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 sour cream and 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 New York Times version does—on careful, even dicing. Trimming and cutting the ingredients to uniform size makes for good balance, mouth feel and presentation.
FOR RUSSIAN SALAD
• 4 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cut into ¼-inch cubes
• ½ bag baby peeled carrots, (look for nice chubby ones) each cut lengthwise into four strips and then diced into small pieces
• 1 cup cornichons or baby garlic dill pickles, diced into ¼-inch pieces
• 1 cup pickled beets, drained of juice, diced into ¼-inch pieces
• ½ lb. good quality boiled ham, diced into ¼-inch cubes
• 1 Tbsp finely snipped fresh dill
• ½ cup good quality mayonnaise OR ½ cup homemade mayo (recipe follows)
• 2 Tbsp. pickle juice
• 6 quail eggs
• 1 lb. bag frozen peas, thawed
• ½ cup sour cream
• 1 tsp salt
• 1 tsp finely ground fresh cracked black pepper
• Sprig of fresh dill for garnish
FOR HOMEMADE MAYO (makes 2 1/2 cups)
• 2 large eggs (use pasteurized for food safety)
• ¼ tsp salt
• 1 Tablespoon sugar
• 1 ¼ teaspoons mustard powder
• ½ teaspoon paprika
• pinch of celery salt
• 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
• 1/3 cup white vinegar
• 2 cups vegetable oil, divided
Set five medium-sized bowls and one large bowl on your work surface. If using homemade mayonnaise, make that first. In a 1 quart container, combine all mayonnaise ingredients except the oil. Add ¼ cup of the oil. Using an immersion blender, blender or food processor blend this mixture for three minutes. Slowly add remaining oil in a steady stream until the mayonnaise has whipped into fluffy consistency. Refrigerate.
MAKE RUSSIAN SALAD
Using care and aiming for consistent ¼-inch cube size, dice the peeled potatoes, carrots, pickles, beets and ham, placing each in its own separate bowl once diced. Place potatoes in heavy-bottomed pot; cover with water to 2 inches above the surface of the potatoes. Heat to slow boil over medium heat. Once just fork tender, scoop potatoes out of the boiling water and into the large bowl with a slotted spoon. Leave the boiling water in the pot on the stove top. Add 1/2 cup mayo, pickle juice and dill to the warm potatoes in the large bowl.Add the diced carrot to the boiling water and simmer until just tender. Scoop cooked carrot out with slotted spoon and add to the potato mixture. Add quail eggs to the boiling water, lower to a gentle simmer and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove eggs and run under very cold water for two minutes. Set aside. Once cool, peel eggs. Reserve one egg to use as garnish on top of the finished salad. Chop remaining eggs and add to the salad. Stir in the ham, peas and pickle. Add sour cream. Season with salt and pepper. Slice the reserved boiled quail egg in half and arrange on top of salad in serving dish. Add sprig of dill. To serve, present the beets at the table with the salad and allow guests to mix in as desired.