I don’t really care what your first thoughts are when you read the title.  My initial thought has not changed since I first ran across a recipe years ago for light and fluffy fish balls that were steamed and simmered in a creamy tomato sauce.  I hope I never grow up.  And I’ve been thinking about fish balls this week because I am starting to prep for my annual GameFeed – my favorite event where I get to use all my culinary skills and imagination to prepare innovative dishes from fish and wild game.  (No Twister involved – unless things get really weird.)  This fish balls recipe is actually divine and easy to make and you don’t even have to figure out the gender of the fish.

Late Summer and early Fall fishing offer great opportunities to catch some nice-size fish.  I really enjoy fishing this time of year, as the bluegills are eating like crazy to bulk up for the cold weather season that is not that far away.  (I am not ready to use that “w” word yet.)  Just last weekend I caught a dozen good-sized panfish in Southwestern Wisconsin and ended up with about a pound and a half of boneless, skinless filets. This is the perfect amount for my recipe for bluegill balls with pasta and sauce (although you may notice that I call them “quenelles” to make them sound really fancy).  This recipe also works really well with fresh water bass, northern pike filets, walleye filets, as well as lake trout or salmon filets.  Of course, saltwater fish filets work well, too, with one of my favorites being monkfish.

The key when using fresh water fish filets–especially panfish–is to go through the filets looking for even the tiniest of bones several times.  I usually go through the filets a minimum of two times and often three times.  You obviously do not want a stray bone to ruin anybody’s dining experience.  Once you make sure the filets are bone-free (there is a song in there somewhere), you finely chop or pulse the fish.  Then fold in some bread crumbs, cream, eggs and onion, parsley and capers and form the mixture into quenelles (the French name for balls formed into slightly oblong shapes using two spoons).  Then place the quenelles over the simmering sauce, cover and cook until done.  Serve it over some kind of pasta.  When I make this dish for one of my GameFeeds, I made small quenelles so that folks can have a taste without it being a commitment.  This is especially prudent when there are 30-40 different dishes to sample—and lots of folks who want to be sure to taste everything.

Here is my recipe for Bluegill Quenelles with Orzo and Tomato, Basil & Vodka Sauce.  Enjoy!

Chef Joel

Bluegill Quenelles with Orzo and Tomato, Basil & Vodka Sauce

For the Quenelles:

1 cup dried coarse bread crumbs (Panko works well)
½ cup heavy whipping cream
1½ pounds fish fillets, trimmed and chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup grated yellow onion
½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed if desired
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the Sauce and Orzo:

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 bulb fennel, finely diced (optional)
4 cloves garlic, pasted
1 28-ounces can petite diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil (or 2 teaspoons dry)
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
½ cup vodka
½ pound orzo, cooked
1 tablespoon olive oil

Method for the quenelles:  Combine the bread crumbs with the heavy cream in a large mixing bowl.  Stir or squeeze to have the bread crumbs absorb the cream. Place the fish in a bowl of a food processor.  Pulse briefly to grind coarsely and then add to the breadcrumbs in the bowl.  Add the beaten eggs, onion, parsley, capers, salt and pepper.  Mix well with clean hands.  With moistened hands, or using two spoons, form into about 24 quenelles placing them on a plate or tray. Cover and chill.

Method for the sauce:  Cook the onions with the olive oil in a large sauté pan or skillet over medium low to medium heat until the onions have sweated (gotten soft).  Add the garlic and cook another minute.  Add the tomatoes with their juice, basil, salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the vodka and place the quenelles on top of the bubbling liquid.  Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook 10-15 minutes until done.  Meanwhile, warm the cooked orzo with the olive oil.  Serve the quenelles and sauce over the orzo.