COOKING THE CLASSICS: SALMON COULIBIAC
A closer look at Salmon Coulibiac, the French adaptation of a traditional Russian dish, a baked fish pie which may seem intimidating to cook.
Salmon Coulibiac is a dish that can safely be described as legendary, for its complexity, its story, its weirdness. It is a dish to cook when time and fiddly-ness are not concerns. When you’ve got plenty of wine, time with friends and family, nothing on the immediate to-do list, and you can just lose yourself in cooking. It is a Project Dish.
THE HISTORY OF COULIBIAC
The dish is Russian, originally, called kulebiaka. In short, it’s a pastry crust into which are baked an entire meal with side dishes: rice, salmon, mushrooms, hardboiled eggs, dill and shallots, although the contents can vary to taste. James Beard called it “the most unusual dish he ever encountered,” and he was a man who had encountered many a dish. If you thought Fillet Wellingtonwas a bit tricky—getting a perfectly rare roast beef to emerge within a delicious pastry crust—then this kicks it up a notch further, with an entire multi-course meal’s worth of stuffing inside said crust.
Coulibiac is the French version of the original Russian dish that, the story goes, the godfather of French cuisine, Auguste Escoffier, learned in order to serve to officers from the Russian navy who were guests at Restaurant Français in Nice, which was run by his uncle. The officers missed their homeland, and Escoffier’s uncle wanted to provide a taste of it. Escoffier liked the dish enough to include it in his Le Guide Culinaire, from which Julia Child adapted a lighter version (swapping out brioche dough for an oversized crepe and pate a choux) in 1978 (also anglicizing the name of the dish to “choulibiac”).
The Russian original swapped out rice for buckwheat and salmon for sturgeon. There’s even an extra fancy version that the tsars loved which is called vesiga, and included the spinal marrow of sturgeon (no, I’ve never tried that either). But we’ll focus on the most popular recipe, at least in the anglophone world, which is Julia Child’s.
SALMON COULIBIAC: THE RECIPE
Salmon Coulibiac just looks intimidating. It looks amazing, too, a dome of golden crust which, when sliced, reveals a package of goodness steaming out. But the dough part sounds fussy, and it seems theoretically difficult to cook all the components to the correct level of done-ness, without overcooking, say, the salmon in order not to undercook the pastry. I’m also, as readers of this column will know, on the lazy side of the spectrum, and want deliciousness to come quickly, and with as little to clean up as possible. I need to get into a Zen state to even begin to tackle this puppy.
Okay, one step at a time. First of all, poach the salmon. 10 minutes in salted water with lemon. Then cooking the rice. Got it. So far so good. Then we get what feels odd—making crepes, as Julia Child suggests, as an addition to a dish that will be baked inside the pastry. Double the carb layers, and I can’t quite imagine that I will taste the crepes with all that other excitement going on, from rice to fish to mushrooms to sauce to pastry. And a dish with crepes, rice and pastry is not exactly on the Atkins diet, but ah well. Forward, march!
The layering steps are high-maintenance, you need to lay out the puff pastry, then on a buttered baking sheet, place four crepes, half the rice, four more crepes, the salmon, one crepe and the other half of the rice… and then two more crepes. Then you lay this tower of ingredients onto the bottom layer of puff pastry and cover it all with a top layer. The result is a mountainous dish full of buried treasure, that will be the talk of the table when sliced and served. If that wasn’t enough work, it’s recommended to serve with a mousseline (whipped cream added to hollandaise sauce—also not on my diet, but I won’t tell anyone if you don’t).
But the result, ah, the result is majestic. And in retrospect, what felt intimidating is less so when broken down into constituent parts, step by step. If the puff pastry is store-bought (I know, it shouldn’t be, but I am representative of the great masses of home cooks, not the home chefs who are apt to make their own pastry from scratch), then this is more an assembly process (which my kids enjoyed helping with) and less fussy than I’d anticipated.