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.
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.
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
Recipe for the fish mousselines
Serves – 6
- 210g/1½ cups sole or halibut fillets (or you can use flounder, or, as Isabel Vincent does, haddock)
- 1 tsp salt
- Grinds of pepper. Technically, from an aesthetic point of view, this should be white pepper. But, as expert Tom Alcott comments, see Full Briefing On Pepper, from a taste point of view, “It’s a wonder we put it in our food”.
- Grinds of nutmeg
- 1 egg white
- 6 tbsps chilled double cream – keep this in the fridge until you have to use it
- 100g/6 tbsps/two-fifths of a brick of butter
- Put a flexible spatula into the freezer.
- Chop up the raw fish fillets very small – they need to be effectively minced.
- Fill a washing up bowl with ice.
- In a medium-sized mixing bowl, positioned in the ice, beat the fish vigorously together with the salt, pepper, nutmeg and egg white, until it is stiff enough to stay solidly on the spoon.
- Add two tablespoons of the chilled cream. Beat for a minute, again vigorously. Add another tablespoon of chilled cream. Repeat the beating and repeat the whole process until you have used up all the cream. The mixture should be solid enough to hold its shape.
- In a large frying pan, melt the butter gently.
- Flour a worksurface and, using the cold spatula, form the mixture into six fish cakes.
- Place the fishcakes carefully in the frying pan and cover. Cook very gently for six minutes. Turn them, again carefully, recover, and cook for another six minutes. They won’t colour. You can tell when they are done because they will be just becoming firm, and they will be ‘springy’ to the touch.
- You can make the mousselines ahead of time and simply reheat (covered) gently in a buttered frying pan.
Recipe for the creamed mushrooms
Serves – 6
- 350g/12 oz mushrooms, finely chopped
- 2 tbsps butter
- 2 tbsps vegetable oil
- 1 banana shallot, peeled and finely chopped (minus a tablespoon which you need for the beurre blanc)
- 2 tbsps of flour
- 120 ml/½ cup cream
- Pinch of Urfa pepper flakes (a wonderful, mild, chocolatey, smoky chilli – follow this link for more on these)
- Put the fats into a frying pan, and get them hot – add the chopped mushrooms and the shallot (minus the tablespoon you need for the beurre blanc), and fry for several minutes until the shallot turns transparent. Lower the heat and stir in the flour. Cook for a couple of minutes – you are effectively making a roux (see How to Make a Béchamel Sauce if you are interested in the science of what is going on here).
- Take the pan off the heat and stir in half the cream. Keep stirring – once the cream is incorporated and you have no lumps – slowly add the rest of the cream, stirring all the time. Season.
Recipe for the asparagus garnish
Serves – 6
- 110g/4 oz fine asparagus – Child uses frozen…these days we can use fresh
- A couple of walnuts of butter
- 2 tbsps salt, plus some textured Maldon salt
- Grinds of black pepper
- Boil a kettle, empty the contents into a saucepan. Add the salt. Bring to the boil.
- Meanwhile snap the woody ends off the asparagus. In case you didn’t know, asparagus does a magic thing! If you bend it firmly, holding it with one hand as the base of the stem and with the other a few inches up it will snap in a rather satisfying way at exactly the point between edible. and horrid and woody.
- Add to the water and boil for three or four minutes (it slightly depends on how thick the asparagus is). Drain and refresh under cold water.
- To reheat just prior to serving, melt the butter in a small frying pan and toss the asparagus in it. Season with the textured salt and some black pepper.
Recipe for beurre blanc
- 60 ml/¼ cup/4 tbsps white wine vinegar
- 2 tbsps dry vermouth (originally muscadet was used, but I always have a bottle of dry vermouth to hand, and Julia Child uses this as well)
- 2 tbsps lemon juice (juice of half a large lemon)
- 1 tbsp shallot, finely chopped (take this from the banana shallot you use for the mushrooms; purists should use a grey shallot, an échalote grise – follow this link to find out more about them: they are hard to find and difficult to peel)
- ½ tsp of salt
- 250g/8-9 oz butter, cut into dice
- 1 tbsp cream (optional – but this helps to stabilise the sauce)
- Put all the ingredients, except the butter, into a small saucepan (which you can use with an electric whisk) and boil until the liquid has reduced to just a couple of tablespoons.
- If you want to reduce the danger of the sauce separating you can add a tbsp of cream, and reduce again.
- Take off the heat (to prevent separation), and, immediately, using the whisk fitting of your electric whisk, whisk in a couple of dice of butter. As soon as the butter has softened and creamed into the mixture, beat in another couple of dice.
- Then, put the pan back on a very low heat, and add a couple more dice of butter. As soon as they have melted in, add one more, repeating the process until all the butter is used. The final sauce will look (both in colour and texture) like a light hollandaise.
- If you aren’t going to serve this straight away, put the saucepan in a bowl of just tepid water to stop the butter from coagulating. If you try to reheat it, Child advises, “it may thin out and turn oily” – ie it may separate because some of the emulsifying proteins in the butter begin to break down.
…. 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.