Russian salads

When I went to St. Petersburg for a summer abroad during college, I was fully expecting to love it–the canals, the palaces, the riotiously colored onion-domed cathedrals, the museums, the music, the cafes with storied literary names, the languid blue dusk of the White Nights.

What I didn’t expect to fall in love with was the food.

Russian food, at least as my friends made it out, was bland. Heavy. Unimaginative. Potatoes, sour cream and beets for weeks on end. I don’t know why I was surprised when my friends turned out to be wrong.

I spent the summer eating buckwheat groats with mushrooms, savory hand pies, crisp half-pickled cucumbers, fresh sunset-hued cherries, handmade tvorog and raspberry jam, buckwheat crepes filled with red caviar (yes, that’s a thing, and yes, I’m drooling right along with you), spicy lamb stews and giant kebabs, delicate dumplings with vinegar and dill…I could go on. Many of these things will eventually make it onto this here blog, for sure.

But, to whet your appetite, I’ll start with a sampling from the venerable Russian tradition of a table full of small nibbles, or zakuski. Here are two salads I made for my Communist Party, representing the two culinary traditions I sampled in St. Petersburg: Russian and Georgian.

Salat Olivier, a pickle-spiked potato salad supposedly named for the chef who invented it, fulfills every stereotype of the stolid Russian diet: potatoes, canned vegetables, pickles, sour cream. But, somehow, the result isn’t as frightfully heavy as it could be. There’s just enough dairy to bind the ingredients together, and the briny pickles give a much-needed edge. This is such a classic addition to any spread of zakuski that Americans might very well know it simply as “Russian salad.” I wouldn’t want to eat a big plateful of this, but as a nibble among nibbles it’s quite lovely.

Interestingly enough, I found the Georgian food I ate in Russia to be heftier than the Russian food. There was a lot of lamb, a lot of rice, a lot of richly spiced sauces. But that spicy, tangy, slightly wild edge also showed up in lighter dishes, like the sprightly kidney bean salad called lobio. I like this a lot–it’s fragrant and a little biting, and spiced in a way that’s both familiar and unfamiliar to Americans like me who grew up eating Indian restaurant food.

The one thing I didn’t do in Russia (to my chagrin) was learn to cook the foods I ate. So for both these recipes, I turned to Deb Perelman, the doyenne of Smitten Kitchen. She’s married to a Russian; I figured she might know whereof she writes. Judge for yourselves.

Salat Olivier (Russian Salad)

From Smitten Kitchen

2 lb potatoes (I like Yukon Golds or red potatoes), boiled in salted water

2 eggs, hard-boiled and peeled (optional)

1 small red onion

1/2 cup sour cream

1/4 cup mayonnaise

3 dill pickles (use the sourest ones you can find)

1 (8 oz) can peas and carrots, drained thoroughly*

Salt and pepper to taste

*If you balk at canned vegetables, you could boil and drain 1/2 cup fresh peas and one chopped carrot. For this salad, though, I don’t think it’s worth the effort.

Finely dice the potatoes, eggs (if using), onion and pickles–you want about 1/4 inch cubes. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

Lobio (Georgian Kidney Bean Salad)

Adapted slightly from NPR

1-2 garlic cloves, minced*

2 tbsp minced fresh cilantro (or parsley, if you’re a hater)

1 jalapeno, seeded and minced as fine as possible

Half of a medium red onion, finely diced

1/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped (optional)

3 tbsp distilled white vinegar or white wine vinegar

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1 (15 oz) can kidney beans (low-sodium, if possible), drained and thoroughly rinsed

Salt and pepper to taste

*I took the extra step of sprinkling a little salt on the minced garlic and mashing it into a paste with my knife, so no one would bite down on a stray piece of raw garlic. This is entirely optional.

In a bowl, whisk together all ingredients except the beans. Toss in the beans, making sure everything is evenly mixed, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

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