Salad for the Jet Set
If by "jet set" you mean settin' on the runway, goin' nowhere
NONE OF US EXPECTED A THIRD YEAR of isolation, sadness, confusion, helplessness, and disappointment (did I leave anything out?). But we got it anyway, and it has been inspiring to see how many Americans have adjusted so admirably to the woes the pandemic has visited upon us.
I am not one of those people. I’m a fussbudget. A dime-store psychiatrist would diagnose me as a woman hanging on by a slender, fraying filament. I assumed that to everyone else I know, I appear to be coping— all the jogging, the clean living, the can-do work ethic! I’m absolutely choking on my own virtues.
But then I got a note from a friend about last week’s newsletter, implying—just telling me, actually—that I sounded like a “stir-crazy salad lady.”
He was right. I’m stir crazy. We all are, but it’s particularly weird for me because I wasn’t exactly going to parties and restaurants and France every week before the pandemic started. I was in my fifth year of living in blissful rural isolation, near a stream in the mountains, like Thoreau but without any serious literary purpose.
The hermit thing is the reason I moved to Atlanta in the first place: to rejoin humanity—and for better grocery stores, of course. But rather than making me feel more like a part of world, returning to urban life has made me realize how many activities I still don’t feel comfortable participating in: dinner out, going to museums, movies, informal gatherings at the homes of new friends, existing at all.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, when I was packing my bags (in my imagination) to move to Australia, I’ve been fantasizing about leaving the country. I’m starting to realize that while the pandemic could go on forever, I will not, so I may as well die seeing something entirely new to me, accompanied by the music of a foreign language.
I’m tired of complaining about being inconvenienced, so I’m leaning toward someplace where people have lived through a lot more than Americans have. Lately, I want to go to Russia. I want to go to Vietnam. I want to go to China. Since I’m completely paranoid and would wear a hazmat suit every day if I could, even in my own home, this is not going to happen any time soon, so I do what I can, which for me means studying the salads of other countries.
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I found myself returning to the canteen food of Soviet Russia, for which Russians today have a growing nostalgia. Since I come from Russian-Jewish ancestry (by way of Kiev), and was a 1970s kid, I leaned toward the Mimosa salad (not to be confused with Herring Under a Fur Coat), which became a thing in the USSR in the 70s, showing up at parties and holidays, Easter in particular. I did find one source suggesting that the dish originated in the 13th century, but that seems a bit romantic, plus the world hadn’t yet discovered mayonnaise, which is an important but not overbearing ingredient here.
This isn’t a salad you’ll see much in restaurants or food magazines, and you might look at photos of it and respond: Emily, that’s because it looks like pure kitsch, a Jell-O salad built from potatoes and tinned fish. Which is true. But to me it is beautiful, partly because of its assumed origins.
Most of what I read on Russian food blogs characterized the Mimosa as a dish meant to make the best of limited ingredients in an era marked by food shortages. Which makes my heart leap up at this point in history. It’s sort of what we’re all doing emotionally right now to: making do with limited supplies. Trying to appreciate what we have rather than what we used to have or now want. And we do still seem to be relying on more durable pantry goods, which is what this salad is all about.
It’s also absolutely delicious, and beautifully adaptable to your likes and dislikes and how hungry you happen to be. You may make a large one for a party, or a small one for supper for two, and you may, as I have here, add complementary ingredients to the classic building blocks. The recipe almost always includes: tuna or other tinned fish layered with grated cooked potatoes, grated cooked carrots, onion, dill (I used chives) and grated hardboiled egg. (I didn’t grate mine, and I never will.) Russians tend to arrange the separated grated egg whites and yellows on top in the shape of a flower. I’m also never going to do that. I included a layer of chopped green olives and a layer of some good Roman style artichokes I had on hand—both, of course, are delicious with potatoes, which got the thickest layer in my version.
I’ll admit that I was surprised by how much I loved this salad. But I do. The texture of grated cooked potatoes and carrots is wonderful, and I love the way almost any layered dish allows each ingredient to maintain its most vibrant personality while still complementing the others. Oh, my: the salty meatiness of the fish, mellowness of potato, richness of egg, sweetness of carrot, sparkiness of onion, and the indescribable wonders of the olives and artichoke I’ve added, plus just a bit of mayonnaise, which I’ve spiked with lemon.
Enjoy it. And early next week, for paid subscribers, I’ll have a Vietnamese salad that is full of shrimp and great big flavors, but which has nothing at all to do with deprivation.
*Recipe: Soviet Mimosa Salad
Serves 4 light eaters for lunch
This is one of those recipes for which you will have to use your judgment and wisdom regarding ingredient amounts, according to the size of your dish and your preference for each ingredient. I think this is a good balance here; I like a lot of potato, so it was the one ingredient I almost doubled in relation to the others. But it’s up to you. I made it once in a springform pan and it was just too much, plus it crumbled unattractively just a bit when I removed the collar. Yesterday, I made it again at my cousin Toni’s house while she was away, and since she has more kitchen equipment than Julia Child, a lot of it from the same era (she and I both love to get kitchen prizes at yard sales), I found a perfect dish, a medium oval glass baking dish.
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 big baking potatoes (I like a lot of potato here)
2 carrots, peeled
3 hard-cooked eggs
1 6.7-ounce jar of good olive-oil-packed tuna, drained (or a similar amount of your preferred tuna—a cup or so). If you refuse to use oil-packed, please add a tablespoon or two of mayonnaise to your thoroughly broken-apart tuna and mix well.)
½ of a large red or white onion, thinly sliced or diced and microwaved for 1 minute
1 cup pitted green olives, roughly chopped (I used Manzanilla from Trader Joe’s)
1 cup artichoke hearts, chopped (I used Roman style in oil because I had them; you may use brine packed)
Chives or dill for garnish
In a small bowl, mix the lemon juice into the mayonnaise. Place it in a small Ziploc bag like this and refrigerate; you’re going to use this for piping the mayo onto the salad layers, by cutting off a small piece of the tip from one corner and squeezing.
Meanwhile, boil the skin-on potatoes and peeled carrots together in a large pot of water until fork tender; you’re obviously going to fish out the carrots first. Once the vegetables are cool, peel the potatoes, then grate both vegetables separately and set aside.
Peel the eggs and separate the whites and yellows. Grate them separately using a fine grater or push them through a sieve (this is what I do). Set aside in separate little piles.
Build the salad. The order is really up to you, although you do want the top and final layer to be all egg and garnish.
Line the bottom of an appropriately sized clear glass dish or springform pan with an even layer of tuna. Pipe on some thin stripes of the mayonnaise then season lightly with salt and a bit of pepper.
Cover with the carrot in an even layer, followed by mayonnaise stripes and a tiny bit of salt and pepper.
Now, add the olives and onions in even layers, topped with the mayo stripes. Follow with an even layer of the chopped artichoke hearts. Then the layer of potato.
Sprinkle the top with an even layer of the grated or sieved egg, covering the salad completely. Decorate the top with funky mayo stripes. From here, I also decorated with leftover olives, carrots, and the chives.
Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.
NOTE: When I sieve an egg, I don’t separate the yolk from the white unless I need to be precious, which rarely happens. This is how it looks.
🥗 🥬 🥗 🥬 🥗 🥬 🥗 🥬 🥗 🥬 🥗 🥬 🥗
THAT’S IT! WE’RE DONE HERE! Paid subscribers should keep a lookout for a salad from Vietnam, coming early next week. Meanwhile, if you feel like sharing the Department of Salad with friends or family who deserve it, please do so with the buttons below. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you soon, with more goulash recipes. Just kidding! It will be. . . SALAD.