2.28.10 Spanish Steps

Rusa 790 xxx
Have you been to Txikito yet? As its name indicates (a Basque version of  the Spanish "chiquito," which means tiny), this Chelsea restaurant has only a few tables, and you'd be lucky to grab one on any night (or at lunch). Chefs and owners Eder Montero and Alexandra Raij turn out some wonderful regional Spanish food that takes me back to the years I spent in that beautiful country. My father was a professor of Spanish literature and, every seven years, would take his sabbatical there. I attended the 4th and 10th grades in Madrid, and went back for two semesters off when I was in college. I fell in love with the place, the people, the food, the language. Some of the dishes at Txikito work upon my memory in the way that Proust's madeleine did his: the fat, silky white asparagus of Navarra; the crisp croquetas with their centers oozing creamed cod or chicken; the boquerones, subtly saline white anchovies; but, most of all, the ensaladilla rusa. (Little Russian salad, supposedly invented by a Russian in the late 19th century.)

I used to eat this delightful version of potato salad, a classic Spanish tapa, almost every Sunday morning when I lived in Madrid in my twenties. They served it at a little café right on the edge of el rastro, the big flea market. The most outrageous punks would go there, flaunting their sky-high mohawks, tight leathers and scary piercings. I remember feeling super cool, kicking the sawdust on the floor, smoking my Marlboro reds and taking leisurely bites of this rich, creamy salad. Txiquito's version—potatoes, peas, carrots and bits of green olive bound together with homemade mayonnaise and mounded atop a salty layer of oil-cured tuna—takes me right back there.

I recreated the recipe to the best of my ability and I think it turned out de puta madre. (That's high praise.) It's usually served with crusty bread, though at Txikito they offer little squat breadsticks, and at our house we ate it with rice crackers. It's mostly just a vehicle to help you shovel it in your mouth faster. ¡Buen provecho!

Ensaladilla Rusa (Russian aka Spanish Potato Salad)

serves 2-4
  • — 2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut in thirds
  • — 1 large carrot, peeled and cut in thirds
  • — 1 cup fresh or frozen green peas
  • — 2 hard-boiled eggs, diced
  • — 10 Spanish green olives (if you can find the ones in anchovy oil, nab them)
  • — 1/2 cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade
  • — 1 cup Spanish oil-cured tuna
  • — 1 roasted red pepper (from a jar is fine)
  • sea salt

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until just tender enough to pierce through with a fork. Do not overcook. About five minutes before the potatoes are done, add the carrot and peas to the boiling water.

Meanwhile, in another small saucepan, hard-boil the eggs. My method is to cover them with cold water, bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and cover the pan with a lid. Rest for about 10 minutes, then remove the eggs and run them under cold water until they are cold. Crack the shells by running the eggs over a hard surface, and peel them under cold running water. Dice finely.

Remove tender vegetables from heat and drain them in a colander. Rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. When cool enough to handle, chop the potatoes and carrot into 1/4" dice. Place in bowl with the peas and refrigerate while you prepare the other ingredients.

Cut the olive meat away from the pits and roughly chop. Drain the tuna, flake it and salt to taste. Set aside. Slice the roasted pepper into long, thin strips. Reserve.

When the refrigerated vegetables are almost cold, remove them from the fridge, add the olives and diced egg, and mix in the mayonnaise. Stir well to combine and season to taste with salt.

Now take two or more small ramekins or bowls (I made this in two that were 4" around by 2" deep), or even one larger bowl, and press the potato salad into the bottom. Make a layer of tuna on top, pressing down well so that the salad is well compacted. Refrigerate for an hour or so.

To serve, slide a knife all the way around the edge of each ramekin or bowl and invert it onto a plate, tapping it to loosen the salad. Decorate the top with strips of red pepper and offer some crusty bread, breadsticks or crackers alongside.

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Gracias, chata, por la receta. And the memories. I have always felt guilty pleasure over my love for ensaladilla rusa. Glad to see I am not alone.
Licia on March 11, 2010 at 5:33 am —
¡Me lo comería todos los días! Thinking of taking a trip there this summer—for the first time in 25 years! Thanks for stopping by...
laura on March 11, 2010 at 6:12 am —