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.
oh yes, blame me for your afternoon alcoholism… I LOVE the title of this book, one imagines it to be 100 recipes of how to boil a potato but that salad looks rather nice and rather similar to something my grandma used to make when we were kids and her mother was Russian. Lovely random recipes entry, thank you x
You're welcome! In hindsight, it's a little like the sort of salad you might find as an entree in an airline meal. That sounds more damning than I mean it to, but I'm sure you get the drift. The book doesn't go into potato cooking methods as such, but there are some gripping pieces about the lengths desperate Russians went to in order to procure alcohol – including distilling it from GLUE. Now that's a random recipe…
First of all thank you for introducing the title and the writer.Those kind of books are my favorite ,with the story of the life behind the writers recipe.And I have several.MY favorite is Roald Dahls.Gypsy House.
Anyhow Russian Salad.Don't talk to me about it.! When I was growing up in Serbia every holiday season there were tons of it.Man would finf the biggest container in house and cutting process would start.Cut this cut that.The biggest trouble would begin with home made mayonnaise.And tasting beforehand and eating after that for days and days and days.It is wonder I did not end up with Russian Salad Syndrome .Now this is 15 years ago and believe me or not I never made or ate Russian salad again.But being an adult now it will be fair to admit I do think it is a tasty one.If you find time to visit my blog there is recipe of Mimosa Salad which is in that style.Great blog.Cheers
Thanks Dzoli – I'm sorry to give you a flashback! It's funny, your description is very similar to the one in the book – Anya's mother insists that the secret to success is to cut everything into tiny, perfectly symmetrical dice. She also writes at length about the Russian obsession with mayo! Can you post the link to your recipe please – I can't seem to find it through your profile. Thanks!
I have very happy memories of salads like this in Paris. Love the sound of the dressing in particular, think I'll be borrowing that one, and the book has gone on my wishlist.
Every meal in Paris equals a happy memory, I reckon! I'd love to know what you think of the book when you get hold of a copy.
mystery solved! in the phyrne fisher books, phyrne and co often eat russian salad, and i never exactly know what they are eating!
A-ha! But who is Phyrne Fisher (*rushes off to Google…)
I have often seen this salad on menus in France, for some reason. I can't pretend that it has appealed very much but your version actually looks rather good! The dressing sounds yummy.
This looks pretty good to me and I speak as someone who's had a few truly loathsome Russian Salads over the years. I admire your courage and dedication in trying it, not to mention your taste for vodka. I must say that any book with the subtitle of 'a memoir of food and longing' is definitely on my reading list.
I loved this recipe – I'm currently living in Russia and attempting their recipes, so the timing couldn't be better 🙂
I'm writing an article about Russian cuisine for my website (www.girlvsglobe.com) and I was wondering if you'd let me use the photo of the salad? I'd obviously include a link to your website! 🙂