Russian Layered Herring Salad (Coated Herring)

Thursday, September 20, 2012


This is a recipe for a traditional Russian salad, to add to my small arsenal of traditional Russian salads which would typically be served on a holiday (such as on New Year's Eve). It is a layered salad, with herring on the bottom, topped with several different root vegetables, including beets. In Russian, the salad's name literally translates to "Herring Under a Coat" because the herring is covered or "coated" by the other ingredients.


Because direct translations never work well (ask my husband, for whom many a translated Russian joke told at my parents' table has fallen flat alongside the crickets that follow it), "Coated Herring" seems to make slightly more sense. Sometimes this salad is also referred to as dressed herring or layered herring salad.

In making this salad, each ingredient is layered on top of one another, similar to a layered cake. For greater visual effect, you can use a trifle or a tall-sided round glass dish to display each layer of this colorful salad. The top of the salad is covered by beets followed by a layer of mayonnaise. As with a lot of things, this salad will do better if you let it stand, refrigerated, for a little while before serving. As the salad stands, the flavors begin to combine and the beets bleed onto the mayonnaise layer, coloring it a striking mauve.


For this salad you will need two herring fillets, preferably preserved in salt brine (you can read more about it, along with how to fillet a whole herring, here). You can also use the equivalent amount of jarred herring pickled in vinegar which should be more readily available in some places (simply drain and rinse it first).


Russian Layered Herring Salad
(Serves 6-8)

3 medium potatoes
4 medium carrots
3 small beet roots
2 pickled herring fillets
1/2 of white onion
1 large egg for garnish (optional)
Sprigs of dill for garnish (optional)

1. Bring two pots of water to a boil, one medium and one large. Place carrots and potatoes, skins on, in the large pot. Place the beets, skins on, in the medium pot. Bring each pot back to a boil, reduce the heat slightly, cover and let cook until the vegetables are done (about 30 minutes for potatoes and carrots; the beets will take about 40 to 50 minutes). You can test whether the roots are done with a knife, you should feel little to no resistance when it is inserted into the center of the root. Drain the vegetables and let cool. Peel the vegetables with a pairing knife.
2. If using the egg, bring another pot of water to a boil and add the egg. Boil to a hard boil, about ten minutes. Drain and let cool before peeling.
3. Slice the herring fillets into 1/4 inch pieces and place in a single layer of a large round serving dish.* You will next add layers of vegetables on top.
4. Finely chop the onion and sprinkle as an even, single layer on top of the herring. Grate the potatoes and add them as a single layer on top of the onion. Grate the carrots and add them on top of the potato layer. Grate the beets and add them on top of the carrots. Spread mayonnaise in a thin layer on top of the beets. If using, grate the egg, and sprinkle it on top of the mayonnaise layer. Garnish with sprigs of dill. Chill before serving.

*You can use either a shallow serving dish or tall-sided dish. For a shallow dish, each layer of the salad should completely cover the previous layer like a bowl (so that e.g. beets would completely cover the top and the sides of the salad), followed by the top mayonnaise layer which should cover the salad similar to the way frosting does a cake. For a tall-sided dish simply place each layer evenly on top of another. You can also make individual salad portions as shown in the photos by using ramekins or small trifles.


All About Herring and How to Fillet Fish

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Herring has been one of my favorite snacks ever since I was little. A common way of preserving herring in Eastern Europe is in salt brine. Herring there is commonly preserved whole in barrels in a salted water solution with various spices. A similar method is used by the Dutch, except the fish used is younger and it is pickled for a shorter time.

A common misconception about this way of preserving herring is that it is "raw." The salt brine (which is sometimes so strong that the fish has to be desalted) has the effect of pickling or "curing" the fish and is therefore a method of preservation of the herring, so the fish is not actually eaten raw in the ordinary sense of the word. This herring is "raw" in the same way that smoked salmon can be considered "raw:" the raw flesh of each fish is preserved using either the salt or a cold-smoking process, respectively, prior to being consumed. In neither instance is it cooked prior to consumption.

The best herring I've ever had was in the Netherlands. When we visited Amsterdam, we knew ahead of time from a guidebook that there are stands sprinkled all around town, as abundant as perhaps hot dog stands around big cities in the U.S., that serve on a long, split bun, with pickles and onions, not hot dogs, but young herring fillets. We got hooked on the first try and continued to have two or more a day, every day we were there.


As an aside, anyone willing to open a herring stand in New Amsterdam will be my personal hero.

When we were living in Norway, almost every store, no matter how small, had packaged herring fillets preserved in salt brine (which typically had to be desalted by soaking them in water). More popular however, was jarred herring (as well as big plastic white buckets of it) which was preserved in vinegar and sugar, with barely any salt. This Scandinavian treat can be eaten as a snack, a meal with potatoes, or even for lunch as an open-faced sandwich. If you want to try something similar, pick up a jar of Swedish herring at IKEA.

Herring is also often served at a Russian table as an appetizer (or "zakuska"). The herring fillets are sliced into bite-size pieces and served, sprinkled with onion slices or bits of scallion. It is also common to put it in salads. One of the more famous traditional Russian salads is a layered herring and root vegetable salad, is called "Herring Under a Coat." For all of these purposes, a whole herring would typically be used. If you have a Russian store nearby you, you might be in luck. There you'll be sure to find packaged salted fillets (you might have to ask at the counter if you want it whole). And if you do get your hands on a whole one, let's figure out what to do with it.

How to fillet a herring (and other small fish):

Rinse the fish under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. If the fish has not been gutted, using a sharp knife, slice lengthwise along the belly of the fish. Remove and discard the innards. Rinse the inside of the fish under cold water and pat dry. Place the fish on a clean work surface.


Slice off the head slightly behind the gills. Then turn the back of the fish to face you and make an incision along the spine of the fish deep enough to reach the backbone. Cut off and discard the back fin.


With the fish still on its side, insert the blade of your knife between the flesh and the skin. Then carefully peel back the skin to remove it. Repeat with the other side, discarding the skin.


Run the knife between the flesh and the rib bones of the fish on each side to separate the fillet from the bones, cutting off the fillet at the tail. Discard the spine. With the salted herring, it is easier to separate the the fillets, which can be achieved by simply peeling off the fillet from the bones.


Once you have two fillets ready, scrape the inside of each fillet with a knife to remove any gunk. Run your fingers along the insides of each fillet and using either your fingers or tweezers, pluck away any bones left in the flesh. At this point, your fillets are ready.


If you are preparing the salted herring for storing or serving, slice each fillet of the herring crosswise into one inch pieces.


How to store herring:

Once you've filleted and sliced the herring, you can use this method of storing it if you are not serving it immediately. Place the sliced fillets into a shallow ceramic or glass dish (metal can react and plastic tends to absorb the fish smell). Chop some white onion and sprinkle it on top of the fish. Then pour enough oil over the fish to cover it, using either vegetable or canola oil. The oil acts as a preservant of sorts, by sealing away moisture and air. Then cover tightly and refrigerate. The fish will keep this way, refrigerated, for several days.


How to serve herring (the Russian way):

To serve the herring, place the sliced fillets on an elongated serving platter, sprinkle with onion or scallion, and drizzle with vegetable or canola oil. Serve as an appetizer with some bread or boiled potatoes, along with other appetizers (or "zakuski") and salads.


I realize that in many places outside of those mentioned, this type of herring is not easily available. For instance, most U.S. food stores only sell jarred herring pickled in vinegar or as canned "kippers." I have been able to find herring fillets preserved in brine (or preserved whole) here only in specialty or Russian food shops. I personally find herring pickled in vinegar unappealing. Herring is very delicate, the taste is faint but unmistakable, a little bit smokey, buttery, tender. Because of its delicate taste, vinegar can significantly overpower the taste so that the actual flavor of herring is lost and you are left eating vinegary pieces of anonymous fish.

However, if this is your only access to herring, try it anyway. Rinse the pieces or soak them in water first. You can then serve the herring in the same way with fresh onion or scallion, and it would work quite well in the upcoming Russian layered herring salad recipe.


Iced Tea Lemonade Punch

Monday, September 3, 2012


The end of summer is here. Even though its official departure is a few weeks ahead, just as Memorial Day starts its unofficial beginning, Labor Day marks its unofficial end.


As stores replace their summer decor with orange colors, maple leaves and pumpkins (I saw the first hint of orange in a store window display two weeks ago, and it somehow felt nauseating), nature, perhaps less abruptly, is beginning to show signs of changing seasons as well.


While I'm slightly surprised that even as I'm writing this, it is already September 3rd, whereas I was only getting used to the idea of summer, I am also somehow giddy about what's to come. Apple pies, pumpkin tarts, stews, roasts and mulled wine. Colder weather dishes for comfort on a rainy day.


Just as we marked the beginning of summer with a white sangria cocktail, we are marking the beginning of fall with a tea-based cocktail. I had been sitting on this recipe, just as I had been sitting on a box of sample Pure Leaf iced teas, sent courtesy of Lipton, for about a month. I finally decided to make a Labor Day inspired iced tea and lemonade drink to soak up the last bits of summer.


The ingredients in this punch go well together, forming a sort of harmony. I used unsweetened Pure Leaf iced tea, lemonade, honey and brandy. I added fruitiness to the drink by soaking up slices of fresh peaches, plums, kiwis and lemon wheels in honey-sweetened brandy before adding the iced tea and the lemonade. Honey, lemon and tea are old friends, brandy adds the requisite kick (but not so much, and it can also be omitted), and fruit adds wonderful freshness. Overall they make a refreshing beverage, perfect for a summer's end or an early fall party or a cookout.



Iced Tea Lemonade Punch
Serves 8

1 1/3 cup (315 ml) brandy
1/3 cup (80 ml) honey
1 to 1 1/2 cup (230 to 350 ml) sliced fruit (e.g. peaches, plums, kiwi, plus round lemon slices)
4 cups (9,5 dl) unsweetened iced tea
1 1/3 cups (315 ml) lemonade
Mint sprigs for garnish

In a measuring cup, stir brandy and honey until honey is fully dissolved. Place fruit on the bottom of a large glass punch bowl. Pour the brandy over the fruit, cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 20-30 minutes. Add tea and lemonade, and stir well. Cover and refrigerate for half an hour to one hour before serving. Serve by ladling into a stemless glass with a sprig of mint. Enjoy.

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