Normally the words ‘Russian salad’ fill me with dread. Russian salad – also known as Salade Olivier or Salade Russe – belongs to that category of ‘international hotel food’ that is indistinct, safe and seemingly without borders. You know, the sort of food that’s found in every country and in most households: hummus, pasta with pesto/ tomato sauce, mushroom risotto, spaghetti bolognese, vegetable curry, rocket and parmesan salad, grilled goats cheese, omelette fines herbes, lasagne, ratatouille, chilli con carne, tiramisu, banoffee pie… you get the idea.
Moreover, Russian salad seems to be a throwback to the 1970s, when it would have graced many a ‘sophisticated’ dinner party table alongside blancmange and black forest gateau. Generally a little too ‘Abigail’s Party’ for my liking.
But, of course, my Russian salad is different. For a start, the recipe was given to me by the chef of a small, family-run Tuscan restaurant. He serves it spooned into radicchio leaves or in the cavities of cooked artichokes – so this dish is sort of vaguely Russian with an Italian sensibility. The vegetables are soft yet crisp. They are steamed rather than boiled. They retain their bright colours and nutrients. And finally, the tangy lemon mayonnaise is suffused with the anticipation of summertime.
The secret of a successful Russian salad is to add very little mayonnaise – just enough to coat the vegetables and bring them together in harmony, rather than suffocating them in gloopy, heavy, unctuous mass of unnecessary calories. What’s more, any leftovers are delicious tucked into a sandwich. Resolutely rustic with a distinct homemade feel, you certainly won’t find this version in any hotel restaurant – either side of the 1970s! Serves 4 to 6.
For the lemon mayonnaise:
1 medium organic free-range egg, at room temperature
6 fl oz/ 180 ml mild extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
For the salad:
3 small red or yellow beetroot, trimmed
2 medium potatoes
4 oz/ 100g fine green beans, trimmed and sliced
4 oz/ 100g green/ yellow wax beans or runner beans, trimmed and sliced
2 small carrots, trimmed, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped cornichons or dill pickles
3 tablespoons small capers, rinsed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 recipe lemon mayonnaise (as above)
Green or black olives, pitted and halved
Lightly toasted caraway seeds
Fresh dill or flat-leaf parsley, roughly torn
Very thin half-slices of lemon
1. Start by making the mayonnaise. Crack the egg into a blender. Add salt and 2 to 3 tablespoons of the oil. Blend until the egg is pale yellow and frothy.
2. Keep the blender running, and add the remaining oil in a thin stream. If the egg begins to curdle and the oil is not being absorbed, stop pouring in the oil and continue blending the mixture until all the oil is incorporated. Then continue to add the oil until the mayonnaise thickens.
3. Add some of the lemon juice and zest, blend for a few seconds longer, and taste. Then continue adding the lemon juice and zest, and taste until the mayonnaise achieves the desired lemony strength.
4. Transfer the mayonnaise into a container and chill in the refrigerator until ready to use.
5. To make salad, steam the beetroot, potatoes, two types of green beans, and carrots in individual compartments of a steamer. Take special care to keep the beetroot separate, or it will stain other vegetables. Cook until all the vegetables are tender but still a little firm. Drain and, when cool enough to handle, peel and dice the potatoes and beetroot.
6. Place all the vegetables in a large bowl. Mix in the cornichons, capers, olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper.
7. Add enough mayonnaise to lightly bind the salad. Garnish with one or more of the suggested garnishes, if desired. Chill the salad in the refrigerator. Serve cold or at room temperature.