Posts Tagged ‘Stefano Manfredi’


In Search of the Real Russian Salad

July 30, 2013

As an Italian-Australian kid, I liked to keep my exotic food preferences to myself. But I’m now happy to share.

Russian Salad (insalata russa) featured on our dinner table in Australia each New Year’s Eve and on special occasions from the late 1950s onwards. When we returned to Italy in 1964 on the ocean liner SS Marconi, I was bereft at leaving my friends in Sydney, but found solace in having access to that dish daily. Twenty six days at sea with buffet table bliss!  I loved the stuff and piled my plate high, and didn’t have to hide my passion for it from my school friends.


Image: Marco Salvo/

It’s thought the dish was invented in Russia in the late 1880s by Belgian chef Lucien Olivier. Or was it? France* also has claims on salade russe. Whatever its origins, it made its way to Italy (perhaps through the Piemonte region) and later Spain (where it’s known as ensaladilla rusa and served in tapas and pintxos bars). Add to that Iran, Israel, Serbia, Poland, Greece, Turkey and South America and you’ve pretty much got a universal dish.

When we made insalata russa, my mother looked after the cooking and my father was assigned mayo making and assembling duties. Not for him the dumping of assorted vegetables in mayonnaise into a salad bowl. No, he’d slap the prepared mixture into a round cake shape, coat it with extra mayonnaise and decorate it with sliced hard-boiled eggs, gherkins (cornichons), black olives, capers and tomatoes.

There are many takes on insalata russa and the dish has been adapted to reflect national cuisines, and varies considerably. There’s no disputing the most popular ingredients are potatoes, carrots, peas and home-made mayonnaise with good extra virgin olive oil.

I asked Sydney chef/restaurateur Stefano Manfredi for his thoughts on the dish and he suggested zucchini, celery, capsicum (red & yellow), beans. The influential Italian cookbook The Silver Spoon includes one cooked beet, as does our household bible Cucina Triestina.


Image: Doubleday

I also consulted someone who brings considerable gravitas to the table. Liberace, the late American pianist/entertainer, has Italian as well as Polish roots (Italian father, Polish mother). ‘Mr Showmanship’ was a dab hand in the kitchen and his book Liberace Cooks! (published 1970) includes a Russian Salad recipe – and he has everything but the candelabra in it … including beets.

*In France, the dish is also known as salade piémontaise (after the Piedmont region in Italy) adding to the confusion about its origins.

So why is it difficult to find this universal dish in restaurants in Australia – Russian dinner dances notwithstanding. Unfashionably retro? Too hard to deconstruct? At the very least it should be sold in delis, so that I won’t have to wait for my next trip back to Italy to buy a take-away scoopful.

If you’re ready for showtime, here’s Liberace’s Russian Salad recipe.



May 15, 2013

If ‘that old chestnut’ is used often enough, doesn’t the idiom itself become an old chestnut?

Uncooked chestnuts

Let’s make the collective noun a VENEER of chestnuts

Never mind, I’m marking autumn and the cooler weather by eating record numbers of chestnuts. I can’t resist the sweet, nutty flavour and smooth floury texture. They’re low in calories and high in Vitamin C, and the bonus is the shell’s beautiful faux wood veneer pattern.

My own ‘old chestnut’ is 24 years old and lives happily in a winter coat pocket in my wardrobe. I bought the purple coat for my father’s funeral in Italy in December 1989 and after buying hot roasted chestnuts the same day from a street vendor, I saved the last chestnut in the paper cone and put it in my pocket. It’s been there ever since. I haven’t worn the coat for many years but occasionally put my hand in the pocket just to touch the smooth chestnut.

Various Italian community groups in Australia celebrate what was once known as “poor man’s food” with harvest events, and I was pleased to see Sydney restaurateur Stefano Manfredi recently host a chestnut and wine sampling outside his Balla restaurant. He tells me he’s the Ambassador for Chestnuts Australia and conducts masterclasses at Myrtleford, NE Victoria where they’re mostly grown.

I roast them under the griller (after scoring the shell with a cross to prevent explosions) and eat them neat, but also like them in cakes and desserts especially the traditional Tuscan cake made with chestnut flour, nuts and rosemary – Castagnaccio. DO NOT under any circumstances confuse them with ‘horse chestnuts’ which are bitter, mildly poisonous and sound like something that Colonel Potter from the TV series MASH would splutter loudly.


Chestnut in all its natural glory. Was it also a Muppet character?

Let’s embrace chestnuts in Australia. Why not organise a sing-a-long next Christmas of Nat King Cole’s famous Christmas Song that begins ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire …’

Help spread the word. And don’t forget to SHARE, lest the First Witch in Macbeth (Act 1, Scene 1) takes revenge again and casts an evil spell on you.

Nigella Lawson does a great chocolate chestnut refrigerator cake   

And for chestnuts with a kick, try this: Chilli Spiced Roasted Chestnuts via Not Quite Nigella 

PS. I’ve  just discovered a delicious Mario Batali recipe for Chestnut Crepes

%d bloggers like this: