Middle European countries eat a lot of freshwater fish like carp and sander. It makes sense when you look at the atlas – most do not have a lot of seaside.
I first came upon carp at the Gay Hussar, a Hungarian restaurant in Soho, when I worked there in the early seventies. There was a tank full of them in an otherwise cramped kitchen. They swam lazily about in spacious surrounds while we cooks could barely move without stabbing each other. The kitchen was peopled with Austrians and Hungarians, most of whom had fought on the wrong side in the last war. Old Paul, an Austrian, not only taught me how to make knoedl and dumplings but also marked out on the chopping block why his platoon lost almost every engagement on the Russian Front. Ferenc, a Hungarian, had greater skills. He could not only make wonderful strudel pastry, but could transform a small pot of goulash into a bottle of wine through a little astute bargaining with the wine merchant next door.
The carp were netted and killed as needed, and I was very squeamish about this at the time. We served them deep-fried in beer batter or roasted in great chunks like a Sunday joint. They were best of all, though, served as in this recipe.
Carp has more flavour and makes better quenelles than pike. Quenelles are not difficult to make but there are a few basic ground rules. More egg white makes for a lighter end product but you tend to lose flavour and finish with fishy meringue if you use too many. Two whites from size 4 eggs are a good compromise for this amount of quenelle mixture. Using a liquidiser will save you having to pass the entire mixture through a sieve, a very laborious process. Take care, though, that the mixture doesn’t become too warm at any stage while you’re beating or processing it, or the quenelles will become runny and not hold together. Lastly, this recipe uses shrimps to flavour the sauce and to balance the lightness of the quenelles. When you buy these they will be already cooked so don’t cook them any more or they will dry out—just warm them through in the sauce at the end.
Ask for the bones of the carp and any other bones your fishmonger will give you, preferably from well-flavoured white fish, like sole or turbot. When you are peeling your shrimps keep all your peelings together in a bowl to flavour the stock. Similarly, when you are picking the dill away from the stalks, keep the stalks to one side.
The texture and shape of the quenelles depend first on your keeping the mixture cool while you are making it, and second, on poaching properly. If the mixture gets too warm, they will fall apart. If they are boiled fiercely they will puff up like soufflés. If you eat them immediately this is fine, and they will be very light, but after a minute they will sink back looking cracked and deflated. While poaching, keep the stock simmering but do not let it get to a rolling boil. The quenelles should have a pronounced but delicate fish flavour.
© 1990 Shaun Hill. All rights reserved.