Whenever my grandmother Louisa made Russian salad, she always, without fail, would tell me the following story. As she peeled the skin from the boiled potatoes and passed them to me to be quartered, I would see her head begin to tilt slightly to the right and her sharp green eyes focus into the distance.
'You know my darling, your grandfather was a descendent of Catherine the Great. She was his great, great, great grandmother and your middle name (Alexandrovna) was given to you because it was the name of Catherine's daughter.'
I knew the story well - how the marriage of my grandparents was an arranged one between two aristocratic families and how at the age of 16 years she had to leave her beloved family and home in Emilia-Romagno (Italy) and come to 'such a foreign place' (St Petersburg). At this point Louisa would settle her loving gaze upon me and continue - 'It was the first Russian cuisine I ever tasted, a little heavy perhaps in its dressing, but nevertheless enjoyable. The nobility were mad for it you know, all because of the secret ingredients that Lucien Oliver put into it'.
It would be many years later when I was studying a module in Russian history at university that I discovered, Lucien Oliver was the owner of the Hermitage restaurant in the center of Moscow in the early 1860's. He had a secret recipe for Russian salad and jealously guarded the ingredients of its dressing. The secret died with him and according to Louisa, was the reason why every Russian family made it differently.
So here is Louisa's recipe for Russian salad with an Italian twist - the fourth and final salad in my winter series. What gives the salad its twist is the dressing - a much lighter Italian influenced one rather than the traditional creamy Russian recipe. However, I will include both options for you to choose from.
Serves 4 to 6
Ingredients for the salad
1 kilo of new potatoes or small dutch creams if you can find them
4 large or 6 small fresh beetroot
400g butter beans, or a high quality tinned one. (I use Annalisa butter beans if fresh ones are not available)
6 hard boiled free range eggs (optional)
Ingredients for the Italian dressing
2 sprigs of fresh mint
3 tablespoons of fresh dill
1 small clove of garlic
1 red onion
2 tablespoons of olive oil
3 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste.
Ingredients for the creamy Russian dressing
3 egg yolks
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
200ml sunflower oil
4 tablespoons of finely chopped dill
6 spring onions
2 tablespoons sour cream.
Method for the salad
Place the potatoes in a deep saucepan and cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then continue to cook for about 15 to 20 minutes or just until the potatoes are tender enough to pierce with a skewer.
Then drain the water and leave to cool.
While the potatoes are boiling preheat your oven to 180C. Wash and peel the fresh beetroot and then cut each one into quarters.
Line a baking tray with baking paper and place the beetroot on the tray. Lightly brush the beetroot with olive oil and bake for about 15 to 20 minutes. The beetroot needs to be still firm but cooked through.
Now if you have decided to use the eggs place then in a saucepan and cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to low and continue to simmer for 10 minutes. When the eggs are cooked drain and rinse under cold running water. Remove the shells and roughly chop the eggs.
If you are using fresh butter beans place then in pan and cover with cold water. As soon as they begin to boil, remove them from the heat and rinse under cold water, drain then set aside. (For tinned beans all you need to do is give them a good rinse under cold running water and leave to drain).
When the potatoes and beetroot are cool enough to handle, gently remove the skin and then cut into quarters or finely dice.
Place the potatoes, chopped eggs, diced beetroot and butter beans into a large bowl and gently mix together.
Method for the Italian dressing
Finely chop the mint, dill, garlic and onion and then combine the herbs with the olive oil, white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper.
Method for the Russian dressing
Place the egg yolks, white wine vinegar and mustard into a food processor and blend on medium speed until the mixture looks light and creamy. Now add the sunflower oil in a slow steady stream and continue to blend until the mixture looks thick and pale.
Remove the dressing from the food processor and gently fold through the sour cream and finely chopped spring onions.
Putting it all together
Add whatever dressing you have chosen to the salad and very gently stir together. The roasted beetroot adds an earthy flavour to the salad and when mixed through gives the paler vegetables a beautiful blush of pink. Scatter a few of the finely chopped herbs as a garnish and you now have a meal that is both satisfying and pleasing to the eye.
Catherine the Great was the longest ruling female leader of Imperial Russia and reigned from 1762 until her death, aged 67, in 1796. Intelligent and ambitious she was renowned for bringing Russia into the modern world.