Chances are good that whatever you’re cooking, a classic example exists for which certain ingredients and a particular preparation are considered the historic standard. Salads, too, have their traditions. There’s the iconic Italian Caprese with overlapping slices of ripe tomatoes and mozzarella, the French Nicoise with a garnish of tuna and anchovies, the American Cobb with its rows of chopped vegetables and meats, Greek with feta in the starring role, and Caesar with its creamy dressing and crisp greens.
Less well-known, but on menus all over Europe, the Balkans, and Latin America, is Salade Russe (variously known as Salade Olivier, Olivye Salat, Ensalada Rusa, Russian Salad), originally made for celebrations. Like the other traditional salads, no two are alike. The main components are potatoes, carrots, ham, pickles, and mayonnaise. Some cooks add cabbage, hard-cooked eggs, onion, and dill. Other add-ins include peas, which most of the year means frozen or canned, beets, which turn the mayo a Pepto pink color, and corn, mostly from a can.
Salade Russe was invented in Moscow in the mid-19th century by a Belgian-French chef, Lucien Olivier, writes Darra Goldstein in “Beyond the North Wind.” That salad contained wild game, crayfish, and homemade mayonnaise and became quite popular. Over the years ingredients were streamlined to include more accessible items — ham instead of game, commercial sauce instead of whisked mayonnaise. Wherever Russians or Ukrainians, who also make the salad, lived, they started preparing it, which explains why you see it on menus so far from its place of origin. And the salad has been adapted to include a variety of other ingredients. Goldstein makes hers with her own home-cured salmon, potatoes, and cucumbers, which is a lovely adaptation.
All salads are either composed or tossed. Composed means that the individual ingredients are arranged on a platter or on individual plates and dressing is spooned on top. More common tossed salads are the kind on most American dinner tables — greens and dressing tossed together and served from a big bowl.
Typically, Salade Russe is a tossed salad. Everything is cooked, chopped, and mixed, which makes it look something like an ordinary potato salad you’d see on any summer picnic table, only with a little more color. When you taste it, it’s a different story. The ham adds a smoky quality and the pickles are a nice surprise. The salad deserves more than the smush effect.
I turned Salade Russe into a composed salad to give it a different presentation, with all the ingredients arranged in no particular pattern on individual plates to create a flower-garden effect. And along the way I changed how some of the components are prepared.
Where a classic Russe contains cooked carrots, they add more to the dish if you grate them raw and toss them with a little vinegar and salt. I also add Persian cucumbers and give them a similar treatment. Slice them thinly and sprinkle with salt; refrigerate them for a couple of hours, or overnight. This doesn’t cure them but it takes the raw taste away and makes the little slices more interesting.
The pickles in Salade Russe, especially if you find half-sours or dills or others that are bottled without turning the cucumbers sugary, are just right with the potatoes and mayonnaise. They cut through the dressing nicely. I like the idea of mixing these pickles with the quick-cured cucumbers because you get the original vegetable beside its preserved version. Kind of like before-and-after photos of your kitchen reno.
Potatoes, preferably small golden potatoes about the size of golf balls, are steamed, then sliced and tossed with vinegar and salt.
You’d think that with two ingredients tossed with vinegar the salad would be too acidic, but it isn’t. The potatoes completely absorb the vinegar and bring out the earthiness of the little spuds and the sprinkle of vinegar in the carrots is faint.
The mayonnaise is mixed with a generous spoonful of mustard, some lemon juice to thin it, and enough warm water to make a dressing with a pouring consistency. Drizzle the dressing over the plates after you assemble them.
You can always chop the potatoes and ham and toss everything in a big bowl to make it more like the classic version. The beauty of the dish is that you can do what you like.