My husband had brought them home from the Farmer’s Market, assuming that I, like everyone in his family, would be able to cook them up into something wonderful.
Except that I had grown up eating beets out of a can. What was I supposed to do with those hard purple vegetables, green leaves still attached defiantly?
Previous summers my husband, who is by far the better cook in our family, had made them into a traditional salad from his home country of Costa Rica: Ensalada rusa (Russian salad). It was similar to the potato salad I had grown up with as a child, but with the unexpected addition of cooked beets.
But this season, unfortunately, his time was more limited, and so the beets sat in the refrigerator, winking at me every time I opened the vegetable drawer, laughing as I snatched some more familiar veggie and slammed the drawer closed.
Until finally one day I squared my shoulders and decided it was time to be a big girl and face the beets.
I texted with my husband a few times then set to work, drawing on my memory of his cooking the previous summer. Therefore what follows is my totally inauthentic but still surprisingly good Ensalada Rusa, or Costa Rican Russian Salad.
As it turns out, “Russian salad” is found in many countries. It even figured in an episode of the British TV series Are You Being Served? (Go here to see the clip). While all recipes are some version of a boiled potato salad, all other ingredients vary. In fact, in many places there are no beets included whatsoever, which for me was the most “Russian” part of the “Russian salad”!
According to this website, the salad did originate in the former USSR, where it was known as “Salad Olivier.” (Note that even this “original” recipe does not include beets!) This site goes further to tell us that the salad was invented by chef Laurence Olivier of the prestigious Hermitage Restaurant in Moscow in the late nineteenth century.
I found one gorgeous-looking salad from Somalia, where the recipe was apparently introduced by the Italians, but otherwise most recipes online are from Latin American, including the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, and Argentina. And of course, my beloved Costa Rica, where it is so common that it was even featured in a kids’ video on the country that my little Monkey and I were watching recently. (Be sure to read the comments on this last website, as readers from around the world chime in with how the salad is prepared in their home countries!)
You will note that while in many countries the salad is made without beets, to my knowledge beets are always included in Costa Rica, giving the salad its distinctive, lovely purple color.
So now that you’ve had your history lesson, let’s get cooking!
What you’ll need:
3-4 large potatoes (we tend to use Yukon or Russet, depending on the flavor you’d like)
2 hard-boiled eggs
That’s it! You can also add chopped celery (uncooked), peas, chopped cilantro or parsley, and so on. There are as many different variations as there are cooks, but the above are the “essential” ingredients, in my opinion.
Boil the potatoes, beets, and carrots until tender. (I cooked the beets separately, as they often need longer to cook. Plus the juice from the beets can be used in other recipes, like beet jello, which I will feature here as soon as my sister-in-law can help me figure out how to make it half as well as she does!) You can peel the beets before boiling, or just wash them well beforehand and slip the peels off once they are cooked.
While many versions have you dice the vegetables and eggs, I tend to chop them, perhaps because of the American potato salad I ate growing up. Once you can have diced/chopped the first four ingredients, mix them all together in a bowl with mayonnaise and salt to taste. (If you feel guilty about cooking with mayonnaise, just buy a healthier version! Or make your own if you feel like showing off 🙂 ).
That’s it! If I can do it, you can do it! For the real cooks among you, there are recipes out there with fancier dressings and condiments, but for those of us who are just looking for something tasty and healthy to make with those beautiful, strange vegetables our partners lovingly picked up for us at the Farmers’ Market, this fits the bill.
Did you grow up eating Russian Salad? What other ways do you use fresh beets?