A Russian salad for America’s Independence Day

Russian Salad

Russian Salad

If by reading the title you expected intrigue and a spy-vs-spy story, you came to the right place. The story of Salad Olivier begins in Czarist Russia when wealth and luxuries were not yet verboten. A Belgian chef known as Lucien Olivier came to Moscow in the 1860’s bearing secrets of French cooking. He opened a fancy-shmancy restaurant in Moscow called The Hermitage. This was not a one-room affair, rather an entire building with multiple dining rooms. Here Chef Olivier served a salad with every manner of luxury ingredient and choice meat — caviar, capers, game hen, crayfish tails. He called this the Salad Olivier.

Hermitage restaurant, Moscow (source: http://www.sras.org/russian_olivier_salad)

Hermitage restaurant, Moscow (source: http://www.sras.org/russian_olivier_salad)

Of course, he did not invent this salad out of his sheer imagination but rather based it on a famous dish from Provençe known as Le Grand Aioli. This is essentially a feast of vegetables and meats, laid out separately to serve with aioli, which is basically a mayonnaise with garlic and mustard. He served his salad in layers, the ‘Provençal sauce’ on the side, to be poured over. His Russian customers would dispense with the niceties and simply mix it all up. So he followed their lead and Salad Olivier was served the Russian way, all mixed up with his Provençal sauce.

Salad Olivier made his restaurant famous; although the main ingredients of the salad were obvious for all to see, he never divulged the secret of what went into his mayonnaise. Now remember that mayonnaise at the time was a French import, not ubiquitous on every grocery shelf from Japan to the United States. It had to be made by hand. It is an emulsion, which means the liquids involved in it are so well mixed together that it is impossible to tell what went into it. So as you can see, mayonnaise is inherently mysterious. So is milk, another emulsion.

A lovely graphic showing emulsion by blog.ioanacolor.com

A lovely graphic showing emulsion by blog.ioanacolor.com

Sorry for the bad pun, but Lucien Olivier milked it. The secrets of his mayonnaise remained hidden until his grave. They had to come to his restaurant for the salad, or else go without. But then, a disgruntled local employee called Ivan Mikhailovich Ivanov tricked him into leaving his kitchen momentarily while the famous mayo was being whipped up. He managed to note down the ingredients, left the restaurant, and began selling his facsimile of Salad Olivier at a different restaurant, under the name of Capital Salad (Stolichny Salad).

This stolen salad was never quite as good as the original, but it did mean that the rest of middle-class Russia was able to partake in it. With the revolution came the backlash against all things bourgeois, and this salad was stripped of its more expensive ingredients. A sort of consensus developed around a small set of ingredients — potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, boiled chicken, peas, pickles.

From Russia it spread to the Middle-east and Asia, and to India. Growing up, my introduction to Russian salad happened in a vegetarian restaurant in India that avoided the chicken. Somewhere en route from Russia to India a very important modification was made to it — Russian salad in India always includes chunks of some crunchy fruit — pineapple, apple, etc. In my opinion this is the best part.

In fact that makes it, to my palate, more delicious than the potato salad that is traditional for July 4th barbecues, so that is what I brought to a friend’s. Any hint of treason is purely for taste.

First the mayonnaise. Lucien Olivier’s mayonnaise was an aioli, which includes garlic and mustard. I used this recipe (which used this recipe) and whipped it up in a jar.

Garlic and mustard

Garlic and mustard

Eggs, oil, garlic-mustard, lemon juice in a jar

Eggs, oil, garlic-mustard, lemon juice in a jar

Improvised double-boiler

Improvised double-boiler

Garlic mustard mayonnaise (aioli)

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup almond oil (you can use any light-tasting oil)
  • 2 medium eggs or 1 large
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Put minced garlic and mustard into  a mortar along with a pinch of salt. Give it ten minutes to sit and then pound it to a paste together. You do not have to powder the mustard seeds completely. Put the oil, eggs, garlic-mustard, lemon juice in a Ball jar or Weck jar or empty jam jar. Using an immersion blender, whir it for just about 30 seconds or a minute. The mayonnaise should come together right away.

Now my salad was going to be sitting out in the sun so I chose to heat it up to to 135ºF in a double boiler while blending away. You do not need to do this, specially if you use pasteurized eggs.

Now for the Russian salad, based on a French salad, made the Indian vegetarian way, for America’s Independence day. These are the ingredients I used, but please be creative and add whatever makes sense to you.

Ingredients for salad

Ingredients for salad

All diced

All diced

Dish lined with lettuce

Dish lined with lettuce

Mixed

Mixed

Vegetarian Russian Salad

Ingredients:
  • About 6 small red potatoes
  • 1 large carrot
  • 1 cup of frozen peas, thawed
  • 3/4 large red apple
  • 3 tablespoons slivered almonds
  • 1 small cucumber (substitute with celery)
  • About 8 outer leaves of butter lettuce
  • Half a teaspoon paprika, more for garnish
  • Salt to taste
  • About a cup of mayonnaise from above
Method:

Boil the potatoes and carrots in their skins, in salted water. When done, drain, let them cool, then dice into small pea-sized pieces. Dice the apple and cucumber into similar sized dice as well. Leave the skin on (adds a nice colorful touch). Thaw the peas.

Line your serving dish with the lettuce. Mix the ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Add the mayonnaise, paprika, and salt to taste. Mix together nicely. Serve it out in the bed of lettuce.


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Masala french toast

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Masala french toast

In India we seem to have a savory correlate for a lot of Western breakfasts. Yes, we have crepes, but we call them dosas and have them with sambhar. Yes we have pancakes, except we call them uttapams and once again dip them in hot chutneys and sambhars. We have our comfort food in cream of wheat (sooji/rawa), except it is cooked with mustard seeds and chilies and onions to make upama.

And of course, we have French Toast, but please stay away from the whipped cream and the sliced bananas and the maple syrup, and instead reach for the chilies and onions — presenting the Masala French Toast. This makes enough  for one serving of brunch.

Step 1: chop the vegetables

Finely chop: half a small onion, half a small tomato, one serrano chili, a fistful of cilantro.

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Masala french toast vegetables

Step 2: combine with eggs

Break two small eggs into a bowl along with the chopped vegetables. Add 3/4 teaspoon salt. Stir with a fork using a beating motion. You could use an egg beater if you like, The eggs will get a little foamy but there is no need to get them completely whipped.

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Step 3: soak the slices of bread

I used two large slices of white French bread. I generally prefer French bread for this recipe because it has no added sugar (most of the store-bought sliced breads will have added sugar, which clashes with the savoriness of this recipe). Lay them flat on a plate, pour about two-thirds of the egg mixture on. Spread it to cover the slices. The chopped vegetables will cover the slices, that is fine. Soak for a few minutes, turn the slices over, and soak the other side as well. All in all, the slices should soak for about five minutes. Help the egg along onto the dry parts if it is being shy.

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Masala french toast soaking

Step 4: shallow fry

Heat a nonstick pan on medium-high with a teaspoon or two of oil. Spread it around the pan with a spatula. When it shimmers, it is time to lay the soaked slices down: carefully, their structure is probably pretty compromised by egg-soaking by now.

Now one side of each slice will be better soaked than the other (this is what usually happens with me). Lay this side down first, with only a minimal amount of vegetables sticking to it. Our plan is to get this side to crisp up in that wonderfully eggy way, and a thick layer of chopped vegetables will only interfere with the browning.

But the top surface is where the thick layer of chopped vegetables belongs. Once the slices are laid down, pour the rest of the egg mixture on the surface of the slices, spread it around.

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Masala french toast shallow fry

Wait about seven minutes on medium-high heat, and the lower surface will start to brown, crisp up, and will smell quite eggilicious. At this point, carefully flip them over with a spatula. No heroics, just gently lift them up, and lay them down the other side, with the help of a fork. If you try the fancy flipping techniques you will have eggy vegetables strewn all over the stove.

Lower the heat, cook for another few minutes, or just long enough to get the egg to set. Serve!

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Masala french toast flipped over