For my final post of 2011 I wanted to share one of my very favorite appetizers—Smoked Salmon Rillettes. This dish is simple to prepare and can be served in either an elegant or a rustic setting. It would be perfect for sharing at a potluck or serving at your own formal (or not-so-formal) dinner. Hopefully I'm posting it just in time for those New Year's Eve celebrations.
Rillettes are a rustic kind of pâté. Traditionally they are made with pork, duck/goose, rabbit...even game. Tough, sinewy and frequently fatty cuts of meat (or combination of meats) are cooked using the slow, tenderizing process of the braise (using stock, water and/or wine) or, more frequently, the confit (submerged in fat—lard or duck/goose fat—and cooked very gently and slowly). The resulting meltingly tender meat is deboned, shredded and combined with some of the braising liquid or confit fat and packed into a terrine or crock. The chilled rillettes are then served with crusty baguettes. If you have ever tasted rillettes, you probably remember them...they are unbelievably tasty and dangerously addictive.
When I was in cooking school we were taught how to make a "modern" adaptation of rillettes using a combination of fresh and smoked mackerel. From my description of rillettes in general you have probably picked up on the fact that rillettes are not a low-fat food. In fact, I would say that one of the hallmarks of rillettes is their unctuous texture—due, in not a small part, to their fat content. The transformation of rillettes into a preparation made with mackerel is quite logical since mackerel is a very fatty fish. The addition of the smoked mackerel adds a salty quality that nicely echoes the characteristic saltiness of the confited meats and poultry that are typically used to make the traditional versions of rillettes.
Later in my career when I came across a recipe for rillettes made with salmon (also a fatty fish), I immediately gave it a try. It was delicious and I fell in love with it. The recipe was from Alfred Portale's 12 Season's Cookbook and it uses the same method as the mackerel rendition that I had first tasted in London: The fresh fish is poached, flaked and folded into a mixture of puréed smoked fish, soft butter, crème fraiche, lemon and herbs. For a long time, I was very happy with this version...and would have remained so if a friend and colleague hadn't shown me a recipe for salmon rillettes from Anne Kearney that ran in the NY Times several years ago.
The recipe for salmon rillettes that I make today is a combination of the things I like best from Anne Kearney's recipe for Double Salmon Rillettes and Alfred Portale's recipe. Most significantly, the smoked salmon is not puréed in Ms. Kearney's recipe. Instead, sliced smoked salmon is cut into thin strips
and folded together with the flaked poached salmon. This gives a rustic, ropey texture to the final dish—very much in keeping with the look and texture of traditional rillettes. The other "genius" moment in her recipe involves reducing the liquid the fish was poached in to a syrup which is then added to the rillettes. This addition adds depth and richness to the final dish.
When you make salmon rillettes, remember that the quantities given in the recipe are guidelines. You should play with this recipe and make it your own. Some recipes use equal quantities of fresh and smoked salmon (Alfred Portale's, for example) and some use half as much smoked as fresh (like Anne Kearney's). My preference is somewhere in the middle—probably closer to equal quantities. The crème fraiche and butter too should be added to suit your preferences for taste and consistency. Just start with the recommended amount and then add more if you like—or, next time add less. And the lemon and herbs should always be added to taste.
I will end this my final post of the year with a simple observation. My experience with discovering a new and better version of rillettes when I was already very satisfied with the recipe I had illustrates what is I think one of the great lessons of cooking—at least for us "perfectionist" types. That is, that I should never think that any one version of a dish I love contains the be all and end all of methods. There will always be new and different ways of doing things....and learning these things will only improve my skills. This is one of the things I have grown to truly love about cooking. It is a never ending adventure and a constant learning process. It is never boring—at least it doesn't have to be. So as we end one year and begin another, I'll wish you not only a Happy New Year(!), but also "Happy Cooking!"
Rillettes de Saumon Fumé
(Smoked Salmon Rillettes)
1/2 lb. skinless salmon fillet, cut into 2-inch chunks (see note)
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
1 large or 2 small shallots, finely diced
5 T. very soft unsalted butter, divided
1 1/2 c. dry white wine
6 oz. smoked salmon, thinly sliced and cut into thin strips
1/4 c. crème fraiche or sour cream
grated zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon, more or less to taste
1 T. chopped fresh dill—more or less to taste—plus more sprigs for garnish
1 T. finely minced fresh chives—more or less to taste
Season the salmon with salt and pepper. Smear the bottom of a medium sauté pan with 1 T. of soft butter and add the wine and shallots. Add the salmon
and bring to a simmer. Cook until the salmon is almost done—it will flake and have a trace of translucence in the center. (In my experience the salmon is just about perfectly cooked if you do the following: Once the wine has come to a good simmer, cover the pan and remove it from the heat. The salmon should be just right after about 7 to 10 minutes—break a piece open to check.) Lift the salmon out (leaving as many shallots behind as possible) and place it in a bowl; set aside. Bring the poaching liquid to a boil and reduce to a syrup (you’ll have about 2 T.).
Strain the reduced liquid over the salmon, pressing hard on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Let cool.
Add the remaining ingredients to the cooled salmon and gently fold until the mixture is homogenous (the rillettes will be chunky and the poached salmon will break down into shreds). Make sure that the butter is very soft when you add it; cream it before adding in a separate bowl—or against the side of the mixing bowl—if it is not.
Taste and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper and lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or for up to 24 hours.
Serve on crostini or crackers as individual prepared hors d’oeuvres or in a bowl surrounded by toasted sliced baguette and crackers. Garnish the individual hors d'oeuvres or the bowl with sprigs of dill.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups, serving 8 as an appetizer.
Note: I think salmon rillettes are at their best when made with fatty King Salmon.