One of the worst turkey dinners I ever had in my life was in France. It was the mid-1980s, and I was on a year abroad in Paris. The program’s well-intentioned directors must have thought that this band of young Americans, an ocean away from their families, would be homesick on Thanksgiving. And so they brought us to an elegant restaurant in the center of town, not far from the Louvre. We had the place to ourselves, and—surprise!—the kitchen staff had been instructed by our minders to prepare us turkey, known as dinde in France, but not known as a bird that ends up on many plates in France accompanied by cranberries and stuffing and the like.
The poor kitchen staff—I remember their quizzical and anxious looks as they surveyed this crew of almost-adults nibbling away at something the restaurant had likely never prepared: small, overcooked and chewy mini-turkeys, served with a valiant attempt at what was meant to be stuffing. Privileged little Americans though we were, we were nevertheless grateful for the restaurant’s efforts. Most of us agreed, however, that all the money could have been better spent on—how to put it?—a French meal.
Maybe I’ve been overcompensating for that overseas version of a Thanksgiving dinner. Or maybe, as a child of Massachusetts, I’ve had my fill of uninspired Pilgrim chow. Whatever the case may be, I have long pleaded my case at the holidays, often against strong family opposition, for Anything But Turkey. Usually, I lose the battle. A couple times, I’ve been lucky. And on those rare occasions when I’ve been granted permission to make something other than the dreaded T-bird, I’ve prepared a meal that I might have had in that Paris restaurant decades ago: salmon en croûte.
Always get the last word.
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There’s a bit of an irony here. My mother, who was French, always made turkey at Thanksgiving (and Christmas), trying to fit in like any number of other foreigners introduced to new customs. I don’t ever remember her making salmon en croûte—or anything en croûte. My desire to cook something else on Thanksgiving was fully awakened more than twenty years ago, when a co-worker with South Asian roots told me she and her family were having sushi for the holiday. How refreshing, I thought. And how much closer, probably, to what Indigenous people and Europeans were regularly eating, centuries ago, on the shores of what would become the land of Dunkin’ Donuts. Much as I adore sushi, though, having it at Thanksgiving would be one quick way to run out of grocery money for the rest of the season. I wondered, How about simply salmon? Thus the salmon en croûte.
Also known by its less Frenchy name of stuffed salmon in flaky dough, or salmon Wellington, this is a beautiful, whimsical dish, a large slab of salmon topped with diced shrimp and mushrooms and shallots and chives and baked in puff pastry that you shape into a likeness of the creature you’re eating. And it can feed a small boatload of people.
The recipe that I’ve made is from a Jacques Pépin book I bought when both M. Pépin and I had a lot less gray hair. The title is Jacques Pépin Celebrates: 200 of His Most Cherished Recipes for Memorable Meals with Family and Friends. The book wouldn’t win any prizes for the most “innovative” cuisine of the 21st century—nothing in its pages requires freezing at arctic temperatures, then placement on a plate with tweezers—but it’s full of crowd-pleasing fare that has improved the lives (if not the cardiac health) of generations of ordinary French people.
If you want to try your hand at the salmon dish, set aside enough time for making puff pastry; it’s not all that difficult, and having fresh dough will ensure a tastier crust, laden with enough butter to have turned Julia Child into a vegan. If you can’t track down the book, here’s a Food Network version of the recipe. I love the dish, but the sauce that Pépin includes in it might have you cursing his name hours after you embarked on this one step. I recommend foregoing the sauce, unless you want to spend a chunk of the day stirring away at what seems like thin soup. But I’m confident you’ll be grateful for the rest of the dish, as will your guests. As the French waiters no doubt told my classmates and me long ago, as we gnawed away at our bland turkey, bon appétit!
John McMurtrie is senior editor of Zyzzyva.