Cooking with the (Silent) Stars: Helene Costello’s Fresh Salmon en Casserole

Welcome back! I’m cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay Cookbook and today’s recipe is a seafood entree from an actress from a very famous family.

Catch up on all my taste tests here.

Helene Costello was the youngest daughter of matinee idol Maurice Costello. Big sister Dolores is probably better remembered today for her roles in films like Noah’s Ark and Old San Francisco, as well as her marriage to John Barrymore. Helene is most remembered for her leading role in the “all-talking” Lights of New York.

But how were her salmon skills? We shall see.

My first indication that something was wrong: the first ingredient for “Fresh Salmon” is canned salmon.

Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no problem with tinned fish. I rather like it, in fact. Canned salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies… I eat them all with relish. It’s just that it’s not exactly fresh, now is it?

Because this is the internet, of course I have already had somebody ‘splain that canned salmon is kinda fresh, if you think about it. Um, no it isn’t. The flavor and texture of canned salmon is nothing like fresh no matter when and where the canning takes place. When I want to star in my own Fawlty Towers episode, I will let you know. In the meantime, feel free to open a can of fresh chicken.

The Big Can.

The other two ingredients were similarly problematic. How small is small? Helene doesn’t tell us. In any case, the onions and potatoes in the produce section were maddeningly large when I went shopping so I used one very large onion and two largish potatoes. I mean, we already have canned fresh salmon so it’s in for a penny, in for a pound at this point.

I scraped off the skin using a spoon but the smell of canned salmon still got all over my hands. This is not a dainty recipe or one that is good to prepare before a date.

Lovely can shape!
Stunning ridges!

The recipe mentions removing skin and bones, as well as the size of the salmon pieces, which means that this requires one of those tall cans of salmon, not the flat ones with flaked fish inside. And by the way, canned salmon bones are totally edible but what Helene wants, Helene gets. I immediately spilled fish juice on my phone during the deboning process. Sigh.

The fish…
The delicate salmon chum.
Into the cheesecloth.

After deboning the fish, I decided to take Fannie Farmer’s advice and wrap it in a cheesecloth to keep it from disintegrating while it boiled. And while boiling the already-cooked canned salmon, I was also supposed to boil the onions and the potatoes. So three pots dirty along with assorted bowls for the salmon deboning. Must be nice to have maids, Helene. (But then why is she eating canned salmon?)

My big onion.
There were no small potatoes.

Then I cut up the vegetables. And here is where Helene really goes bonkers. She wants us to boil each vegetable for ten minutes, drain the water and then boil them again before baking to whole mess in the oven. I can understand wanting to give potatoes and onions a head start as fish cooks pretty quickly but why not just, you know, put them en casserole and then add the fish once they are tender?

Boiled onions. Every kid’s favorite.
Sad twice-cooked salmon.

No! We must boil everything in a separate pot and THEN put them in a casserole. More dirty pans, MORE!!!!

I think Helene had a maid, what say you?

So I put all the boiled veggies into a casserole with the fish, seasoned it with salt and pepper and poured the fish broth over it. Isn’t it a thing of beauty? (It is not.)


Helene is not great on specifics. “Small” potatoes and onions, a half hour cooking time but no indication as to how hot the oven should be, not even a “moderate” or “hot” to help us out. I used good old 350 and it seemed to be okay.

And also Viola!

It smelled… horrible. I spooned up a bowl for myself as all my tasters fled in terror.

Score: 1 out of 5. I occasionally come across a recipe that I cannot bring myself to even swallow. This is one of those recipes. Reader, I hurled.

The offensive, watered down blandness of the dish is what killed my appetite. Everything in it was cooked at least twice (thrice if you count two sessions of boiling for the veggies) and it was so watered down that it could have counted as homeopathic.


Helene, water does not remember the taste of salmon, okay?

If you can imagine a sorta canned fishy potato gruel with lashings of slimy onion, that’s what we have here. Oh, it is vile. (Don’t worry, all rejected dishes are used to feed local wildlife. Nothing is truly wasted.)

So, I had a kitchen full of dirty pots and bowls and my cute red casserole dish full of chunky fish tea. The whole point of a casserole is to be a one-pot meal and this could have been one so easily: bake the potato and onions together in broth. Add the salmon in the last few minutes. The end.

Call the police.

If I’m going to dirty all these dishes, I want something special or at least edible. I could have made mashed potatoes, broiled the onions and poached the salmon in vermouth and dill. Same number of dirty dishes, much happier me.

Serve this to your enemies.


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  1. Matt

    Just looking at it makes me want to hurl! What the heck did Helene Costello eat for her meals?!? Writing that this casserole doesn’t look edible would be an insult to inedible casseroles. This is the first time that I don’t blame your taste testers from running away in horror as that dish’s main purpose is to instill fear within every living being.

  2. Marie Roget

    Oh, my my. Canned salmon has many great uses- this is definitely not one of them. There’s only one way to prepare for forcing down a bowl of Helene’s masterpiece, and make mine a double, Bartender 😉

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