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Got comfort food? Chef Kirsten Dixon bakes Russian Alaska Salmon Pie.

Kirsten Dixon
Tyrone Potgieter looking over a draft of a cookbook.
Tyrone Potgieter
Prepare Russian Salmon Pie in large pie form or in individual ramekins.
Tyrone Potgieter
Our version of Russian Salmon Pie includes Alaska salmon, cabbage, rice, and Cheddar cheese.
Tyrone Potgieter

All last winter and into the spring and summer, my daughter Mandy, my son-in-law Tyrone, and I worked together on a new cookbook project. When the weather was too harsh for Ty to work outside, and Mandy and I were caught up on our kitchen chores, we would sit at the small table in our wellness room near the woodstove at the lodge and spread out our notebooks and ideas.

This week, as a result of our work together, a new edition of The Winterlake Lodge Cookbook will arrive in bookstores. Although it is a second edition of an earlier book, this edition has entirely all-new photos, about 50 new recipes, and the heartfelt efforts of our small family-grown production team. Ty captured all the images, Mandy did all the food styling, and I wrote the text. Our dear friend, Sini Salminen, a graphic designer living in Denmark, designed the layout.

Although food is fashion and trends come and go, we also salvaged and included a few recipes from a cookbook now long out of print that I wrote in the 1980’s. We just couldn’t say goodbye to rhubarb chutney or sourdough bread pudding. Another was our recipe for Russian Salmon Pie.

We’ve been making a variation of this dish in our kitchen for thirty years now and it is still a favorite amongst guests and staff alike. The perhaps more common name for salmon pie is coulibiac, but many Alaskans know it as pirok or perok. It’s a Russian dish comprised of mushrooms, rice and salmon encased in brioche or puff pastry. In our version, we use brown rice, cabbage, and a little bit of Cheddar cheese (perhaps a nod to the 1980’s when I first began preparing this dish).

Coulibiac was popular in Russia when August Escoffier, the famed French food writer, hired a Russian cook in his small restaurant in Nice, France and began to prepare it for important guests. It is now often thought of as a French classic. It was one of Julia Child’s favorites. It’s a dish that can be dressed up or down. Some versions add sturgeon and other fish (Escoffier liked to add vesiga, or sturgeon spinal cord, as a thickener, something I haven’t been up to trying). It can be served as one big pie, as in our photos, or in individual ramekins for an elegant first course or appetizer.

By the way, if you are interested in food writing, I am offering several instructional classes over the winter and spring in Anchorage and Homer. Perhaps you might consider a family project of bringing your favorite recipes together and sharing them with others. Contact me at kirsten(at)alaskadispatch.com for more information.

Russian Salmon Pie

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 red onion, peeled and minced
1/2 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1/2 head green cabbage, cored and shredded
2 sheets homemade or commercial puff pastry
1 pound Alaskan salmon, skinned and boned
2 cups short grain brown rice
1/2 cup sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup fine breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 hard-cooked egg, chopped
1/4 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 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 in a bit of water into the pan to create a steam and help soften the cabbage. You could add in savory spices or herbs here also if you wish. My father loves caraway with cabbage, so sometimes I use that. 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 little variation in flavor and texture. If you prepare the salmon any way other than poaching, I usually like to rub it with a 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 we will cook it additionally in our 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 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.” If butter is scarce, 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 (like Julia Child’s now in the Smithsonian museum), 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. Next add the breadcrumbs. Layer the onion, mushrooms, and cabbage into the pie pan (you can mix them all together 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 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 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, just 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 a golden brown.

Makes about 8 servings.

Kirsten Dixon is an award-winning chef who has cooked and lived the past 30 years in the backcountry of Alaska. To learn more about her, visit www.kirstendixon.com.