Certain rituals and traditions that are fixtures in the annals of your life simply mean something by virtue of their existence. For me, the traditions that hold the most weight almost always have to do with food. My family came to this country from the former Soviet Union in the late ’70s. New Year’s was the biggest holiday of the year in the U.S.S.R. for all people, including Jews. For post-Soviet Jewish immigrant families around the world New Year’s, or Novy God, is still one of the most important holidays of the year. Traditionally, there’s feasting, dancing, music, the gathering of family and friends, and often you’ll find a New Year’s tree, too. That tree is not to be confused with the exactly identical-appearing Christmas tree. Yes, even my grandparents had a New Year’s tree during my childhood. Like many other Soviet Jews they didn’t know it as anything other than an entirely secular joyous winter tradition. I remember having to keep the fact that we had a tree a secret. This was before the term “Hanukkah Bush” became a thing, and I knew enough from attending Jewish day school to recognize that Jews having a tree in their home might be taboo.
The tree wasn’t ever as important as the food we ate. My grandmother loved to make a four course meal, and the first course featured a variety of salads, smoked fish and red caviar. I can’t remember a first course New Year’s feast without Salad Olivier on our table. Salad Olivier, or Russian Potato Salad, is an extremely popular Russian dish, and it is nearly synonymous with Novy God. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Soviet-style New Year’s celebration without it. While it’s considered celebratory, the salad is made with humble ingredients: boiled potatoes and carrots, peas, pickles, hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise and often some kind of meat like a Mortadella or smoked ham.
The salad was first prepared by Lucien Olivier in the 1860s. Olivier was the French chef of a famous restaurant in Moscow called The Hermitage; hence the very French name for this now popular Russian salad. Also, Russians were obsessed with French culture at that time. Salad Olivier was an immediate hit, and it became the restaurant’s signature dish. Originally, it was made with crayfish, capers and even grouse. After the revolution, simpler and easier-to-come-by ingredients were more commonly adapted into the recipe. These ingredients are also all conveniently available in the dead of winter.
The popularity of the salad spread beyond Russia to Eastern Europe, the Balkans and even to Iran and Pakistan. In fact, in our family we call this dish Salad de Boeuf (pronounced as “de beff”), which is what this salad is inexplicably called in Romania and Western Ukraine. Boeuf means “beef” in French, and this salad contains no beef at all. In each geographic locale, the salad might differ slightly. Sometimes the potatoes are mashed instead of cubed, or there’s shredded chicken instead of smoked meat, or sometimes there’s no meat at all, as was the custom in our family. What makes this type of potato salad uniquely a Salad Olivier is the presence of potatoes combined with carrots, peas, pickles and hard-boiled eggs. Everything should be chopped to roughly the same size. The appeal of something seemingly odd and vaguely average is ultimately mysterious, but the combination of hearty firm potatoes, sweet cooked carrots, crisp pickles, earthy peas and silky eggs in a creamy tangy dressing just works. The ingredients meld together, each losing its own particular edge to combine to make a complete range of salty, sweet, tangy, satisfying tastes in each bite. I think this salad’s enduring and far-reaching popularity proves that it’s eaten for more than tradition’s sake.
If you’re going to attempt to make this for the first time there are a few things to know. For one, this recipe reflects how my family likes this dish. If you’ve had this before, it might be slightly different from what you’re used to. More importantly, the quality of each ingredient matters to the overall success of the dish. I like to use Yukon Gold potatoes because they hold up well and have a pleasant rich sweetness, but you can definitely try it with your favorite potatoes. Taste the carrots before you cook them; they should be sweet and flavorful, not the dull astringent variety you sometimes find in the supermarket. The best pickles for this dish are ones that come from the refrigerator section, that still have a crunch, and are brined in salt with zero vinegar added. They’re also known as “naturally fermented” pickles. The type of mayonnaise you use is also key, and I swear by Hellmann’s/Best Foods.
While our family assimilated to American life in all kinds of ways and happily observed all of the Jewish holidays, celebrating New Year’s was an unspoken honoring of our past. My family loves America; they are proud they could come here and offer their children a better life, which included being able to be openly Jewish and free from religious persecution. And yet, there will always be a meaningful connection to their place of origin, particularly to the food they ate as children, and to a life that formed their identity. Whether we acknowledge that or not, or even fully realize it, eating Salad Olivier at the new year offers that link to our past.
For the salad
- 1.5 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, about 4-5 medium
- 3 large carrots
- 4 large eggs
- 3 large dill pickles, or to taste (use naturally fermented/brined pickles)
- 1 cup frozen peas, thawed (you can substitute with fresh cooked peas or even canned)
For the dressing
- 1 cup high-quality mayonnaise
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- Juice of ½ a lemon, or to taste
- 1 Tbsp pickle liquid (optional)
- ¾ Tbsp kosher salt, or to taste
- 2 Tbsp chopped fresh dill (optional)
- Wash the potatoes and carrots well. Add them to a pot, and fill with water. Bring the water to a boil, and boil the potatoes and carrots until easily pierced through with a knife. The carrots will cook faster, about 15-20 minutes. Once they’re tender remove them from the pot and allow the potatoes to finish cooking, about 15-20 minutes more, or 30-35 minutes in total. Be careful not to overcook your potatoes and carrots, you do not want them to end up as mush in the salad. Once cooked, set aside to cool or refrigerate. This step can be done up to 2 days in advance.
- While the potatoes and carrots are cooking, hard boil your eggs and allow them to cool. Once the potatoes and eggs are cooled, carefully remove their peels. You can either remove or keep the peel on your carrots depending on your preference.
- Cube all of the potatoes, carrots and eggs to the same size. I like a medium-small dice.
- Dice the pickles slightly smaller than the other ingredients, as they have a stronger flavor.
- Add the cubed potatoes, carrots and eggs to a large bowl. Add the pickles and thawed peas to the bowl.
- In a separate small bowl, combine all of the ingredients for the dressing and whisk together. Taste and adjust accordingly.
- Add the dressing to the potato mixture and carefully stir until everything is fully coated. Taste and add more salt if desired (every brand of kosher salt differs in salinity). If you want the salad creamier/tangier, add more mayonnaise or lemon juice. You can also use sour cream or yogurt if desired.
- Allow the salad to chill for at least one hour before serving, so that the flavors can all come together. This salad can be made up to a day in advance, and stores well for 2 days. You can also make this without the dressing up to 3 days in advance, then add the dressing before serving.
- Before serving, transfer the salad to a serving bowl. This salad is known for being creatively decorated and festively garnished with fresh herbs, vegetable roses, etc. You can doll it up in any way you like.