olivierSalade Olivier a/k/a Russian salad a/k/a ensalada russa has a fascinating history.  It began as a dish invented by a Russo-Belgian chef , Lucien Olivier, for his upscale restaurant in Moscow in the mid-1800’s.  The story goes, one of Olivier’s commis simplified the original recipe for another restaurant where he obtained a better job (or stole and bastardized it, depending on who you ask), and the new, rapidly evolving version became increasingly popular among restaurant chefs and a staple of tavern menus.  The salad assumed the form familiar to us today — a macedoine of potatoes, bologna (or boiled beef), pickles, eggs, onion and carrots, bound in mayonnaise — sometime in the 1920’s.

Don’t tell me you hate mayonnaise, dear reader; this salad has conquered the globe, it’s that good. Virtually every European country has its own version of the Russian salad, plus Mongolia, plus parts of Latin America, plus parts of the Middle East (and not just Israel).  Definitely give it a try.

That said, it would behoove you to get good quality mayonnaise for this dish. Splurge on some artisanal mayonnaise, preferably the refrigerated kind — because the stuff that’s added to make mass-produced mayo shelf-stable also tends to make it bland.  Alternatively, you can make Russian-style mayonnaise yourself using fragrant unrefined sunflower oil (though I must warn you, making mayonnaise is very tricky). Do not get aioli, you don’t want any garlic in it.  Traditional Russian mayonnaise is slightly acidic, so you might want to adjust the taste in yours by adding a few drops of lemon juice.

For additional info, see Q&A at the end of this recipe.

Ingredients

5 medium-sized waxy yellow potatoes (avoid starchy potato kinds), unpeeled
2 medium-sized carrots, unpeeled
1 cup diced bologna
1 small yellow onion, minced
2 hardboiled eggs, finely chopped
1/2 cup diced pickles*
1 can sweet peas, drained
3 tbsp freshly minced dill
2 tbsp mayonnaise
salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

1.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a pinch of salt.  Add potatoes and carrots and bring back to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover and let simmer for about 15 minutes. Remove the carrots and set aside.  Cook the potatoes for an additional 8-10 minutes, until they can be pierced with a fork easily, but not so tender as to fall apart with pricked.  Remove the potatoes and let cool to room temperature.  (The potatoes and the carrots can be boiled a day ahead.)

2. When the vegetables are cool enough to handle, scrape off their skins and dice them.

3.  Combine all the ingredients, mix, cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving.

4.   To serve, arrange in a mound in a shallow bowl, sprinkle with additional dill and decorate with a parsley leaf.

*Brined pickles work best.  Generally, avoid pickles with a lot of sugar.  If you use large pickles, such as kosher dills, scoop out the seeds.

Q&A

Q:     Your recipe says to boil potatoes and carrots unpeeled, then peel and dice them later.  But I always peel and dice potatoes before boiling them.  It’s more convenient!  Why are you making my life so hard?

A:     Boiling vegetables with skin-on allows them to be steamed while preserving their best flavor and texture.  Peeled potatoes absorb a lot of water, which  makes them less        flavorful, and the greater the surface area, the more water they absorb.  (That’s why,     while boiling peeled potatoes is fine for, say, making mashed potatoes, you should still       boil them whole.  Don’t boil potatoes diced for anything except soup. It may save you a few minutes, but you’ll end up with watery, limp mashed potatoes instead of fluffy ones.  But I digress.) For cold boiled potato dishes, such as Salade Olivier, there is the further problem that potatoes boiled peeled tend to acquire a certain unpleasant rubbery texture when chilled.  So boil them unpeeled.  It will take a little bit longer, but you’ll do it right.

Q:     But  Wikipedia says it’s a salad made with chicken, and that bologna or boiled beef are only sometimes used. Why are you telling me to use bologna?

A:     Ahh, chicken, the default American meat.  (Or is it turkey?)  Anyway, Wikipedia is wrong.  Now, to be fair, the Russian Empire is huge, and there may be regional variations. There are may be some parts of the country where chicken is used.  I guess.  Oh, come on, I grew up in the Russian culture, and I come from the birthplace of this dish.  NOBODY makes it with chicken.  I’d say, if you use chicken, that’s no longer Salade Olivier.  Of course, you can make it with whatever you want, but the most commonly used meat is bologna, and the second most-commonly used meat is boiled beef.  If you don’t believe me, check out the Russian version of the Wikipedia page — or a Russian deli, where this salad is sold year-round.

Q:     Wikipedia also says to add shredded tart apple.  Is that wrong too?

A:     Some people DO do this, especially farther north, like around the St. Petersburg area. Still, while adding tart apple is not unheard of, it isn’t by any means common or part of the standard recipe.  As a personal favor to me, please don’t add apples to your Salade Olivier, because that’s gross.  And please don’t turn this most glorious of New Year’s Eve dishes into some garden variety chicken-and-apples nonsense.  Thank you.

Q:     I am a vegetarian.  … ?

A:    Unlike is the case with chicken, I’d say Salade Olivier is still Salade Olivier if you just skip the meat.  I sometimes make a lighter, meatless version of this salad for summer barbecues.  Add some diced green and red roasted bell peppers to liven it up (peel them first) and some fresh-squeezed garlic.  Replace dill with cilantro.

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