepared a local sauce made from butter melted into a little vinegar, to serve with the local pike. She offered it to three distinguished customers, and, curious to know their opinion, she eavesdropped on their comments. “It’s very good” they said, “but it’s the sort of sauce you’d serve with mussels”. So she added shallot and white pepper. And she continued to refine the sauce, based on further customer comments.

how to make beurre blanc
Clémence Lefeuvre

Variations of beurre blanc

  • A good beurre blanc is rich and buttery with a neutral flavour, so it’s a good medium for a variety of herbs
  • You can try substituting the vinegar for lemon
  • You can add grainy mustard
  • You can add fish or chicken stock, and reduce that

For more history on beurre blanc, see the video at the bottom of this post.

The Recipes – all serving 6

…. And finally, to serve

On each warmed plate make a bed of the creamed mushrooms, and place the mousselines on top. Decorate with the asparagus tips and drizzle over the beurre blanc.

For another post inspired by Isabel Vincent’s memoir, Dinner with Edward, go to A cauliflower soup with pesto and truffle oil to unite a nation.

For more on beurre blanc

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