I laughed when I saw it. Delightedly chortled, more like, to see that the New York Times was running a recipe story featuring that thousands-of-renditions Slavic home food: Russian Salad. I’d just confessed my love for the stuff the day before to a friend, as if whispering a guilty pleasure. And now the Times had legitimized it. Classically a mosaic of colorful and carefully diced carrot and potato, plus peas and ham, bathed in mayo, I’d long ago found making variations on the Russian Salad theme to be a “treaty” way to eat veg. I make it using everything from trimmed stalks of broccoli (steamed the tiniest bit to tender them) or with celery root, jicama, radish, kohlrabi, and maybe a little cheese, skipping any meat inclusions entirely. But the classic version is good, too.
Near my house, Russian Salad is everywhere. Just travel up the road in Skokie-Evanston to the various mom-and-pop grocers and you’ll find it ready made both plain and fancy. Layered in clear bowls with piped swirls of cream on top, the fancy versions look like frilly parfaits.
As it turns out, fancy is actually a throw-back: The salad’s genesis was quite gourmet. Food historians place its origins in Moscow where a French chef named Lucien Olivier served it starting in the 1860s at the Hermitage restaurant, mixing in everything from caviar and crawfish tails, to capers and veal tongue. Oh, and Lucien slathered his in Provencal dressing. Post Russian Revolution, the salad took on the proletariat stylings that survive today.
With a nod to Olivier, my version of the current classic dolls things up a bit with home-made mayo, sour cream, dill, and quail eggs. Plus, pickled beets that you mix in at the very end.
My recipe also relies—as the NYTimes version does—on careful, even dicing. Trimming and cutting the ingredients to uniform size makes for good balance, mouth feel and presentation. P.S.—Don’t hold back on your own variations! Let me know what you come up with—I’d love to see. Continue Reading…