by Contributing Writer, Mary Cressler
Several years ago I visited Thomas Keller’s renowned Bouchon Restaurant in Napa for the first time with a good friend. “We have to order the Salmon Rillettes,” she insisted– one of the most famous dishes on the menu, and for good reason.
Keller’s preparation is simple, yet elegant. He takes fresh salmon that has been steamed in Pernod, then mixes it with smoked salmon, blends in shallot, crème fraîche, olive oil, egg yolks, and lemon juice. He places it into a small jar and tops it with a clarified butter (traditionally to preserve it, now it is more for presentation). The smooth textures and overall freshness of the spread is refreshing, light, and delicious.
“What a simple, yet elegant dish to have on hand for dinner parties or casual gatherings,” I thought. So upon my return I decided to recreate Keller’s dish, but on my own terms, meaning we would smoke our own salmon on our Traeger (a hot smoker). Not to be confused with lox or cold smoking, which creates a silky sashimi like texture, the hot and slow barbecue method will create a texture more like a flaky baked fish with a smoked flavor, which appeals to me more in a dish like this.
This has now become a staple dish at our house for summer BBQ’s and dinner parties throughout the year. It is the perfect starter, and goes well with a variety of wines! Plus it is super easy to make.
I returned from my latest trip to Napa just last week and wanted to see if the Rillettes were as I remembered them years ago. I was given a table for one and placed my order. I asked my server what his favorite wine pairing was and pleasantly surprised when he recommended the Trimbach Riesling over everything else on their extensive wine list. “The freshness of the wine is great with the freshness of the salmon,” he explained simply. And he was right. It was a nice match, and quite refreshing, especially considering it was a sunny and warm afternoon, and I was seated on the patio.
With the dish fresh in my memory, I made my version again the very day I returned home from my trip. My preparation, being fundamentally different in two ways, allows for stylistically different options for wine pairing.
Smoking your own salmon on a BBQ or smoker adds an entirely different flavor profile to the dish. While the smoke flavor is not strong, it does add a background element of wood smoke and in our case hickory. And since I eliminated the egg yolk and clarified butter, I add a bit of cream cheese in addition to crème fraîche to create a creamy texture.
- 6 ounces boneless Atlantic salmon fillet
- Salt & pepper to season the salmon
- ½ tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 2 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 1 tablespoon crème fraîche (plain 2% Greek yogurt will substitute well too as it is a similar consistency)
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon chopped dill
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- Season salmon with salt and pepper. Brush the top of the salmon (non skin side) with Dijon mustard.
- Preheat smoker to 250 degrees and put prepared salmon on the smoker for 90 minutes to two hours.
- Let the salmon cool to room temperature, then break apart into small chunks with your fingers. This is why you look for boneless salmon.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the softened cream cheese, crème fraîche, lemon juice, dill, salt and pepper.
- Combine with about ¾ of the salmon. Transfer to serving dish. Add the remainder of the salmon to the top of the salmon/cream mixture.
- Serve with slices of toasted baguette or crackers.
For this recipe I take a salmon fillet and smoke it on our Traeger. The difference in flavor between store bought cold smoked salmon and this method is huge. If you don’t have a smoker you can still use store bought, but look for “smoked” salmon versus “cured” salmon (or “lox”).
At Bouchon my server recommended Trimbach Riesling, and I wouldn’t argue with that. The high acidity in the Riesling cut through the fat of the salmon and the freshness and slight sweetness of the wine was perfect for the freshness of rillettes.
I tasted my version with two different Rieslings: Trimbach, the same one I had at Bouchon, and also a 2011 Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York. I also tried it with a dry sparkling wine, and a lightly oaked Chardonnay.
Two key characteristics of the smoked dip are the hickory smoke notes from the salmon and the slightly creamy texture from the crème fraîche and cream cheese. Riesling still worked well for the same reason as above — the strong acidity and freshness cuts through the cream and fat, and creates a refreshing aftertaste on the palate.
Similarly with the sparkling wine, it provides the same results. Look for a rosé sparkler from France. I recommend a Cremant de Bourgogne; the fruit won’t be distractingly strong, thereby complimenting the dish instead of dominating, but the creaminess and acidity will be a nice match.
Likewise look for a Riesling that is dry. Alsace, Finger Lakes New York, and those from the Pacific Northwest will work well. If you can’t tell if the wine is dry, look at the back label, many Riesling producers are now adding a dry-sweet scale to the back of the label to indicate level of sweetness.
What this dish has that Keller’s doesn’t is the smoky flavor. The smoky toasty notes pair remarkably well with a mildly oaked Chardonnay. Make sure it’s not over the top, otherwise you’ll have a woody mess on your hands. Oregon makes some great examples, or opt for a white burgundy from France.
Some of the best dishes I make were inspired by meals I have had during my travels. I am so glad my friend introduced me to Bouchon and their Salmon Rillettes, because I have enjoyed celebrating this amazing dish, in my own way, with colleagues, friends, and family and will continue to do so for years to come.
Mary Cressler is a Certified Sommelier, a Wine Location Specialist, and the proprietor of Vindulge: Wine Education & Consulting. She conducts wine classes and events and offers consulting for individuals, restaurants, and event planners.
She writes about wine, food, and travel on her blog Vindulge. Mary resides in Connecticut with her husband, twin boys, and two Chihuahuas.