When my husband Carl and I were first married, we were living for the first time far from our families, his in Ohio and mine in California. Like many other Alaskan transplants, we needed to define and invent our own family holiday traditions. And now, two generations later, our traditions seem like they have always been a part of our lives, and perhaps with some luck, they will always be. One important tradition of ours is Russian salmon pie, or coulibiac.
Our holiday table often features some part of summer’s preserved bounty – perhaps dried or frozen berries, herbs that were gathered before the first fall frost, jars of jam and bottles of sauces, and always seafood carefully and lovingly preserved to last the long winter. It’s somehow become mandatory that we always have salmon at Christmas and crab on the New Year.
Ever since my two daughters were little, they both particularly loved Russian salmon pie (or coulibiac) for dinner. It is a festive savory pie filled with tender salmon layered with nutty brown rice, buttery cabbage, cheese, mushrooms, hard-boiled egg, and onion, all enrobed in a light crispy dough baked to a rich golden brown. These days, our weekly (at best) family dinners together have given way to lighter fare for the most part, such as salads and soups and quick fresh food. But, during the holidays, Russian salmon pie lives on in our family’s culinary legacy.
Here’s our version of this uniquely Alaskan family tradition.
Russian Salmon Pie
Course: DinnerCuisine: AlaskanDifficulty: Moderate
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, peeled and minced
½ pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
½ head green cabbage, cored and shredded
2 sheets of homemade or commercial puff pastry
1-pound Alaska salmon, skinned and boned
2 cups short-grain brown rice
½ cup sharp Cheddar cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 hard-cooked egg, chopped
¼ cup heavy cream
1 egg, beaten
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Melt the butter in a wide sauté pan over low heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft, about 7 minutes. The lower the onion cooks, the less likely it is to burn. Onion develops a lovely sweet, and tender flavor when it is cooked slowly over low heat. Add in the mushrooms and the cabbage.
- Turn the heat up to medium, adding a bit more butter if necessary. Sometimes I sprinkle a bit of water into the pan to create steam and help soften the cabbage. You could add savory spices or herbs here also if you wish. I place a lid or a piece of aluminum foil over the cabbage-vegetable mixture, so it steams nicely. Remove the vegetables and set aside.
- Poach, bake, grill, or pan-sear the salmon. Each of these techniques offers a slight variation in flavor and texture. If you prepare the salmon in any way other than poaching, I usually like to rub it with good quality olive oil and salt and pepper the fish. This prevents the fish from sticking to the pan surface and protects the flesh from drying out before cooking. The salmon can be a little undercooked because the it will finish baking in the pie. Cool the salmon and flake it into large chunks.
- Take a sheet of puff pastry and roll it out slightly onto a floured surface. Cover the second sheet with a cloth or plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. I like to roll out the puff pastry a little bit so it doesn’t puff too much. If you buy commercial puff pastry, try to find a brand that uses butter rather than oil — it has a much better “mouth feel.” You can always make this dish with a regular favorite pie crust. I like to use a good sturdy rolling pin that has some weight and width to it. It doesn’t really matter if you select a pin without handles (better for big wide pieces of dough) or ones with handles but purchase a good-quality rolling pin, and it will last you a lifetime.
- Place the puff pastry sheet into a 9- or 10-inch, deep-dish pie pan, leaving the extra dough draped over the edge of the pie pan. Sometimes I make these pies in small individual servings using small pastry rings instead of a pie pan. I prefer to use glass pie pans because I can always take a peek at how the pie is doing on the bottom. For crusted pies, glass and non-shiny aluminum pans are best for a crispy bottom crust.
- Place a layer of brown rice onto the pastry in the pan. Next, add the chopped hard-boiled egg. Add a layer of flaked salmon, then some shredded cheese. Layer the onion, mushrooms, and cabbage into the pie pan (you can mix them altogether if you want, but the layers look nice when you slice the pie). Sprinkle the pie with salt and pepper as you see fit along the way. Pour the cream over the pie ingredients. The sequence of these events doesn’t matter as much as your own personal taste. Some people feel very strongly about where the hard-boiled eggs are placed!
- Roll out the remaining sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured surface. Brush the rim of the pie with a little water. Place the second sheet of pastry on top of the pie. Trim off the excess dough and crimp the edges of the pie together to adhere to the two sheets of dough. Some people do this with a fork or between two fingers to make a decorative edge. Use leftover dough to cut out shapes to decorate the top if you wish. Make sure to slit the pie top with a few knife slashes so that steam can escape.
- Brush the pastry with beaten egg – or, if eggs are precious, use a little cold water.
- Bake the salmon pie on the top rack of the oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown.