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.

Russian

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.

russian2

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

 

Beautiful Babylonstoren

Today we headed into the Cape Winelands to one of the oldest Cape Dutch farms, Babylonstoren. It’s famous for its amazing gardens and Babel restaurant where they serve produce freshly picked from them. Cleverly, all the original outbuildings on the farm have been converted for use today – like Babel which has been fitted with floor to ceiling glass on two sides for a light-filled room overlooking immaculate vegetable beds on one side and a courtyard on the other.

The menu is pretty minimalist, with a choice of colour-coded salads for starters  – green, yellow and red. Beautifully colourful, fresh plates of food. Portions are large, we shared one salad between two and covered the colour spectrum. You can add extras to your salads, including smoked trout, free range poached eggs and hand-made yogurt cheese.

The green plate consisted of crunchy summer heirloom peas, fennel, apple, pear, asparagus and avocado with pea and mint ice cream and a parma ham dressing.

green salad

The freshest of greens and whites

Yellow meant carpaccio of pineapple topped with grilled and fresh sweetcorn, fresh butternut, granadilla, carrots, papino with a citrus, cinnamon and medjool date dressing.

yellow salad

Sunny yellows and oranges

Red offered slow roast tomatoes and strawberries, beetroot, radish, red onion and watermelon with a basil vinaigrette.

red salad

Vibrant reds with crunch

For mains there is a choice of four dishes: fish, steak, lamb and a vegetarian dish called a cauliflower sandwich.

The grilled double lamb cutlets came with a coriander, Chardonnay sauce and preserved kumquats. Served pink at my request they were tasty and tender.

lamb

Tender lamb cutlets and preserved kumquats

Bowls of roast butternut and crispy  potatoes were also delivered to the table. Our waiter informed us that their potatoes are the best in the world, and I must admit they are certainly up there. Hot, crunchy on the outside and perfectly soft on the inside. Yum!

Gotta love perfectly cooked potatoes

Gotta love perfectly cooked potatoes

The char-grilled fillet came (unusually) on the bone with bone marrow, fresh horseradish and a shiraz sauce. Love the plate!

steak

An amble around the amazing gardens before (or after) lunch is a must. It’s inspired by the Company Gardens of Cape Town where, for centruries, ships would replenish with sweet water, vegetables and fruit. Spread over eight acres you’ll find more than 300 varieties of plants – and they’re all edible. There’s guava avenue, an olive and citrus orchard, prickly pear maze, berries, a lotus pond and plenty of ducks and chickens, too.

olive trees

Olive trees and fragrant herbs

A visit to Babylonstoren is a unique experience. The food is fresh and the idea behind the menu is  novel – no worries about trying to get your Five a Day in here. And the expansive gardens are certain to impress. The restaurant is quite small and it’s very popular, so booking way in advance is crucial.

Babylonstoren is just off the R45 on the way to Franschhoek. Find out more at http://www.babylonstoren.com/

Cabo de Palos market: fruit and veg from the Orchard of Europe

After the fabulous fish I simply had to show you some of the amazing fruit and veg that you can get in Murcia. It’s a huge agricultural area which has earned it the nickname “the orchard of Europe” and you can see why every time you go into a shop or visit a market.

The Sunday market at the port of Cabo de Palos is a favourite. Fortified with a cafe con leche and pan con tomate enjoyed sitting overlooking the sea, we head to stock up for the week…and try not to get too carried away.

Start the day with coffee overlooking the harbour

Start the day with coffee overlooking the harbour

Everything gleams in the sunshine and is such great value. Stallholders tempt you in by getting you to taste a sliver of orange or a handful of cherries – one taste and you’re gone! I have to be strong-willed and remember to only buy at the end of the market day as carrying around kilograms of fruit and veg is more exercise than I want when shopping.

Huge red peppers glisten in the sunshine

Huge red peppers glisten in the sunshine

The cheapest, freshest garlic ever? Impossible to resist. As a result of buying such large quantities of ajos I’ve been cooking with it every day. I swear I feel healthier…

Juicy, pungent garlic is sold for 1 euro for 10 bulbs!

Juicy, pungent garlic is sold for 1 euro for 10 bulbs!

Lovely lettuces (cosollos – what a sweet-sounding word).

Or how about 7 lettuces for 1 euro?

Or how about 7 lettuces for 1 euro?

Jumbo asparagus and gnarly tomatoes

Jumbo asparagus and gnarly tomatoes

The juiciest of oranges for just 5 euros for 4kg.

Buy oranges in bulk..fresh juice to start the day

Buy oranges in bulk..fresh juice to start the day

Tomatoes, figs and cherries all in a row. Delicious sweetness.

Figs, cherries and tomatoes

Figs, cherries and tomatoes

Peaches you can smell from about a hundred metres away. They draw you in like a magnet.

Plump peaches piled up  high

Plump peaches piled up high

I truly feel like I’m in fruit and veg heaven when I’m in Murcia. It’s so easy to eat healthily and the variety means you never get bored with your five a day! Oh and the market offers plenty of other shopping opportunities. Clothes, shoes, kitchenware, spices, bags…all at great prices.

And then there’s the final purchase that has to be made – from the chicken rotisserie man. By the time you get there you’re salivating as the aroma of roasting chicken wafts through the market stalls. What’s the last thing we do before we leave the market? Buy a chicken! Yum…