A quenelle is a dumpling made from finely ground seafood, meat, or poultry mixed with a binding mixture and then poached in stock. Quenelles may be served on their own as a main course, typically with a rich white sauce, and they can also be used as garnishes for other dishes. It is also possible to see quenelles in soup, adding texture and body to the soup. Some restaurants serve quenelles, and they can also be made at home with relative ease.
Some version of the quenelle appears to date back to at least Roman times, and the food may possibly be even older. Basic quenelles typically include breadcrumbs along with the egg binder, and some are made with panade, a mixture of butter, flour, and water which is blended into a coarse, crumbly mix. Some regions specialize in quenelles with unique ingredients, like regionally available fish or animals.
The word “quenelle” is derived from the German knodel, a diminutive of “knot,” a reference to the approximate shape of a traditional quenelle. Quenelles are usually molded on spoons so that they are roughly oblong in shape, with the ingredients being tightly compacted so that they do not fall apart during the poaching process. Poaching must also be done at a gentle simmer to avoid jostling the quenelles too much, as rough treatment will cause the dumpling to fall apart, creating a considerable mess.
Creamy white sauces typically pair the best with quenelles, but adventurous cooks can experiment with other sauces as well. The naturally mild flavor of the quenelle leaves a lot of room for experimentation, with some cooks preferring to use simple sauces to bring out the flavor of the meat used, while others like more elaborate layers of flavor. Quenelles can also be garnished with ingredients like parsley and sage.
Because the shape of the quenelle is so distinctive, some people use the term “quenelle” to refer to any roughly egg-shaped molded food. For example, sorbet quenelles may be molded to accompany dessert, and quenelles of other materials may be used in a variety of ways. Because of the dual meanings of the word “quenelle,” most menus spell out the type of quenelle involved, describing a dish as a “mackerel quenelle in a light cream sauce,” or “an ice cream quenelle.”