Sunday, December 18, 2011

Adventures in Coulibiac Country

A Koulibiac is a loaf of fish, meat, or vegetables baked in a pastry crust. This Russian dish was traditionally made with sturgeon marrow, which is not easy to come by these days. I suspect most recipes today derive from the one that appeared in French cookbooks after Escoffier included the dish in his book.

We recently proposed this dish for a large-scale Christmas gathering on the strength of a dim recollection I had of a remark Craig Clairborne made about it. I could no longer remember what he’d said, but I knew the dish had salmon in it, and I suspected it was complicated to make. I had the distinct recollection that a recipe could be found in a book called The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth which had made its way to the basement decades ago. (I was wrong.)

According the Foodlover’s Companion, “the French adaptation of the Russian original (kulebiaka) consists of a creamy melange on fresh salmon, rice, hard-cooked eggs, mushrooms, shallots and dill enclosed in a hot pastry envelope. The pastry is usually made with brioche dough. Coulibiacs can be large or small but are classically oval in shape. They can be served as a first or a main course." The word is pronounced koo-leeb-yahk, by the way.

Perusing recipes online, we soon learned that there are many variants—though salmon, eggs, and mushrooms appear in most of them. We chose one that sounded especially interesting due to the inclusion of a can of sardines and a complicated sauce made with wine and the water in which the dried mushrooms had been reconstituted. A week before the big event, we made a trial run and found that the sardines were overpowering, the salmon was half raw, the wine sauce was indistinct and hardly worth the effort, and the rice added nothing to the dish.

On the strength of this flop, we moved on to a recipe that called for crepes rather than rice, had a less complicated duxelle of mushrooms, and included leeks rather than spinach. This recipe made use of an herb hollandaise, which seemed like a good idea. We also incorporated a twist we’d found in several other recipes, of searing the salmon fillets on both sides before adding them to the loaf, to insure that when the pasty was cut open following its time in the oven, the fish would be done.

Here’s the recipe, pretty much the way we did it. This recipe makes two loafs, ample for thirteen guests with quite a bit left over. Cut things in half if you want to make a single loaf. In any case, you might have some crepes left over, which you can have for lunch after assembling the loaves and putting them into the fridge.

The evening before the event, we prepared the leeks as follows:

Braised Leeks
9 large leeks
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup vegetable broth or water
kosher salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. To prepare the leeks, trim off the dark green stalks and the roots. Next, slice the leeks in half lengthwise. Place the leeks in a large bowl of cold water, cut side down, and allow them to sit there about 10 minutes. Most of the grit will fall to the bottom of the bowl. Rinse the leeks again, checking between the folds to make sure all the grit is gone. Dry the leeks with a paper towel. Spray a nine-by-13 baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Set the leeks in the baking dish, cut side up. Brush with the olive oil. Roast 20 minutes, tossing halfway through to make sure they don't get too brown. Pour vegetable broth over the leeks. Roast another 10 minutes or until leeks are tender. Season with kosher salt and pepper.

Having performed this elaborate cleansing ritual, I might be tempted, the next time around, merely to slice the leeks thin, remove what grit is present, and sauté. We found that when slicing the finished dish, the long fibrous strands of leek were occasionally difficult to break through.

The next morning we got going on the crepes, which Hilary made one-at-a-time in a crepe pan.

All Purpose Crepe Batter
1/4 cup cold water
3/4 cup cold milk
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup flour
3 tablespoons melted butter

Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Make a well in center and pour in liquid ingredients. Stir until smooth.

The mushrooms weren’t difficult, though it took quite a while for the fluid to evaporate. I included a step here from a different recipe, adding ¼ cup of white wine and reducing before adding the broth. And as for the broth itself, we used a corner of a chicken bouillon cube dissolved in water to cut expenses.

1 pound baby bella mushrooms, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup butter
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/4 tablespoon dried marjoram
2 tablespoon flour
Dash of pepper
1/4 cup beef broth
2 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, sauté the mushrooms and onion in the butter until liquid evaporates. Stir in salt, marjoram, flour, pepper and broth. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Remove from heat and stir in parsley.

At this point, after boiling four eggs, we were ready to begin the assemble.

We had purchased two large fillets of farm-raised Atlantic salmon, which weighed in at 3.5 lbs in all. This is not a good time of year for Pacific salmon, and in any case, several butchers told us we’d be better off with the oilier, farm-raised variety, considering there was no way to check whether the salmon was done prior to cutting into the loaf.

Now wash the salmon fillets and pat dry. Remove any bones and skin. Put a little oil in a very large pan and sear the fillets on both sides. (It would be a good idea to cut them into chunks, which won’t hurt the assembly at all.) Put them on plates as they get done. The insides should still be raw.

The final assembly:

The first step is to roll out two pieces of puff pastry into rectangles. The top one will be somewhat larger than the bottom one. Flour a work surface and roll out a slab of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry to a rectangle maybe 9 x 13 inches. Roll out the other slab (two come in a box) and make it an inch smaller all the way around. The pastry stretches as you use it so the dimensions don’t need to be exact. Keep chilled until ready for use.

Now put the smaller sheet onto a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Arrange three or four crepes (overlapping) on dough followed by a layer consisting of ¼ of the mushroom duxelle. Then make a layer of leeks, followed by one of the eggs, sliced. These layers should extend to within one inch of the edge though they’ll taper inward as they pile up.

Top with half the salmon slices. (The other half goes into the other loaf.) Place an additional ¼ of the duxelle, then some more leeks, then another sliced egg over the salmon.

Make an egg wash and brush the exposed edges of the dough with it. Then apply the larger sheet of dough (which you’ve wisely kept cool in the fridge) on top. Seal all edges, cut off the excess dough, and roll pastry so the seam is underneath. Make some stars with the excess dough and apply to the top of the loaf. Then brush the entire top of the loaf with egg. Put in fridge. (Several of the recipes suggest making the entire thing the day before the event.) When the time comes, bake at 375 degrees F for 30 minutes.

Here’s the recipe we used for the hollandaise
Garden Herb Hollandaise
1 egg, yolk only
Juice of half a lemon
1 cup unsalted butter, soft
Salt and smoked paprika
1/2 cup, finely chopped selection of fresh herbs

Place the eggs yolk and lemon juice in a steel bowl over a double boiler. With a French whisk, combine vigorously until thick but not curdled and slowly add soft, whole butter until thickened. Add seasoning and herbs. Keep warm by placing in a warm water bath time to serve.

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