Yet another cuisine that I adore! I was introduced to the wonderful world of Eastern European food in the mid 90s when some of my closest friends were from that region. My first truly Russian feast was at a celebration dinner hosted by a friend’s parents for 2 of my friends and me for doing the London Marathon! That started me on a journey of discovering the foods of that region, a journey I’m still on.
Over the years, I am pleased to say that my repertoire has grown from the original stroganoff and goulash that I was already making to include the lesser known dishes of the area. I am going to start with Coulibiac (k), a marvellous Russian pie made with salmon, eggs, rice and puff pastry. My first taste of it was at a friend’s Christmas party in the mid 90s – I had a wonderful mix of friends while in London (actually, I still do!) – in my immediate circle of friends, there was a Russian, Pole, Italian, French, American, Spaniard, German, Indian, Lebanese and a couple of English girls! How lucky were we?! We used to have so much fun together and thankfully, as we shared a passion for food, spent so much of our time scouring London and sometimes beyond, for new and wonderful places to eat. As we were all in our 20s or early 30s and into fitness, we could eat till the cows came home!
I was going to list a handful of recipes with the first September post but as it’s almost mid September and I haven’t written down any recipes, I thought I’d better just get one off at least, so here we are, especially, in light of the fact that we’re away again next week. As mentioned, we are going to start with a recipe from Russia. Russian cuisine is, as one can imagine, greatly influenced by its climate and sheer size. Even after the break up of the Soviet Union, Russia still covers over 17 million square kilometres, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the West to the Bering Sea and Sea of Japan, in the East. Of course, a large part of Northern Russia is a land of Permafrost and not viable for any form of crops or animal rearing. South of that and to the West however, where it starts to get milder, you’ll find game and freshwater fish and and as you go further south, you find all forms of crops and animals for local consumption. The variety of grain crops, wheat being the most common now, gives rise to a huge potential for the production of various breads (a staple), cereal and of course, vodka.
Caviar anyone? Well, Russia’s coastline is the 4th largest in the world, with access to 12 seas in 3 oceans, I find that totally amazing, and if you’re talking about its freshwater fish, it has over 2 million rivers! Blows your mind, doesn’t it?
The Coulibiak/c owes its origins to Kulebyaka, a closed pie with layers of pancake separating the filling which could contain meat, fish, potatoes, eggs, cabbage, etc, depending on the cook, the region and the season. The modern Coulibiak is usually a salmon pie as mentioned above, some of my Russian friends insist that it refers to only salmon filled while others say it encompasses any meat used with the other ingredients! I have only on one occasion had it where chicken was used instead of fish. These days, more often than not, the pie is made from fresh salmon, I personally prefer to use cured or smoked salmon for it – gravadlax is perfect, I find the rich taste of cured salmon complements the eggs, rice and cream perfectly. Also the smoked salmon slices allow for easier assembly, but that’s a fringe benefit! Generally, the rice used is just plain boiled rice but from my very first couple of bites, I have always felt that a flavoured rice would do so much better. To that end, I have always made a quick risotto type rice to go with my coulibiak.
In Eastern European cuisine, you’ll fine many recipes calling for smetana, a type of soured creme. Many substitute it with creme fraiche but I think a proper soured cream is a much better match to the original, unless of course, you have a Russian/Polish grocer/deli around the corner, like I do!
Quite often, all the ingredients are mixed up and put in the pie altogether but I prefer layering them, as not only is this more aesthetically pleasing but it also allows you to savour each ingredient as a part of the whole! I finish it off by sprinkling some breadcrumbs over the pastry, a new trick a friend of mine taught me recently, but you can leave it plain or decorated with pastry shapes.
So, here’s my recipe for Coulibiak, perfected over a decade! Made easier with shop bought puff pastry! Less than 100 days to Christmas, apparently (!) – perfect Christmas main course for non meat eaters!
500g cured or smoked salmon
1 portion of risotto (recipe below)
1 400g pack all butter puff pastry
4 boiled eggs
3 tbsp soured cream or smetana
1 tbsp chopped fresh dill (more if you like it, I’m not a big fan)
1 egg yolk for glazing
freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs
1. Mash the boiled eggs with a fork in a roomy bowl.
2. Add the dill, soured cream and some pepper and mix thoroughly. Set aside.
3. Unpack the salmon and set aside.
4. Pastry time. On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry out to a square shape about 30cm (about 12 inches) each side. Use a ruler!
5. You have a choice here. Either cut the pastry into 2 with one being larger than the other for the top, or do as I do, which is, I fill it up and just lift the pastry over to seal. If you’d like two bits of pastry, cut one to about 13cm x 30cm and for the top, you should get 17cm x 30cm. Let the pastry rest for 5 minutes before you start to assemble the pie.
6. Preheat oven to 220C (200C Fan).
7. Time to start filling the pie, this the fun bit! I like 3 layers of each, finishing with the salmon, so use a third of everything. Sprinkle some freshly ground black pepper with each layer of salmon. Start with a layer of risotto, followed by the egg mixture and then the salmon. Repeat until you are all done.
8. Cover with remaining pastry, wet the edges and seal. Using a fork, crimp all around the pastry to fully seal (see pic above).
9. Again with the fork, make some holes on the top to let the steam through.
10. Brush the pie all over with the egg yolk. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs all over the top and bake in the top oven for 15 minutes. Rest for 5 minutes before serving.
11. Serve as you wish, I love it on its own with a salad and perhaps a spoonful of smetana on the side. My husband likes it with chips and peas and for guests, I serve it with a simple mushroom sauce.
For the Risotto
60g risotto or paella rice
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, minced
250 – 300ml fish stock
handful fresh flat parsley, chopped
freshly ground black pepper
Method for risotto
1. Heat the butter on medium heat in a frying pan and saute the onions until translucent, about a couple of minutes.
2. Add the garlic, sauté for 30 seconds.
3. Add the rice, stir to coat and keep stirring for a minute until slightly translucent.
4. Add the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring each time, until all the stock has been used up. Add this point, the rice should be cooked, soft but still retaining a bite. If not cooked add a little more stock or water.
5. Season with the pepper and stir in the parsley and turn out onto a plate to cool down while you get the pie ingredients ready.
There you have it folks, my all time favourite fish pie! For those of you unaccustomed to Eastern European food, I urge you to join me this month and perhaps next, you’ll be glad you did!
Don’t forget to round it all off with a cup of Russian Coffee, check out the recipe! Speaking of coffee, it’s Friday, y’all, so head on over to Paloma’s Coffee Friday for some New Orleans style Coffee Party!