New Year: Salad Olivier

New Year is the most celebrated holiday in Russia.  When St. Petersburg was Leningrad – and draped in red – we waited for December 31st with the same ardor and impatience that kept us in endless lines for Hungarian sweaters and Finnish boots.  New Year tree bazaars, spreading the scent of spruce into the frosty air, sprouted all over town, and the sidewalks came alive with people pulling rickety, half-bald trees to their apartment cells, where they would install them in buckets with water and decorate the skinny branches with paper snowflakes, sparkling cotton Father Frosts (called Santas, my English teacher told me) with loops of thread around their necks to hang them from the tree, and necklaces of tinsel called “golden rain.”

Cooking started at least a day in advance.  My mother pulled out items of “deficit” from the shelves between our double doors – all those cans of tuna and occasional crabmeat from Kamchatka, jars of green peas and mayonnaise, and bottles of Bulgarian ketchup we had stood for on various lines.  Everything we’d hoarded during the year was to be redeemed on December 31st – New Year’s Eve, our redemption time.

We always began with salad Olivier, the centerpiece of appetizers, which presided in the biggest cut-crystal bowl over every New Year table across our 11 time zones, with slight local variations.  Surrounded by a dozen other zakuski on the table, it was a meal in itself. The best thing about January 1st (2nd and 3rd) was eating all those leftover delicacies we cooked the previous year.

Ingredients: 5-6 boiled potatoes, skinned; a chicken, or any part of it (boiled, skinned, taken off the bone.  In Soviet times, when chicken was difficult to get, we used bologna); 4 half-sour pickles; 3-4 hard-boiled eggs; 2 apples; a can of green peas; 1 onion; a bunch of dill; salt.  Proportions are approximate (salad Olivier is usually made by the bucket).  If you like apples, put in three.  If you hate onion, forget it.  If you are a vegetarian, leave out the chicken. You won’t spoil anything.

Preparation: Chop up all the ingredients and mix with mayonnaise.  Decorate with sprigs of dill.