Since I can remember I've been eating Ensalada Rusa, which translates as Russian Salad, at various family parties throughout the years. I've often thought, is this Peruvian potato and beet salad really Russian in origin? I am not unique in wondering how this dish got its name. There are quite a few articles and blog posts about this theme. You can find this salad throughout Europe and Latin America in myriad iterations. Turns out, the answer is YES!
There was a Russian-born chef named Lucien Olivier (1838-1883), of Belgian and French heritage, who owned a restaurant called Hermitage in the 1860s. Here, he created this famed potato salad at one of the most celebrated restaurants in Moscow at the time. It is known as the Olivier Salad for its namesake but is also known as Russian Salad for having been created at that location. The basic ingredients can include potatoes, onion, peas, carrots, and boiled eggs
dressed in mayonnaise. Other ingredients found in Europe may include dill pickles, chicken or sausage, tart apples, celery, and mustard. In Peru and other Latin American countries, we love to add beets, lime juice and cilantro! Other variations may include adding cumin to the dressing....because cumin. And yum!
Just this weekend, Kahlo and I were invited to a BBQ and asked if we might bring a potato salad. She asked if she could help me make it -- does she look happy or what?! She often tells me how much she loves to cook in the kitchen with me but, even so, I sometimes forget in the rush of things. Instead of rushing, we went shopping for all the ingredients together right before making the side dish so she could really understand all the components that make up Ensalada Rusa al estilo peruano.
She helped put all the vegetables (potatoes, beets, carrots, peas) in to boil. She says, "Oh, wait, mama. I forgot something." She runs out of the kitchen and comes back sporting her favorite Rainbow Dash mittens so "I won't burn my hands, mama." She's so scrumptious!
While she was literally watching the water come to a boil on the various veggies, I kept chopping or cutting the other ingredients (onions, cilantro, limes). I strained them and set them apart so she could help assemble the dish. Then I put her on squeeze duty with the limes. She's got some muscles on her!
Once I prepped all the components of the salad, Kahlo assisted in making the dressing. After squeezing the limes, she mixed the juice together with the mayonnaise, crushed garlic and chopped cilantro. We added a pinch of crushed black pepper and then salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons). I asked if she wanted to taste it. I wish I had gotten a pic of her expression upon refusing to taste her own delicious creation. Hilarious! And that was some delicious dressing!
I was also a bit curious about beets and its entry into this salad. The Original Russian Salad did not incorporate this root vegetable. So, how did it come to be incorporated into the Peruvian version? The beet was used medicinally as far back as Ancient Greece, and is thought to originate in Asia Minor. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, ate beets to enhance her sexual appeal (insert whistle). Beets contain high amounts of boron, a trace mineral, which actually does increase the level of sex hormones in the human body (from Discover the History of Beets). Huh, good to know! The Polish are well-known for all the delicious things they do with beets (who doesn't love Cwikla? Beets and horseradish!) and so certainly potato salads must have been combined with beets back in Eastern Europe. I couldn't find any information (yet!) about how beets were first introduced to Peru, and the salad, but my thought is that it might have been incorporated because the white potato and red beetroot reflect the colors of the Peruvian flag.
Below you'll find our basic family recipe -- it was a hit at the BBQ! The one thing I did not add is the boiled eggs, as I forgot to pick some up at the grocery store, truth be told! In any case, still delicious!! Buen provecho, amig@s!
Ensalada rusa al estilo peruano -- Serves 8-10
5 lb potatoes (I prefer red potatoes with the peel), bite-sized pieces
1 large white or red onion, diced
4-5 beets, sliced and quartered (You can used pre-sliced, canned beets if you want! No shame in your game!)
1/2 lb green peas
1/2 lb baby carrots, blanched, cut into small rounds
5 boiled eggs, chopped (Optional)
1 tablespoon salt (for boiling potatoes)
1/2 teaspoon each for peas and carrots when boiling
1 1/4 cups mayonnaise
3 limes, juiced (or 2-3 tablespoons white vinegar)
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
1 1/2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon crushed black pepper
Boil beets for 30-45 minutes until tender. Strain and let cool. You can also roast by wrapping in aluminum foil, and baking at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 45-60 minutes. Last, you can buy canned beets. No one will be mad at you.
Cut potatoes into bite-sized pieces. Place in pot and cover with cold water. Add salt to water. When it comes to a boil, let cook for about 15 minutes or until tender and strain.
(If using eggs: Place eggs in a pot and cover with cold water by about an inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then cover, remove from the heat and set aside 8 to 10 minutes. Immediately drain and place in cold water and peel.)
Also cook carrots and peas in the same manner, with about a 1/2 teaspoon of salt in each pot. Blanch carrots for about 5 minutes. Boil the peas for about 3 minutes.
Dice onion, slice and dice beets, and chop eggs, if using.
While all cooked items are cooling, work on the dressing! Place mayonnaise in a bowl and add the juice from the limes, crushed garlic, salt and pepper, and blend well.
Place all vegetable ingredients in a bowl with dressing. I use my (clean!) hands to mix everything together as I find the potatoes stay more intact that way, plus I can feel if there are dry pockets where the dressing might have not yet reached.
Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.
Protip: Before juicing the limes, use the zest from two of them to mix into the dressing. Also, to add a bit of smokiness to it, use a 1/2 teaspoon of paprika and a 1/4 teaspoon of cumin!