I have been thinking a lot about Christmas, lately.
It’s been a really strange year – I am being kind, 2020 – and Christmas won’t make an exception. Christmas is all about traditions and knowing that everything will be the same, year after year, but this obviously cannot be said for this year.
We still don’t know how and with whom we will celebrate and, even if we’ll find a way to have a little celebration, it won’t be like other years, that’s for sure. I am always up for a change but, when it has to do with Christmas, it is a bit more difficult to accept.
I love traditions, especially those related to the holidays. The older I get, the more important they become. Probably it’s because I know I won’t have much time with my family left – my parents are old – and so I try to enjoy every memory I can create with them.
We are not a big family but we definitely love celebrating. Regarding Christmas, we have our rituals and they are mainly related to food: we have a little aperitivo with a very good bottle of wine, some starters, a dish of pasta, usually with a nice mushroom sauce or, if we are really lucky, with some truffles. Then the main course, usually consisting of fish, to end with a selection of desserts from our favorite pastry shops.
Some years ago, we decided not to exchange presents for Christmas but to buy the best food and wine we can find – best decision ever, by the way – and this makes our Christmas lunch really special. We are in Italy, though, and this means the menu includes some traditional homemade dishes, like insalata russa, for example.
Insalata russa (Russian salad) is not really Russian and not even a salad, to be honest. It is basically a mix of steamed vegetables with mayonnaise. Its origins are not clear: it is said it may have Belgian-Russian origins, a creation of the chef Lucien Olivier – in fact, it is also called salad Olivier. But it is also said it may come from Caterina de’ Medici’s times while some other stories say it was born in 19th-century Piedmont.
I don’t think anybody in my family knows anything about its origins but this dish has been on our Christmas menu ever since I can remember. When I was a kid, we used to spend Christmas at my grandma’s house: she would cook for days to have a simple yet incredible lunch for all her daughters and their families gathered around the table.
There was no aperitivo tradition at the time, so lunch would begin right with starters. There was a variety of savory dishes and the last one was always insalata russa: it was as if she wanted to save the best for last. Her starters selection was some sort of crescendo that ended with the star of the party, the climax that marked the end of the first part of lunch.
Needless to say, she would make such a big amount of insalata russa that we would always go home with a little bowl, filled with what remained of the salad to be eaten on the following days – and, let me tell you, it is even better as a left-over, maybe over some toasted bread.
Insalata russa is a staple in many Italian households and it is commonly served on Sundays or for special occasions. On festive days, you can find it on restaurant menus, especially in the north of Italy, and it is very popular in delis and grocery stores because preparing it is quite a time-consuming procedure, so people prefer to buy it.
But nobody would ever buy insalata russa in my family. As I mentioned in another post about family recipes, my grandma died all of a sudden, and some of her recipes have gone lost. Thank God, my aunt had written down a few of them and so we can still prepare some of my grandma’s dishes. The only problem this year is that my aunt won’t be with us at Christmas, due to Covid restrictions, and we have to figure out how to prepare it ourselves.
If you want to give it a try and prepare it as well, here is the recipe my aunt told me on the phone a couple of days ago:
2 – 3 medium-sized potatoes
100 grams of peas
100 grams of tuna in olive oil
For the mayonnaise
2 egg yolks
Lemon juice from half a lemon
250 ml of olive oil
Drain the tuna. Hardboil the eggs. Cut the potatoes and carrots into small dice-sized chunks. Boil them in salted water until they become just a little soft (they must not fall apart, they have to be firm) and also boil the peas. Let everything cool down to room temperature. Cut the eggs into small pieces and then add all the ingredients together in a bowl with the tuna.
Then make the mayonnaise (you can use the store-bought one but don’t tell my aunt, she won’t understand): whisk the egg yolks, lemon juice, and salt together in a bowl. Steadily but gently pour the oil while whisking continually. Once it is ready, add the mayonnaise to the vegetables. Keep it in the fridge – it lasts up to three days.
You can use some slices of hardboiled eggs and carrots to decorate.
This is my family’s recipe for insalata russa but there are many other versions. Basically, you can add to the salad whatever you want, according to your taste. Cool, isn’t it?