Mise en place: The ingredients for Olivier Salad, a Russian-style potato salad, are chopped up and ready to go. Photo by Stuart Bratesman

Editor’s Note: Barbara Asnes sent this to us last year, and we’ve been saving it for the appropriate date; we’re pleased to publish it now.

Tonight, I got it in my head to make potato salad because it’s Memorial Day, but after 40 years making it for my husband and me, I am tired of making our usual version. I wanted something different, but I wasn’t sure what that would look like.

I am of Eastern European Jewish descent; my mother’s family emigrated from Lithuania when she was 4, and my father’s family was originally from Ukraine; he was the first generation born in the U.S. I learned to cook from my maternal grandmother, and the recipes and the tastes of Russia and Eastern Europe were my earliest experiences. So what finally came to mind for my potato salad was a composition I had once tasted in Arlington, Virginia, at the Rus Uz restaurant, which serves Russian and Uzbek cuisine. The salad goes by Olivier Salad, Russian Salad, Ensalada Rusa or any number of other names in different cuisines. At its heart, it is potato salad, but with a twist.

The most common story of its origins is that it was created by Lucien Olivier when he was the chef/owner of the Hermitage restaurant in Moscow during the 1860s. During this time, French cuisine was the foundation from which most culinary variations derived, and this salad was an elegant composition that would have been enjoyed by the elite of Russian society. Its preparation could include aspic, crayfish, capers, rare or unusual meats, and other foodstuffs not seen by most of the Russian people.

In all likelihood, Olivier’s sous chef was able to steal the recipe, according to accounts of the salad’s history, and he prepared it in less elegant restaurants and surroundings. By the early 20th century, versions of the salad could be found across Eastern Europe, the Balkans and into Western Europe. To this day, while its composition can vary greatly, certain ingredients continue to form the base of Olivier Salad.

Potatoes, eggs, carrots, peas, onion and pickles in a mayonnaise-based dressing are the heart of the recipe. The preparation of the ingredients is also standard. Ideally, the potatoes, egg, carrot and onion are uniformly diced to about the same size as the peas. While this level of precision may cause you to stop reading immediately, remember that for four people, you are talking about only two potatoes, two eggs, one large carrot and half an onion. To make it even easier, lots of versions include canned peas; I prefer frozen baby peas.


I hesitate to mention pickles, because I live with someone who is anti-pickle, but I encourage you not to exclude them. The pickles bring the tanginess, the brightness, that is a hallmark of the salad’s flavor. Either cornichons or dill pickles, and up to 1/3 cup of the pickle juice, will give you the best flavor. A less vibrant version of Olivier Salad can be made with vinegar, mustard and Worcestershire alone, but that pickle juice wakes up the taste buds as other ingredients cannot.

While it is not unusual to find celery, celery root, parsley and dill, or sausage, ham or bologna in the salad, too, these additions are not necessary. So long as you stick with the basics, the composition of the salad is up to you. The dressing ingredients are truly a matter of taste: If you like sour, add more pickles and juice. If you don’t want to use as much mayonnaise as the recipe calls for, think about crème fraiche or sour cream. Worcestershire sauce or fish sauce add a nice note, but since you and your family/friends will be the ones eating the salad, it’s up to your taste buds. Don’t be afraid to amend the instructions.

Olivier Salad

2 medium to large Yukon gold potatoes, unpeeled
2 carrots (if you like carrots, use big carrots, but there is no rule)
¾-1 cup frozen peas
½ red onion
2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled
6 small cornichons, diced or an equivalent amount of dill pickles (about ¼ cup), plus ¼ cup pickle juice
½ cup mayonnaise
Salt, pepper, sugar as needed

Cook the washed unpeeled potatoes, whole, in boiling water until they are soft enough for a knife to go through, but still firm enough to slice. Drain and cover with cold water until the potatoes are cool enough to work with. At that point, peel the potatoes, or slip the skins off. Cut the potatoes in slices the long way, stack the slices on top of one another and slice them to get potato “sticks.” Remember, the goal is to dice the potatoes into a pretty small dice. However, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good! Add the dice to a large salad bowl.

Dice the carrots small and cook them for about 4 minutes. You don’t want them crunchy, but they should be “al dente.” Add the peas for the last 1-2 minutes cooking time. Drain the carrots and peas and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking and cool them. Add to the potatoes.


Meanwhile, dice the onion and egg into a small dice and add to the potatoes and carrots. Whisk together the mayonnaise and pickle juice and add to the salad bowl. Gently mix everything together. Taste, and adjust the seasonings with salt, pepper and sugar.

The salad is best chilled, and is even better the following day after the flavors have had a chance to meld.

Barbara Asnes with a bowl of Olivier Salad. Photo by Stuart Bratesman

MEET THE COOK, Barbara Asnes

“I am a 71-year-old former social worker/mental health lawyer/professional cook. I grew up in the suburbs of Boston and wanted nothing more than to be a cook, but that was not considered an appropriate career at the time. I read cookbooks and took courses, but went to college, where I received my bachelor’s degree in 1975, and then to graduate school, receiving my Masters of Social Work in 1981 and J.D. degree in 1993.

“Most of my career was spent in New Hampshire and Vermont working with people with major mental illness, but I always cooked, read about cooking and food history, and was definitely an early (old) foodie. In 1982, I had the good fortune to meet the catering manager of a restaurant in Hanover, New Hampshire, and she took me on as her assistant. During the week, I was a social worker, but weekends were for catering. I finally left social work in 1983 and went to work in restaurants for two years before starting my own catering business in Vermont. Good Taste Catering operated for eight years, during which time I also graduated from law school. In 1993, we moved to North Carolina, where I oversaw mental health class action lawsuits and consent decrees, and learned to love most Southern food, although okra is still a problem unless it’s fried. We moved to Freeport in 1998, and we still live here.

“While I stopped cooking professionally in 1993, I have continued to love food, cooking, and the art and science of cooking. I am interested in how different cuisines adjust ingredients based on geography, climate, availability and interest. In some ways, I believe that nothing is new, but that the adventurous cook can make it so. My kreplach is someone else’s ravioli, which is someone else’s wonton. My mandel bread is someone else’s biscotti and someone else’s rusk. I deplore trendiness and grow really tired of recipes and restaurants that think more is better. I love the availability of so many restaurants in the Greater Portland area, even if it sometimes gets a bit excessive and trendy. Preparing well-made food and being creative is possible here because we have an incredible wealth of farm products, seafood, grains and other resources. Even when I am tired of cooking, ingredients and recipes are still my go-to for reading and being creative.”

Comments are no longer available on this story