In our house, just like in almost every Serbian house at the time I was growing up, the only salad containing ham was the ubiquitous Russian Salad*. And this salad was nobody’s poor country cousin. It had a standing reservation for the most distinguished place on the celebratory table, the first among the appetizers; perfectly balanced in flavors, colorful, glistening in yellowish hues, it was the centerpiece of every New Year’s dinner table.

I carried the tradition overseas. I cannot imagine a New Year’s dinner without this salad. It’s nostalgia calling, sending me back to the years of my youth, when everything seemed possible and we were all on the top of the world. As far as I know, only the Serbs in diaspora make it these days, trying to keep the connection alive.

We welcomed the new 2010 year with my sister and her husband, who live in Frankfurt, Germany.  I  decided that we were going to grill fine beef tenderloin, in the spirit of America. On the menu was freshly made bread, of course, baked potatoes with all the trimmings, cream of cauliflower soup and a green salad.  I asked my sister how she felt about Russian Salad, and her eyes glistened. It was the spur of the moment decision made after we ditched the kids and went to Laguna Beach for the luxurious afternoon spent walking in the sand, climbing some really slippery, moss-covered rocks and eating gelato. And the Russian Salad made the menu, accompanied by deviled eggs, and a meze plate, with different cheeses, olives and cold cuts.

In no time we gathered the ingredients, set the pot of water boiling and an hour later started mincing, taking care that everything was cut even, cubes no larger than 5 millimeters  per side. I made mayonnaise, even though Mother was not there to supervise or criticize (I believe she would somehow know and declare it high treason if I had swapped Hellman’s (Best Foods out here in the west wing of the country) for the “real thing”.) We assembled the salad and put it in the fridge to cool, while we continued with cocktails, music, and merriment of all kinds in the anticipation of the big night.

We set the table with the finest we had, brought the appetizers out and announced the beginning of the festivities. Everybody was dressed up, and the College Kritter was in charge of the music – now, that is a scary thought, I know, but she was aware of the mood, emotions and diversity of our small group, and she managed to satisfy us all, which is not an easy task (Husband cannot stand heavy metal, and The Kritter is a metal head; German brother-in-law abhors the 80s music, and loves hard rock and metal; neither of the men listens to or understands Serbian music;  and my sister and I needed an infusion of local tunes, because you just cannot cry, get drunk or break glasses listening to Blondie, Dylan or Lady Gaga  – the German crooner Marianna Rosenberg is a story for another post).

The spirits were high, music was working its miracles, and the kids looked splendid all dressed up. We toasted each other and started eating. The men went for sausages and “prsuta” (pork tenderloin or loin, cured and smoked, a present from our friends Dragana and Milan, “imported” from their relatives in Cleveland, Ohio). The kids emptied the deviled eggs platter in a second. My sister and I spooned some Russian Salad into our plates, looked at each other, raised our wine glasses and without uttering a single sound we traversed the ocean and found ourselves, just for a moment, in our parents’ house, twenty some years ago. The moment was somewhat blurred by tears, but our smiles carried us over, to the happy times of present, to the sparkling eyes of three gorgeous girls and the thought that every day can become a memory, enclosed in a smell, a sound, or a taste.

*Even though we call this salad Russian, in Russia they call it Salad Olivier, or Capital Salad.  There are numerous variations in ingredients, but what my heart recognizes, is our Serbian, probably bastardized version of the Eastern European classic.

My Mother's Russian Salad
Recipe type: Appetizer
Cuisine: International
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4 cups
This is a really versatile dish and the amounts can be adjusted. Dicing all the ingredients into equal (tiny) cubes might appear tedious and unnecessary, but the result is a spoonful of pure magic, where all the tastes and textures come together.
  • Salad:
  • 1 small onion, halved and unpeeled
  • 3-4 carrots, scrubbed
  • 1 parsnip, scrubbed
  • ¼ celery root, peeled (or 2 celery stalks, cleaned)
  • 1 skinless chicken breast on the bone
  • 3-4 large potatoes, unpeeled, but cleaned
  • 3 eggs
  • 3-4 large pickles
  • 200 gr (7 oz) ham steak
  • 1 cup of frozen peas (if using fresh, they need to be blanched for a couple od minutes)
  • 2 cups good quality mayonnaise
  • Mayonnaise:
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 hard boiled egg yolk
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp mustard (I prefer Dijon, but any mustard would work)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 500 ml (about 2 cups) neutral oil (I use sunflower)
  1. Salad:
  2. Turn a burner on medium heat and place the onion halves on the burner, cut side down.
  3. Let it roast for a few minutes, until slightly blackened.
  4. Remove the onion and place it into a stock pot, along with carrots, parsnip, celery, and chicken breast.
  5. Top with water to cover everything by several inches.
  6. Turn the heat up to high and cook until the water boils.
  7. Turn the heat to medium.
  8. Using a spoon, scoop the foam that forms on the top of soup (it's just the protein from the bones/meat, but the soup will be clearer if the scum is removed)
  9. Place the lid on the pot and cook for thirty minutes.
  10. Take out carrots and parsnips, and continue cooking until the meat is done, up to ninety minutes.
  11. Strain the soup and reserve for another time.
  12. Let the chicken breast cool, then remove from the bone.
  13. Cook the potatoes until fork-tender, let cool, then peel.
  14. Cook eggs until hard boiled, then peel.
  15. Dice all the ingredients into small cubes, about 5 millimeters/side.
  16. For eggs, use only egg whites and reserve one of the yolks for the mayo.
  17. Combine all into a big mixing bowl, add the peas and half of the mayonnaise.
  18. Mix gently until mayo covers everything evenly.
  19. Add more mayo if necessary (the salad should be the consistency of an egg salad).
  20. Chill in the fridge until serving.
  21. Mayonnaise:
  22. Place 2 fresh egg yolks and one hard boiled egg yolk into a narrow container with tall sides (a mason jar would work)
  23. Add the lemon juice, mustard, salt, and sugar.
  24. Using a hand-held mixer (with one beater or two, depending on the opening of the container), mix the ingredients.
  25. Slowly add oil in a thin trickle, thoroughly mixing all the time until all th oil is used and the mayonnaise is set.
  26. Taste and add more salt or lemon juice, if necessary.
  27. Keep covered in the fridge up to a week.
  28. Makes about 2 cups of mayo.
I prefer to make this salad out of a roasted chicken - the meat is just so much more tender and juicy. But even boiled, with all the other ingredients, it tastes great.