MAY IT PLEASE THE PALATE: Coulibiac

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When I worked in a fancy French restaurant many years ago, we served a popular menu item called “Coulibiac of Salmon” (ku-LEE-bee-ak). It was an elaborate dish with a beautiful presentation.

As I remember, there was a salmon fillet topped with salmon mousse, wrapped in a crepe to hold it together. This hunk of goodness was further topped with spinach, baked in a buttery puff pastry, and split across the top, where it was finished with a ribbon of silky Hollandaise.

I made the dish myself a couple of times over the years. Once I was foolish enough to make my own puff pastry, which involves lots of butter, enough flour to hold it together, half a day of preparation, and another half day of cleaning. I got wise the next time and bought it premade, in the frozen section of my local grocer.

Dufour is a prize-winning brand, a mere $12.99 for one sheet at Whole Foods, though you can save four cents by using your Amazon Prime discount, as long as you don’t mind them tracking your purchase history, shopping habits, and all the internet sites you have ever visited. Trader Joe’s has a comparable brand, $3.99 for two sheets – though alas, it is seasonal. Pepperidge Farm has a passable version, if you don’t mind butterless puff pastry with high fructose corn syrup.

The Russians, who invented this dish, doubtless made their own pastry for this pirog. They used either salmon or sturgeon, and topped it with rice or buckwheat, hard boiled eggs, mushrooms, onions, and dill. It was so popular that the famed French chef Escoffier brought it to France and included it in his seminal cookbook. (Thus its appearance on the menu of my French restaurant.)
I made it recently for a dinner party, based on a recipe in a Scottish cookbook recently given to me by a client. Scottish cuisine apparently goes beyond haggis and Walker’s shortbread. (The abundance of salmon from the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea must have led them to seek recipe tips from the Russians.) The Scottish version I found is truer to the Russian, than variations like the one I served as a waiter.

I followed this recipe with a few variations, and it turned out very well. It’s ideal for a dinner party because despite the major prep, it can be made ahead and kept warm while you work on that wicked Hollandaise.

Coulibiac – Scottish Heritage and Cooking, Wilson and Trotter – serves 4

¼ cup butter
1 small onion, finely chopped (I used green onions)
1 cup long grain rice (I used Lundberg’s wild rice mix)
1 ½ cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
Olive oil
6 oz mushrooms (I used a mix of morels and button)
2 packages Dufour puff pastry, defrosted
4 large fillets of salmon, each halved (8 pieces)
1 bottle white wine (a few ounces for the recipe, the rest for the chef)
Chopped fennel (I used fresh dill)
3 hard boiled eggs, sliced
Egg wash – whisk one egg with a little milk
Salt and fresh ground black pepper

—For the Hollaindaise

3 egg yolks (use the whites for the egg white and cooking spray omelet you’re going to have tomorrow)
2 TBSP white wine vinegar
½ cup butter, divided
Dash of salt
Pinch of ground black pepper

1. Cook the onions a few minutes in half the butter, add the rice and stir. Then cook the rice according to package directions, substituting chicken stock for water and adding the bay leaf as it cooks. (I baked it in an oven-proof casserole.) Fluff with a fork and let cool.

2. Slice the mushrooms, heat the remaining butter with a little olive oil, and quickly fry. Let cool.

3. Roll out that danged puff pastry on a floured surface. The Dufour brand folds out into four neat little rectangles. Place a tablespoon of rice on each rectangle, then top with ½ salmon fillet. Brush wine on the salmon and add with salt, pepper, and chopped dill.

4. Top the salmon with egg slices, cooked mushrooms, and more rice. Then lay on the second salmon fillet, repeating the wine/salt/pepper treatment. Add more egg, mushroom, and rice. It should be nearly as tall as that tower in Dubai that’s senselessly half a mile high.

5. Brush the edges of each pastry rectangle with the egg wash. Then open the second Dufour puff pastry package and top each of the four rectangles with the other four rectangles. Crimp the edges together and brush the whole thing with egg wash all over.

6. If you are feeling arts-and-craftsy, take any leftover pastry trimmings and make designs of little fishies or mermaids or Scotsmen in raincoats. Top each coulibiac with each design, or not.

7. Let them rest in a cool place for an hour, then bake in a 425° oven. I baked it 30 minutes at the convection setting and then turned off the oven and let it set; it was fine. Don’t let it overbrown; cover with foil if it looks like that is happening.

8. Make the Hollandaise while it is resting. Whisk three egg yolks with the vinegar over a simmering double boiler until they thicken slightly; then add the butter one hunk at a time while whisking (and cursing) furiously, hoping it doesn’t break. Remove from heat and add the salt and pepper.

9. Slice each coulibiac across its width with a serrated knife and serve with the Hollandaise and a green vegetable like asparagus. In Switzerland, I am told, they serve the halves separately, because coulibiac is monstrously filling.

But it’s also beautiful and delicious, especially with a worthy Chardonnay. Afterwards, sit around and sip good Scotch, while arguing the merits of coulibiac vs. haggis. Then fall into a blissful sleep while listening to the rain fall in the moor and fill the thirsty loch, while dreaming of your breakfast of shortbread and tea.
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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at Twitter @nickroumel or Instagram @nroumel.

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