Thanksgiving began as a celebration of our nation’s first immigrants, and there’s no more fitting tribute to this than the unique traditions that waves of subsequent arrivals have added to this all-American holiday. My Italian-American friends, for instance, have a pasta course before they carve the turkey. We Russians were not about to be outdone.
And nothing is more quintessentially Russian than “zakuski,” the cold appetizer course that awaits guests when they sit down to a special dinner. Zakuski vary from region to region, but usually consist of cured meats and cheeses, smoked fish, “salads” (loosely defined as any food bound with mayonnaise), pickled vegetables — and yes, caviar. (Newcomers to our dinner table have made the mistake of thinking that zakuski are the dinner, so lavish is the spread.)
In our family, no dinner is complete without one iconic dish: “Babushka’s” (or grandma’s) salad. I must confess our babushka didn’t invent it. It’s her take on the classic Russian salad, or Salad Olivier, named after the 19th Century chef who popularized it at his Moscow restaurant. The salad is typically made with boiled potatoes, mixed with cucumbers and pickles, peas, and some fish or meat. It can be found in other European countries, the Middle East, and even South America.
Recipes vary from one family to another, but here is our dear babushka’s.
3 medium potatoes
1 sour pickle
1 medium cucumber
1 small sweet onion
1 (16 ounce) can of sweet peas
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp salt
1 can of tuna (or salmon or crab)
1. Boil the potatoes and, once they’ve cooled down, remove the skins.
2. Dice the potatoes, pickle, cucumber and onion into small cubes.
3. Mix the vegetables with the peas, tuna, mayonnaise, and salt.