Today's Paper Season Pass Readers Choice Obits Latest LEARNS Guide Puzzles Newsletters Public Notices Podcast HER Magazine Jobs Circulars Classifieds

This lemony chicken and potato salad is a riff on a Russian classic

August 15, 2023 at 10:00 p.m.
Salad Olivieh. (Photo for The Washington Post by Rey Lopez.)

When I was a kid, occasionally I'd see my Persian mom make herself a quick dinner - usually after she finished a long day of work, after cooking and feeding me and my brother, after doing the dishes. She would mix store-bought potato salad with bits of sauteed or roasted chicken and lots of fresh lemon juice. Then, she'd warm a flour tortilla - easier to find than lavash - over a gas burner until it was lightly charred. She'd stuff the salad and a few sprigs of fresh parsley into the tortilla and take bites, standing up at the kitchen counter, looking over the mail or a magazine, with more lemon squeezed on before each bite.

Years later I read about salat Olivier, sometimes just listed as "Russian Salad" in cookbooks. "This famous Russian salad is actually the brainchild of a French chef, Olivier, who caused a sensation in Moscow in the 1860s when he concocted a salad of cooked chicken and potatoes masked with mayonnaise," wrote the scholar Darra Goldstein in her 1985 "A Taste of Russia." Some sources say Olivier was Belgian, or Belgian-French, some say the salad contained cucumbers instead of pickles, apples in addition to peas, crabmeat in place of chicken.

One thing that's certain is that the formula was so popular that people went to great lengths to continue making it - albeit more modestly - during the Soviet era. For historian and author Anya von Bremzen, who grew up in Moscow during the 1960s and 1970s, Olivier was the essence of homeland. "Apparatchiks, impoverished pensioners, dissidents, tractor drivers, nuclear physicists - everyone across our eleven time zones relished salat Olivier," she wrote in "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking," her marvelous and award-winning memoir from 2014. Borscht, Uzbek pilaf and Georgian walnut chicken were too ordinary or regional. "But Olivier was just right, unfailingly festive and special on account of such defitsit items as canned Hungarian Globus-brand peas and tangy Soviet mayo, which was always in stores but never without a long line ... there was no special 'table' without salat Olivier."

So popular and persistent was the recipe that within the last century this salad spread around the world. Aside from its pleasingly creamy texture and tangy flavor, Olivier probably owes its longevity to its adaptability. Except for potatoes and mayonnaise, there are no strict constants - though without added protein, in the form of eggs, meat or fish, it's not hearty enough to make a meal. The Hungarians call it French salad, in Brazil it's called Maionese, the Norweigens refer to it as Italian salad and in Spain it's called ensaladilla rusa, or little Russian salad. Similar salads exist throughout Asia and Europe. It's often just called Russian salad - though in Iran and other countries in the region, they call it by its original name, spelling it Olivieh.

"Iranians adopted this chicken salad from Russia in the early nineteenth century, and it has since become a staple of picnics, casual parties, and virtually every afternoon get-together," writes Nasim Alikhani in "Sofreh." Her Olivieh starts with a whole chicken, cooked in a pot with a little water until tender. The remaining broth is reduced to a thick sauce and stirred into the salad, giving it a deeper flavor.

Roya Shariat and Gita Sadeh's Olivieh recipe, which they share in their cookbook, "Maman & Me," calls for cornichons or Iranian pickles, which have a mouth-puckering tartness. They also add yellow mustard for more tang.

Iranian cooks mix and match a variety of ingredients and flavorings for Olivieh, including: potatoes, carrots, onions, chicken, hard-boiled eggs, herbs, turmeric, mayonnaise, mustard, yogurt, peas, pickles, vinegar and lemon juice. Each variation says something about a cook's preferences for herbaceousness, sourness and salinity. I've developed this version to appeal to my mother's tastes, with lots of chicken, tender potatoes, caramelized onions and plenty of parsley and lemon juice. It's great as an appetizer, snack or full meal, with flatbreads, lemon wedges and crunchy vegetables on the side.

Salad Olivieh (Persian-Style Chicken and Potato Salad)

This salad, with its creamy mayonnaise base, potatoes and tangy pickles, may have been invented in Russia, but today it's popular throughout the world. In Iran, salad Olivieh commonly includes chicken, lightly caramelized onions and a touch of turmeric. In this version, yogurt fills in for some of the mayonnaise, and lots of lemon juice and chopped parsley add brightness. Many recipes for this salad include chopped hard-boiled eggs, but we skipped them. Feel free to add them if you'd like. For instructions on how to make this vegetarian, see the Notes, below.

4 servings (makes 6 cups)

55 mins, plus chilling time

Make ahead: The salad needs to chill for at least 30 minutes and up to 12 hours before serving.

Storage: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 4 days.

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast cutlets (1 pound total; see Notes)

3/4 teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed

3 medium yellow potatoes (12 ounces total), peeled, if desired, and chopped into pieces

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water

1 cup frozen green peas (no need to defrost)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small yellow onion (6 ounces), finely diced

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/3 cup diced dill pickles, drained

1/3 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves and tender stems

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup plain regular or low-fat Greek-style yogurt

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, plus more as needed

Freshly cracked black pepper

Flatbreads, for serving (optional)

Lemon wedges, for serving (optional)

Sliced crunchy vegetables for serving, such as radishes and cucumbers (optional)

Season the chicken on both sides with the salt. Set aside.

In a small pot over high heat, combine the potatoes with the chicken broth or water. Bring to a boil, and cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes to a large bowl. Add the peas to the pot with the hot liquid and remove from the heat.

Using a fork, mash the potatoes slightly, until the pieces are roughly half their original size. After 1 to 2 minutes, use the slotted spoon to transfer the peas to the bowl with the potatoes. (If using broth, reserve it for another use.)

Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions just begin to caramelize, about 8 minutes. Stir in the turmeric to incorporate, then transfer the onions to the bowl with the potatoes.

Working in batches, if necessary, add the chicken to the same skillet and cook until browned on one side, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn and cook the other side until browned, cooked through and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken reads 165 degrees, another 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer the chicken to a plate to cool.

Stir the pickles, parsley, mayonnaise, yogurt and lemon juice into the potatoes and peas. Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, use your hands to tear the chicken into bite-size pieces and add them to the potato mixture. Add a few turns of the pepper mill and stir well to combine. Taste, and add more salt, pepper and/or lemon juice, as desired.

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving with flatbreads, lemon wedges and crunchy vegetables on the side, if desired.

Notes: You can also use boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but either pound them into an even thickness or butterfly them into cutlets of roughly even thickness so the chicken cooks quickly and evenly. Or use rotisserie chicken or other cooked chicken.

To make this vegetarian, substitute 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked chickpeas, drained - or one 15-ounce can, drained and rinsed - for the chicken. Place the chickpeas in a bowl and, using a fork, mash about half of them before mixing them with the rest of the ingredients in Step 6.

Nutrition Per serving (1 cup): 397 calories, 25g carbohydrates, 70mg cholesterol, 21g fat, 5g fiber, 27g protein, 3g saturated fat, 974mg sodium, 5g sugar

photo Salad Olivieh. (Photo for The Washington Post by Rey Lopez)

Print Headline: This lemony chicken and potato salad is a riff on a Russian classic


Sponsor Content