Russian salad: A recipe and a magical story

Most of my encounters with Russian salad have been in Spain – it’s a  dish commonly served in most tapas bars around the country.  I can’t say I’ve ordered it much, but its frequent appearances did get me wondering what the story was behind this ubiquitous salad.

There’s a bit to wade through, but legend has it was invented  in the 1860s and named the Olivier Salad for its creator, Lucien Olivier, who ran a Parisian-style restaurant in Moscow called Hermitage.

Originally it consisted of seriously gourmet ingredients, including black caviar, capers, steamed game hen, crayfish, veal, tongue and gherkins. Over time the caviar was dropped and the capers replaced with peas. Mr Olivier kept his recipe very secret (particularly that of the dressing). One of his sous chefs, Ivan Ivanov (now there’s a great Russian name) sneaked in one day and examined Lucien’s mise en place (ingredients, basically) which helped him make reasonable assumptions about the dressing and how to make it. So the recipe (or some form of it) got out into the wide world.

Now Russian salad’s generally made of chopped vegetables (chopped small, just a bit bigger than peas), meat or fish and hard boiled eggs, all bound together with mayonnaise. Your classic Soviet version now consists of potatoes, hard boiled eggs, peas, pickles and bologna in equal amounts mixed with enough mayo to bind all the ingredients together. Apparently Russian chefs are horrified by the inclusion of carrots, but they work for me, so are in my version. I’ve also jazzed the mayo up a bit, if you’re not a fan of tarragon, leave it out. I think it adds another delicious dimension to the mayo, along with the mustard.

Here’s my simple recipe which is a good starting point. From here you can add other ingredients to your hearts content and make it your own. I’m going to try chopped celery, hard boiled egg, prawns or shrimps, and cooked, diced meat like ham or chicken even maybe a bit of chorizo.

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The finished product served with love in a heart-shaped dish

Serves 4  as a side salad

2 carrots, peeled

8 small salad potatoes

2 handfuls frozen peas, defrosted

6 cornichons, diced

4 tbsp mayonnaise

1 tsp Dijon mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

Half a bunch of tarragon

Boil the potatoes and carrots until cooked. Allow to cool and cut into small dice.

Layer in  a bowl with the peas and cornichons.

Put the mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice and tarragon into a blender and blitz.

Gently mix the blended mayonnaise through the salad and serve.

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The beautifully vibrant colours of the vegetables before the addition of the tarragon mayo