The August heatwave, the last weeks of pregnancy, the latest videos recorded for our new virtual cooking class, the hours lazily spent in front of a fan. Eating the watermelon directly from the fridge every afternoon, and a few wedges of melon to close almost every dinner. The closed shutters, dining out with the family, looking for some fresh air, the tomatoes just picked in my mum’s vegetable garden, the peaches from the market. I don’t know how it happened, but it is already August.
In the upcoming months a baby will turn our life upside down, but we will try to come back here, and on social media, from time to time, as we have worked on some new tasty recipes, and we can’t wait to share them with you.
I’m beginning today, with a post which is shorter than usual, but sports one of my summer favourite side dishes, the Russian salad.
The origin of this salad are still unknown: there are those who want it to be Franco-Russian, and date it to the Napoleonic times, and those who swear by a Belgian-Russian origin, saying it was created by the chef Lucien Olivier, to whom it owns its other name, salad Olivier. There are those who bring up the ubiquitous Caterina de’ Medici, and those who instead place its origin in nineteenth-century Piedmont.
For me, the love for a properly made Russian salad was born in the summer days of my childhood, in the dim light of my grandma’s kitchen, at lunchtime.
Grandma used to make it often in those years. She would nicely arrange it a ceramic plate, and decorate it with hard-boiled eggs. She would pull it out of the fridge just in time for lunch, so that it was still cold. Everyone loved it, as it helped to keep the heat of those summer days at bay.
Both Pellegrino Artusi and Ada Boni present a recipe for Russian salad in their books – Artusi includes also beetroots, capers and anchovies, while Ada Boni suggests to serve it with boiled fish or chicken.
But the most fascinating story about Russian Salad belongs to Anna del Conte.
In the first chapter of her food memoir, Risotto with Nettles, she tells about her family. They used to live in a nice flat on the second floor of a pleasant mid-nineteenth-century house in via del Gesù, a quiet residential street lined with elegant family houses. One day Anna’s mum was having a lunch party and she needed some extra Russian salad from Zanocco, a deli of via Monte Napoleone.
In Italy in the pre-war years it was often served at smart lunches and dinners. Mamma used to make a delicious Russian salad: to all the cooked vegetables she would add simp0le ingredients, like hard-boiled eggs or anchovies fillets, of luxurious pieces of lobster, depending on the importance of the meal.
Today, Russian salad has fallen out of fashion. Maybe it is for the presence of mayonnaise, maybe because we link it to a past time. For me, though, it remains a dish related to cherished memories, something I still enjoy to cook and eat, and that appears on my table in summer every now and then. I make it with seasonal vegetables, cooked al dente, with a good mayonnaise, some Greek yogurt and a handful of fresh herbs to lighten its taste.
Summer Russian salad
I developed this recipe in collaboration with Betty Bossi, using their Sauce maker. It is an efficient, smart gadget to make mayonnaise and butter sauces. The fat of your choice, either olive oil or melted butter, drops little by little directly onto the whisks while you manually turn them, adjusting the speed to your expertise. In a few minutes I managed to make a thick, lemony mayonnaise from scratch, without spilling oil everywhere. Next time I want to make a hollandaise sauce, which in the past has given me a hard time.
If you don’t want to use raw eggs, you can use pasteurised yolks to make this mayonnaise: 20 grams would do. Read also this old post from the blog archive where I shared Julia Child’s tricks to make a perfect mayonnaise: remember that the temperature of the eggs, and of all the other ingredients, is crucial.
Once I had prepared the mayonnaise, I stirred in a few dollops of Greek yogurt, to make it lighter and give it a slightly tart flavour, enhanced by a tablespoon of chopped pickled gherkins. Then, to make it richer, I crumbled two hard boiled eggs along with the cooked vegetables – potatoes, carrots, zucchini, green beans and frozen peas. Fresh herbs like basil and thyme added a pleasant, herbaceous note, too.
Now it is up to you. You can serve this Russian salad as a side dish – it would perfectly complement a roasted or boiled fish, or some white meat -, or as a main dish, served along a summery tomato salad drizzled with your best extra virgin olive oil and scattered with lots of basil.
Ingredients to make the yogurt mayonnaise
- 1 yolk, at room temperature
- 100 ml (1/2 cup) vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon mustard
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- black pepper
- 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt
Ingredients to make the Russian salad
- 2 medium potatoes
- 2 medium carrots
- 2 medium zucchini
- 150 g (5.3 oz) green beans
- 100 g (3/4 cup) frozen peas
- 3 hard-boiled eggs
- a few fresh basil leaves
- a few sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1 tablespoon pickled gherkins
- Make the mayonnaise. Whisk the yolk with mustard and lemon juice, pouring the vegetable oil drop by drop. When the mayonnaise is thick and has absorbed all the oil, season with salt and pepper and add more lemon to your taste.
- Now stir in the Greek yogurt, mix thoroughly and set aside.
- Now prepare all the vegetables, keeping them separate in different bowls.
- Peel the potatoes and dice them. Do the same with carrots and zucchini. Clean the green beans, removing the ends, and dice them, too.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then salt it and cook the vegetables in batches, one after the other. Drain them with a slotted spoon, collect them in a colander and pass them under cold water to stop the cooking.
- By cooking the vegetables separately, and cutting them into the same size, you will be able to cook them perfectly, avoiding mushy vegetables. I cooked the potatoes and the carrots for 5 minutes, the green beans for 7, the zucchini for 3 minutes and the frozen peas for 4: the exact timing, though, will depend on the size of your vegetables and on your personal taste. I like the vegetables to be cooked through, but still al dente.
- Once all the vegetables are cooked and cold, collect them in a larger bowl. Add the diced gherkins, too.
- Mash two of the three hard-boiled eggs with a fork until crumbly, then add them to the vegetables. You can keep the third egg aside to decorate the Russian salad, or crumble it too.
- Now add the basil, tearing up the leaves with your hands, and the thyme leaves.
- Add the yogurt mayonnaise, mix thoroughly and gently and season with salt and pepper, if needed.
- Keep the Russian salad in the fridge for at least an hour before serving. It can be kept in the fridge, covered, for a day or two.
How to make perfect hard-boiled eggs?
I grew up with my nonna’s mantra: you have to boil the eggs as long as it takes to say the Apostles’ Creed prayer. On the other hand, my mum would simply forget the eggs there, in a saucepan with fast boiling water, until she would suddenly remember to remove them, with the result that often the yolk began to turn greenish.
I have a profound reverence for eggs, and for simple cooking methods that never fail. For some time now, when I want to make perfect hard-boiled eggs, first I bring them to room temperature, should they be in the fridge, then I arrange them in a saucepan where they can comfortably sit one next to the other. Eventually I cover the eggs with water.
Now I put the saucepan on the stove and bring it to a boil. When the water boils, I turn off the heat, leave the saucepan on the burner, which is still hot, and cover it with a lid. Set your timer for 10 minutes, if you want perfect hard-boiled eggs with a firm, cooked yolk. If you aim for soft-boiled eggs instead, set there timer for 5 or 6 minutes. After this time, drain the eggs, pass them under cold water and peel them. They are always perfect.
Serve this summer Russian salad with…
Here is a menu for a summer evening, something you can prepare in advance, and serve at the last moment. Along with the Russian salad, make a sliced tomato salad, dress it with your best extra virgin olive oil, oregano and fresh basil leaves. The day before, roast a stuffed turkey breast, and slice it at the very last minute, heating just the cooking juices left in the pan. To close the dinner, grill some seasonal stone fruit, and drizzle it with a vanilla and rosemary honey syrup.
- Stuffed turkey breast. When I think about my mum’s stuffed turkey breast, it reminds me of festive days and long tables with the family gathered for a meal together. It is a juicy and tasty meat. It makes me reach for a slice of bread to mop the sauce left at the bottom of the pan, made with extra virgin oil, white wine, melted cheese and meat juices. In short, for us who do not have the tradition of roasting a whole turkey to celebrate a festive day, the turkey breast is the most convenient choice: a lean, cheap and versatile cut of meat.
- Grilled stone fruit. Choose ripe seasonal stone fruit and aim for variety, as this will provide different colours, textures and tastes. White peaches and nectarines, apricots, yellow and red plums… they all serve the purpose, with yellow peaches being my first choice as they char to perfection after a few minutes on a scorching hot griddle pan, acquiring a jammy texture. Serve the grilled stone fruit drizzled with a honey syrup flavoured with rosemary and vanilla. You can also add a scoop of your favourite gelato or a tablespoon of milky ricotta, simply dusted with cinnamon.
- More on the Russian salad, its history and ingredients here and here.
- ‘A Simple Green Salad’: Fanny Singer’s Litmus Test for a Good Restaurant. Fanny Singer, Alice Waters’ daughter, shares her mom’s passion for a simple, green salad. I can’t wait to try their dressing.
- When Did Recipe Writing Get So… Whitewashed? An interesting conversation between Priya Krishna and Yewande Komolafe about recipe writing, and about the distorted perspective food writing often has in America (and Europe).