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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Avocado Relish

There are some Westerners who go to India and fall in love with being Indian. They make all sorts of claims about their souls being Indian, or having been Indian in some previous life time; and, if you think about it, there couldn’t be a better proof of feeling Indian than throwing around claims about previous life times. Some start to wear rudraksha beads and saffron robes. The more extreme among them might take on a Hindu name.

We have all met at least a couple such people; if not, visit your nearest ISKCON and you will. But today I will introduce you to one such friend of mine — the avocado.

This fruit with buttery green flesh is native to Mexico. To me, the taste of the avocado has always been reminiscent of the flesh of young coconut: the kind you stick a straw in first to drink up the water and then the coconut-wallah scrapes the flesh off from the inside and hands it to you, using the shell as a bowl.

But stick it in a saffron robe and you would think this fruit was born and raised in India. It takes well to a number of Indian preparations. Mix it with yogurt to make a raita. Stick in a paratha. Spice it up to make chutneys. As I experiment I will be blogging about various Indian treatments for the avocado. But today, I will make that quintessential fresh accompaniment to rich and heavily spiced food — the kachumber.

Kachumbers are little salads or relishes that emphasize freshness and coolness. A bite of this is supposed to freshen your mouth during the meal. It usually consists some combination of onion, tomato, cucumber with lime juice. Try it with avocado, as below; it brings the taste of kachumber up to lusciousness.

This makes enough as a dinner side for two.

Avocado Kachumber

Ingredients:

  • Half an avocado, large, diced
  • Quarter cup finely diced red onion
  • Quarter cup finely diced tomato
  • One third cup finely diced cucumber
  • 1 green chili, serrano or jalapeno, finely diced
  • 1-2 teaspoon minced cilantro
  • Juice of one lime or lemon
  • Half a teaspoon salt

Method:

Couldn’t be simpler. Mix it all up! We had this as a side to fish and rice.

IMG_0693IMG_0695

Post script: Although I first tasted the avocado only after I came to California, where it grows easily even in home gardens, it turns out that avocado grows in India as well, under the guise of butter fruit. It seems to be known mostly in the south, and is only available during August and September. It also has trouble hitting that right moment of ripening — sometimes the fruit rots before getting there. But if you see it, do purchase it!