It’s not often that I reach for the vodka bottle on a Sunday lunchtime, but when you’re making an iconic Soviet salad in a half-functioning kitchen, needs must. When that salad is a melange of cooked vegetables and hard-boiled egg bound with a sour cream-enriched mayonnaise – and you’re making it while your daughter clamours for her lunch and your husband is attacking the counter-top with a hack-saw – you’re more than justified to pour yourself a large glass. At least, that was my excuse.
Actually, I blame Dom of Belleau Kitchen for driving me to drink. This month’s Random Recipe challenge asked us to cook something from a Christmas present cookbook – and since I didn’t get any cookbooks for Christmas (sob!) I chose the Salat Olivier described in Anya von Bremzen’s memoir, Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking.
If you have even a slight interest in food, family, social history and the absolute craziness involved in growing up in Soviet Moscow, this is a must-read. Von Bremzen’s own story of growing up in a communal apartment in Moscow (she and her mother fled to the US in 1974, when she was 10) is swept up in the epic history of 20th century Russia. It’s the sort of book that you want to read out loud to other people – like Heston Blumenthal’s quote on the front of my copy says, it’s ‘heartbreakingly poignant and laugh-out-loud funny’.
He forgot to add that it also has recipes – and the Soviet party classic, Salat Olivier, is one of them. First invented by a French chef ‘who wowed 1860s Moscow’ with an over-the-top platter of grouse, tongue and crayfish tails with potatoes, cornichons and a secret Provencal sauce, it morphed over the years into a rather more proletarian combination of vegetables and chicken bound together with mass-produced mayonnaise. Now can you see why I was reaching for the vodka?
I took some liberties with Anya’s recipe, leaving out the suggested white crabmeat or crabsticks that her mother usually used in place of the traditional poached chicken or beef. I also used homemade mayonnaise rather than Hellmann’s and lightly cooked frozen peas rather than the tinned variety. Anya’s mother Larisa, who plays a key role in the book, insists that the key to success is chopping everything into very fine dice.
Truth be told, I don’t think I’ll make it again – that diced potato, carrot and pea mixture reminded me too much of boarding school mixed frozen vegetables – but the tangy, creamy dressing was eat-out-of-the-bowl gorgeous.
3 large waxy potatoes, cooked, peeled and diced
2 medium carrots, peeled, cooked and diced
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and diced
3 large gherkins, diced
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
4 spring onions, finely sliced (white parts and some green)
1 1/2 cups peas, blanched and drained
3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
4 Tbsp dill, finely chopped
salt and pepper
250 ml mayonnaise
80 ml sour cream
2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp white vinegar
salt and pepper
Put all the salad ingredients in a large bowl and stir together gently. Season well with salt and pepper.
To make the dressing, put all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk together until well blended. Taste and adjust the seasoning – you want it to be quite tangy and zesty.
Fold about two-thirds of the dressing through the salad – add more if necessary – and transfer to a cut-crystal bowl to serve. Serves six as a side dish. Vodka optional, but advised.