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Russian New Year’s Eve: Salade Olivier

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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.

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Lamb Meatballs With Lemon-Dill Rice And Roast Tomato Salad

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Lamb Meatballs

2 lb lamb (do not trim the fat), coarsely ground or minced by hand

1 large Spanish onion, minced

salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil

– Combine the meat with onions and mix well.

– Season with salt and generously with freshly ground black pepper. You can check the seasonings by cooking a teaspoonful of meat in the microwave.

– Separate the meat into baseball-sized portions and shape them into thick, slightly oblong patties (they will take on a more spherical shape as they cook).

– Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Brush the meatballs with oil and roast on a rack set over a pan of water for 1 hour 15 minutes, flipping them over after the first 45 minutes. Alternatively, you can grill the meatballs until the internal temperature registers 165 degrees.

Lemon-Dill Rice

2 cups medium or long-grain rice, cooked according to package directions (but still better if just slightly undercooked)

freshly squeezed juice of 1 large lemon
1/2 cup melted butter
3 tbsps minced fresh dill
salt and pepper to taste

– Stir the lemon juice, butter and dill into the rice. Adjust the seasonings.

– Sprinkle with additional dill before serving.

Roast tomato salad

1 beefsteak tomato, stem removed, sliced into thin wedges
1 small onion, halved and sliced
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
2 tbsp melted butter
1/2 tbsp sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsps sunflower oil

– Place the sliced onions into a non-reactive bowl and pour vinegar over them. Cover and let marinade, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.

– Lightly oil a cookie sheet, and arrange the tomato slices on it in a single layer. Brush with melted butter, sprinkle with sugar and broil until the surface just begins to caramelize. Remove from the oven and let cool somewhat.

– Drain the onions. Transfer the still-warm tomatoes to a shallow serving dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Arrange the onions over them, sprinkle with garlic slices and drizzle with sunflower oil.

– Sprinkle with dill before serving, if desired.

Potato and Sardine Salad

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4 medium-sized yellow potatoes
6 oz canned sardines or sauries preserved in water, drained, deboned and broken up into bite-size pieces
2 dill pickles, diced
1 small onion, quartered and sliced very thin
2/3 cup canned peas, drained
2 tbsp minced fresh dill
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/3 cup sunflower oil
salt and pepper to taste

– Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water with skin on until just cooked through but still firm enough for dicing, about 25 minutes. Drain, let cool until safe to handle, then peel quickly and dice. Dress the diced, still-warm potatoes with vinegar, cover and let cool to room temperature.

– Add the sardines, pickles, onion, peas and dill. Season to taste. Dress with sunflower oil and mix, taking care not to mash the potatoes or the fish.

This salad will keep in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours.

Basic Tomato Salad

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4 medium tomatoes, halved vertically, stems removed
2 small cucumbers, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced across
2 tbsp thinly sliced purple onion and shallot
1 clove garlic, pressed
1 tbsp minced fresh herbs, such as dill, parsley, cilantro, or a combination of the three
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
⅓ cup sunflower oil
salt and pepper to taste

– Slice the tomatoes crosswise into edges with a base about ⅓ inch wide.

– Toss the vegetables together with the herbs, season with salt and pepper, and dress with lemon juice and sunflower oil.

The ingredients can be sliced up to an hour ahead of serving. Cover them and chill in the refrigerator. Once you add salt and dressing, the vegetables will begin to give off their juice, so do it just before serving.

Russian Salads

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Traditional Russian salads consist of ingredients that are chopped or sliced fairly small, bound in dressing and mixed to create something uniform. A more Western type of salad — that is to say, green leafy vegetables, either whole leaves or torn into large pieces, with some other ingredients arranged or piled on top — was virtually unknown when I was growing up and is not traditional in Russian cuisine, although lettuces are sometimes used.

Whenever oil is used in a dressing, it is sunflower oil, which gives Russian salads their distinctive, incomparable aroma. But don’t bother with sunflower oil at your local supermarket — those have been processed to death, so that they lack any distinctive smell or flavor. What you need for salads is “unrefined” sunflower oil, and that is only available at Russian and Ukrainian grocery stores. Even better is “unfiltered” sunflower oil — dark yellow, cloudy, with a sediment, and possessing especially intense flavor — but it is imported in small quantities and rarely available in the United States. Whenever I see it at my local Russian market, I always buy several bottles, because it is a rarity.

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