About 5 years ago, a friend explained the difference between wild and factory-farmed salmon. I stick to wild salmon now, (here's an article if you want to read more) and find it more flavorful. I stay away from canned salmon, even though most of it is wild, because I find the texture, well, odd. It takes just a few minutes to poach salmon and flake it yourself, so why not stop at the local fish market and pick some up?
This recipe gets an "average to difficult" rating only because the sauce can be intimidating. It's easy though, so I encourage you to try it out. A word of caution, the shells are usually sold 12 to a box and you can count on at least one to be broken. Buy more than you need. If luck is on your side, you'll get all 12 in tact. If not, form the leftover filling onto balls, roll them in bread crumbs and bake them along with the shells.
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 12 shells (2-3 per person)
Level: Average to difficult
12 jumbo pasta shells, cooked, drained and cooled
8 oz salmon, poached, cooled and flaked
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 small shallot (approx 1 tablespoon), minced
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup brie, softened or grated
1/2 cup half & half (or heavy cream if you prefer)
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup chopped basil
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons chives, chopped
In a frying pan with a tightly fitted cover, bring the water and wine to a gentle boil. Season the salmon with salt and pepper then place in the pan, skin side down. Turn the heat down so you simmer, not boil, the fish. Cover the pan. Poach until the flesh is firm. One of the filets I bought was a little thick and took about 10 minutes. Thinner filets will take less time. Remove from heat. Drain and let cool.
Wipe out the pan and sauté the shallot on medium heat until softened (not browned). Remove to a small bowl and allow to cool.
Remove the skin from the salmon and flake the rest.
The following step-by-step is just for the visual. None of it is difficult but it might be helpful to know what to expect. Over mixing the ingredients will cause the salmon to break apart too much.
In a large mixing bowl, place the salmon, shallots, lemon zest, salt, and basil. Mix well.
In a small mixing bowl, add brie, ricotta and half & half and stir. Add the beaten egg and continue to mix until somewhat smooth. Incorporate the cheese mixture into to the salmon mixture, using 2 forks to lift the salmon into the cheese mixture. The salmon is delicate, so don't over mix it. You want to see the flakes when you're done. Place in a smaller bowl and refrigerate until you're ready to stuff the shells.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the shells, al dente. If you're not sure of this go one minute under the recommended time on the package. They need to be slightly under-cooked so they hold their shape but are still pliable enough to stuff without breaking. They will cook the rest of the way in the oven.
Once the shells are cooked and cool to the touch, stuff them with the filling. Don't let them sit in your colander, they will stick together. Use your hands (not utensils) to unfurl each shell as you spoon the salmon mixture inside.
If you are planning to cook the shells immediately, make sure your ingredients for the sauce are measured, chopped, etc and ready to prepare before you place the shells in the oven.
Place the stuffed shells in a lightly oiled baking dish large enough to fit them all, but not crowded. Cover tightly with foil and bake 15 minutes. While the shells are baking, make the sauce.
Lemon Cream Sauce
Before you make this sauce here's a reminder of how to avoid breaking the sauce. Cream sauce can "break," or appear curdled if the milk proteins separate and coagulate or turn grainy. There are a few things that will cause dairy to break, high heat, low fat content and acid (in this case, lemon juice). I recommend using heavy cream for this recipe because of it's extended cooking time in the oven.
1 tsp olive oil
1 shallot, minced (approx 1 1/2 tbsp)
1 1/2 tsp lemon zest
1 1/2 cup heavy cream
Juice of 1 lemon (approx 3 tbsp)
In a small pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring, until translucent (approx 3 minutes). Add lemon zest and cook until just fragrant.
Add cream. Stir frequently.
The sauce may start to bubble. If so, turn down the heat to a simmer and cook until slightly thickened, approximately 5-6 minutes.
Remove from heat but don't allow it to cool.
Stir in lemon juice.
By now the shells have cooked for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and pour the hot sauce over the shells. Replace the foil tightly and continue baking for 20 minutes. The sauce will start to bubble but it will be fine. If you notice a little graininess, it's probably the ricotta cheese playing tricks on you.
To serve, remove the shells with a slotted spoon and carefully place them on a serving plate. Use a spoon to drizzle the sauce on top. Garnish with chives and serve immediately.