Russian Salad (known to the rest of the world as Salad Olivier) is a holiday staple in every Balkan home. This shapeshifter easily transforms from an appetizer into a fancy side, or, with a slice of bread, into the main course. Take away the meat and you get French salad. Substitute with fish (and fast-approved dressings) and Russian Salad becomes perfect for Orthodox fast as well. I think of it as the salad with endless possibilities.
RUSSIAN SALAD (SALAD OLIVIER) INGREDIENTS
If I had to categorize it, I’d place Russian in the ‘winter salad’ category.
I’m not even sure if ‘winter’ and ‘summer’ salads exist. I came up with this categorization for myself, and it’s based on ingredients; seasons don’t necessarily have anything to do with it. As an example, Russian salad is on my table year round, as is caprese, a salad that screams ‘summer’.
Winter salads are heavier, their ingredients sometimes cooked, and they usually cool in the fridge for a while. Think potato salad: it’s dense and easily a meal on its own.
Winter salads fill you up.
Summer salads are generally based on lots and lots of leafy greens. You really have to dress them up with protein, vegetables, seeds, dried fruits and sauces to make a meal out of them. Even then they’re not particularly filling.
Qualities that make Russian salad a winter salad are heavier ingredients like meat and eggs.
- Best meats for Russian salad are shredded chicken, bacon, smoked beef or ham. Fish works too if you want to make it edible for a fast. Some people prefer to use two types of meat at the same time. I like it best with smoked beef.
- Russian salad vegetables, usually carrots and potatoes, are cooked and diced. Everything is layered in a large bowl, together with minced pickles and peas.
- Ingredients are mixed well and dressed with mayonnaise. Salad then rests in fridge for at least few hours, preferably overnight. Some mix mayo with sour cream. It’s rare that dressings other than mayo and sour cream would be used for Russian salad although lemon and mustard sometimes make an appearance.
Some use herbs like dill and parsley.
TIPS FOR BLB RUSSIAN SALAD
My Russian salad gets a lot of compliments. Here are my tips:
- Eggs - more is more here. Eggs soften the salad. The more you put in, the better the salad.
- Herbs - be conservative. A simple parsley garnish is best.
- Mince - the smaller ingredients, the better.
- Mix - mix ingredients thoroughly and continuously as you’re adding layers.
- The night before - the salad is best when it spends the night in fridge.
- Signature Salad - there are many ways to make Russian salad, but it’s one of those salads you should make yours. Add and subtract ingredients until you think it tastes perfect.
- Mayo - homemade is best, but who has the time? Find a mild one, otherwise mayonnaise will hijack the taste. Also, less is more here.
(I hear mayo is well and alive in Russian cuisine. Friends of mine who recently visited Russia returned hungry. Their stories abound with quips of mayo inspired meals. Fish, steak, sandwiches… all drenched in mayo. Russia was the only place in the world (and they visited many), where they ate at local McDonald’s. Russian readers, is this true about your cuisine? What are some dishes tourists unfamiliar with your dishes should try?)
RUSSIAN SALAD (SALAD OLIVIER) ORIGINS
The following story about the origin of Russian salad (Salad Olivier) is the same one floating around the internet so I can’t vouch for its accuracy. But it’s as close as we’ll get to the real story, so here we go.
Nineteenth century Moscow hailed great restaurants. One of these was Hermitage, featuring a fantastic Belgian chef Lucien Olivier. Olivier was known best for a salad he created, salad so tasty Olivier lived in constant fear his recipe would be stolen.
This is exactly what happened.
One night an emergency called him away from the kitchen just as he prepped salad’s ingredients. As soon as Olivier stepped out, sous-chef Ivanov snuck in. Seeing the ingredients laid out Ivanov more or less figured out the Salad Olivier recipe.
After a while Ivanov quit Hermitage and got a job at restaurant Moskva, where soon they started to offer a salad very similar to Salad Olivier. Some recipe versions even ended up in the newspapers. Had Ivanov not committed recipe theft it’s doubtful Russian Salad would become Balkan’s go-to salad that it is today. Nor would this salad, along with some Eastern Europeans, make it all the way to Argentina.
FRENCH VS RUSSIAN SALAD & OTHER VARIATIONS
As the salad spread, so did its variations. (My guess is as it made its way outside of Russia, people started calling it Russian Salad.) Olivier personally never wrote the recipe down so what we’re eating today is a poor man’s version of this magnificent feat.
Admittedly, original salad had some questionable ingredients for this day and age. (Crayfish tails? Veal tongue?) Today people use regionally available ingredients. I wonder sometimes whether Olivier would even consider that what we make and eat as Russian salad today as his invention.
By the way, in the Balkans you’ll encounter two versions of this salad: Russian and French. French salad is the vegetarian version of Russian. Ingredients are the same, but French salad is meatless. (Lacto-vegetarians take notice!)
To make this into a fast friendly (think Orthodox fast) you’d make a stripped down version of the same (no eggs, no meat, although fish is allowed), and make sure that mayo or other dressing you’re using is fast approved. If making it for Muslim or Jewish friends, use meats other than pork.
HOW AND WHAT TO SERVE RUSSIAN SALAD WITH
Although it’s usually served as a side dish, like ajvar, Russian salad is a perfect spread.
I love taking the biggest spoon I own, grabbing an obscene amount of the salad and smearing it on a pastry. If all I have is bread, I take the end piece and dip it in. End bread piece is usually crunchy and soft at the same time, and more importantly, the biggest piece. (Btw, we call it “okrajak,” and everyone wants it.)
Russian salad is also great with breaded chicken, and along any meat that’s on the dry side. No meza platter is complete without a little bowl of Russian salad. For a deep winter flavor, eat it with the local bean stew. I even like it in an unusual combo with moussaka. And if you ever wondered if you could eat salad with a salad try Russian with cabbage salad. It’s kind of amazing.
Because there are so many flavors involved Russian salad is one of those dishes you can’t describe taste-wise. Yet once you try it, you’ll always recognize it. In one moment you’ll feel the freshness of a pickle on your tongue, and soon after, texture of hard boiled eggs will soften the bite. There is a slight feel of mayo, however like a good butter, you shouldn’t be able to taste it separately.
It’s an orchestra of ingredients that perfectly merge into a melody.
Russian Salad (Salad Olivier)
- 3 Russet potatoes medium, peeled, cooked, diced small
- 5-6 eggs hard boiled, peeled, diced
- 4 carrots medium, peeled, cooked, diced
- 12-14 ounces sweet peas cooked
- 12 ounces ham or dried/smoked beef, cooked skinless chicken or fish, diced
- 4-6 pickles medium, diced small
- 4-5 ounces mayonnaise
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a large bowl start layering ingredients. As you're adding them mix them until they're thoroughly integrated.
- Add mayo in batches, and continue stirring until integrated. Transfer salad into the serving bowl. Cover with saran wrap and leave in the fridge for at least 3-4 hours, preferably overnight.