Prior to moving to Israel, my only experience with Russian food was at a stodgy café in Berlin where I could only order from greasy photographs on the wall. I think I ate a lovely borscht but it's best to ask the copious amounts of epic German beer I’d put away the night before. Though not the most marked of food memories, the experience was a fantastic parallel to the general mystery that Russian culture as a whole emanates.
Then, when I moved to Haifa in the north of Israel, I became immersed in Russian…everything. This included dodgy Russian supermarkets, unhelpful bank clerks, and pink pickled herring. To add to insult, I started dating a Russian man whose family had recently moved to Israel. Said Russian man has since managed to win both the status of love of my life and that of best cooking student,
something four years of cohabitation might be to blame.
But back then, the pressure was on, both from a dating standpoint because, as an American Sephardic Jew, I was about as far from the acceptable dating pool as possible, but also from a culinary standpoint. I felt an unspoken shove from my mother-in-law to learn to cook Russian food. Little did she know I was one step ahead of her. I had served Russian salad in my restaurant in London, and was honestly comfortable with the results. My now life partner taste tested it and gave his seal of approval. He had of course failed to tell me that his mother took special pride in her version of the dish and that that was in fact his favorite food. The pressure was tremendous.
You see, in Russia, a festivity without olivier salad is the equivalent of Thanksgiving with no turkey: people are wondering what the flying f**** happened and politely rioting. Every Russian woman makes the salad with her special touch inherited from generations of potato peeling, and who dares whistle while they work for fear that all their fortunes fly away!
Russian festivities are something really special. The dining table will have miraculously expanded to four times its original size and will be filled to the last millimeter with seven different kinds of pickles, including watermelon, tomato, and mushroom. Besides olivier, other common dishes include vinaigrette salad (no, it’s not one big vat of salad dressing but a beet, pea and onion mixture that surprisingly does not feature mayonnaise as its crucial ingredient), and homemade gravlax. Chicken soup usually follows, by which time the guests are filled to the brim and are expected to dine on a whole roasted salmon with boiled potatoes. The meal will end with fruit accompanied by custard-rich cakes, such as my partner’s favorite, napoleon. The dinner always concludes with sufficiently rank garlic breath to destroy several clones of Dracula.
To not offend anyone, but I really do prefer my own version of olivier (sorry Mrs S). Here’s a preview for the slow coming “Picky Tongue: Lockdown”. That title is getting less funny as COVID is coming to a close.
4 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, medium dice
2 carrots, medium dice
2 tsp capers
3 dill pickles, medium dice
1/2 cup peas, fresh or frozen
1/4 cup chopped dill
1/4 cup chopped parsley
3/4 cup mayonnaise (ideally Russian, it makes a crucial difference)
1 tbs apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
Put three pots of heavily salted water to boil. Cook the potatoes until soft, the carrots until a fork goes through them with light resistance, and the peas until bright green. Drain all the vegetables well. In the meantime, hard boil the eggs by putting them in a saucepan covered with water and bringing them to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover the pan and let the eggs steam for 11 minutes. Drain, peel, and roughly chop immediately before they overcook. To assemble, gently mix the vegetables and garnishes together, then add the mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Serve chilled.