Sunday, September 27, 2009

Not quite Thomas Keller's salmon rillettes

[Edit: For all you googlers looking for Keller's actual recipe, it's here. It's worth coming back to read my variation too unless you're dead set on making an exact replica of his dish.]

So, I was watching The Best Thing I Ever Ate, a Food Network show where TV chefs you don't recognize rhapsodize about food you'll never eat from restaurants you'll never go to. That part's annoying, but they do go into the kitchens to show a bit about how the dishes are made and you can pick up some good ideas that way. Usually there's some obscure ingredient or restaurant technique that keeps you from reproducing the dish exactly, but the rillettes aux deux saumons from Bouchon Bistro were surprisingly straightforward, particularly for a Thomas Keller dish. Probably because it's from Bouchon, not the French Laundry (he says as if he's eaten at either).

It's just fresh salmon gently steamed in pernod, diced smoked salmon, shallot, crème fresh, olive oil, egg yolks and lemon juice. I've got most of that in the house. There is a Bouchon cookbook, so I could have looked the recipe up and tried to reproduce it exactly, but salmon rillettes isn't something Keller invented. There are plenty of variations and I wanted to come up with my own.

First, I decided to use gravlax instead of the smoked salmon; It was about time to make another batch. I also wanted to substitute in some other flavoring for the pernod. I'm not going to go out and buy a bottle of a liquor I don't really like for a single recipe. And anyway, it's a liquor I don't really like so I'm probably not going to like how it tastes in the dish.

First step, the gravlax. I kept the dill flavoring, using dill stems I had stored in the freezer, but made some changes from previous batches that I've been meaning to try. I went with the more traditional 2:1 sugar to salt ratio instead of the 1:1 lox-simulating ratio I've used previously. I used demerara sugar which still has a lot of molasses in it for some added interest. And I didn't add weights so I could see what sort of texture I'd get without the compression.

As it turns out, that texture is dense and meaty, but a little mushy on top where the salt was. The flavor is sweeter than previous batches, of course, and has a bit more depth from the molasses. Interesting. I still like lox better, but I grew up with that.

Next step, I steamed another salmon fillet over plain water until barely cooked through, flaked it into a bowl along with the chopped gravlax and mixed with finely chopped shallot, a dollop of crème fresh, a little olive oil, one egg yolk and a squeeze of lemon juice.

That goes into a container and is topped off with a layer of butter to seal it off. I was supposed to use clarified butter but I neglected to check my notes. That goes into the refrigerator to let the flavors blend for a day or two. When ready to serve, crack open the top and spoon onto crostini.

The flavor is in the neighborhood of bagels with cream cheese and lox, but with a richer more complex salmon flavor with shifting undertones of sweet, tart and savory. It's pretty complicated and I'm having trouble pinning it down with words. Sorry. It does seem to be lacking a little something. Maybe it could use some herbs or capers to round it out. (Or maybe not. Adding scallion makes it taste too much like just salmon salad, suitable for a sandwich. No more than a little chives would be best, then.)

After the fact, I've looked up Keller's recipe to see what he did differently. The big difference is that the ingredients are supposed to be mixed into generous amounts of whipped butter. That's what makes it rillettes--preservation in fat. Mine really is more of a salmon salad. Serving with a chunk of the butter layer goes some way to reconciling the differences, though. He also does use chives so that was a good impulse on my part. From the picture, his looks much less chunky, but I can't see in the directions how that came about. Odd.

I've still got half a batch left. Maybe I'll chop it up fine and mix it with some butter just to try it out. ... OK, I did that. Actually, I tossed it into the food processor with a couple Tablespoons of butter. The result was really good. The flavors stayed complex and intense but with a lot of added richness and a smooth spreadable texture. Compulsive eating with a loaf of good bread and a little bit of chives, parsley or herbs of some sort to add a little freshness in counterpoint.


Karen said...

There's a similar and really good recipe from Le Bernardin's cookbook, only with fresh mayonnaise instead of butter (a full cup - still lots of fat). It calls for 2 pounds of fresh salmon to be poached with 2 tablespoons minced shallots in either a bottle of dry white wine, or simply water with added lemon juice and dill, and we've also used dry vermouth. The flavoring in the poaching impacts the final outcome quite a lot - worth experimenting with.

billjac said...

I think that's a more typical version of salmon rillettes than Keller's recipe. I poach salmon like that a lot but I've never thought of drowning it in mayo afterward. Not a bad idea, really.

As a follow-up, I should report that I did throw my leftover rillettes into the food processor with a big chunk of butter and processed it until smooth. I like the extra unctuousness and it's still pretty tasty, but some of the complexity of flavor was lost. Hand chopping to leave bigger chunks and some variation in flavor between bites would have been a better plan.