In my general browsing of recipes online, I found myself encountering the term “Mornay,” especially in seafood dishes, such as Crab Mornay or Salmon Mornay. Further research shows that it is — perhaps unsurprisingly — French in origin, a culinary outgrowth of Bechamel sauce, a basic white sauce (butter, flour, milk) that is a core element of French cooking, and that surfaces more widely in recipes of broader Continental origin.
Apparently Mornay is just Bechamel with cheese. The types of cheese used in recipes vary, but the one I seem most commonly is Swiss. I’ve seen it included in recipes to be poured over fish filets, seafood croquettes or crab cakes, even seafood crepes. It doesn’t seem to be used, traditionally, as a sauce for pasta, but its consistency as a cheesy sauce, it seems to me, invites the correlation that Swiss is to Mornay, as Parmesan is to Alfredo, as Cheddar is to Mac & Cheese, etc. Having tried it over pasta, I’m sold! My favorite way to make it, and preserve its longstanding connection to seafood, is to add faux crab and green onions:
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon white flour
1/2 cup white wine (optional)
2 cups half & half or cream
8 oz Swiss cheese (Gruyere is most traditional)
2-3 green onions, snipped or sliced
8 oz to 1 lb. faux crab, chunk style, or other seafood
salt & pepper to taste
pasta or bread
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. When it is just melted, add the flour and stir until all lumps are broken up. If you’re going to add some wine, make sure it is a light-bodied white so as not to compete with the subtle flavors of the swiss cheese. Heat the wine through and then add the cream and the cheese. I have gathered from looking at several recipes that Gruyere is the variety of Swiss cheese that is considered most traditional, but it can be pretty expensive. Any type of Swiss — or a combination of Swiss cheeses — will do. I use just plain ol’ low-brow brick o’ grocery store Swiss, but don’t rule out a Gruyere or an Emmenthaler or a Jarlsberg as a higher-brow option.
Heat the cream & cheese mixture on medium-low fire in order to soften the cheese. Meanwhile, snip the onions into a bowl and set aside. When the cheese is visibly melting, puree the sauce with an immersion blender to smooth out all the lumps. After the sauce is pureed, add your fish, if you’re using shellfish or faux crab. If you’re making this sauce to top a fish filet, crab cake or seafood croquette, then prepare the fish separately.
Once the sauce is thickened and heated through, add most of the snipped green onions (reserve some for garnish, if you like), salt and pepper. Serve tossed with pasta, over prepared fish and/or with crusty bread. Garnish with parsley.
To be honest, having read a lot of Crab Mornay recipes, I’m not sure what to make of their serving suggestions. Nobody but me seems to have had the idea to serve over pasta. Fair enough. I’ve done pasta but I have also used it (sans faux crab) as a sauce for salmon croquettes. Some of the recipes I’ve read involve serving it over seafood crepes, sometimes with mushrooms added to the crepes or the sauce. Again, seems logical. However, a majority of recipes suggest serving with “crusty bread” or in “a bread bowl.” Are people eating their Crab Mornay like a soup? Or, perhaps, making it thicker for use as a dip (I don’t add as much flour as some recipes because of carbs, but also so it will be pour-able enough to work as a pasta sauce)? I suppose it would be tasty as a fondue, though having larger fish chunks in a fondue seems cumbersome, unless they are also reserved and served on the side for dipping.
The mystery of Mornay will persist, but I’m advocating here and now that we add it to the canon of classic pasta sauces! This simple sauce is quite delicious; cheese lovers rejoice!