Herring? Just beet it!

Today many use herring fillets to make the preparation easier.

herring 88 (photo credit: )
herring 88
(photo credit: )
At a recent party given by Valia, my Ukrainian neighbor, among the buffet's enticing delicacies - chicken blintzes, stuffed grape leaves, baked chicken-potato piroshki, fresh and pickled vegetables and luscious poppy seed and chocolate cakes - a bright, reddish-purple salad caught my eye. I sampled a little with a slice of fresh, dark pumpernickel. It was creamy and delicious, different from any salad I had ever tasted. In fact, I wasn't sure what was in it. Valia explained that the salad is a Russian appetizer that's also popular in Ukraine and is called fish in shuba, which means fish in a coat. Some say shuba refers to the fur coats that are common in Russia. According to Matthew Goldman, author of Jewish Food, Russian Jews like this layered salad for Shabbat. He explains that the name is "an evocative way of describing the heavy layering of vegetables" that cover the fish. When I asked what fish to use to make the salad, Valia used the term "salt fish" (as is used in Hebrew - dag maluah). Herring is the usual choice, and most cooks soak the salted fish in water overnight to remove the excess salt before making the salad. I shouldn't have been surprised that the humble herring appeared on such a festive table. Anya Van Bremzen and John Welchman, authors of Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook, wrote of herring: "No Russian get-together would be complete without the appearance of this much-beloved fish." Instead of mixing the salad's elements together, cooks compose the salad in layers. Marina, Valia's friend who made the salad, explained that she cut the fish in very small pieces and spread them on a platter, then sprinkled them with chopped onion. Next she topped the fish and onion with layers of cooked potato, mayonnaise, grated hard-boiled eggs and, finally, grated cooked beets, hence the bright color. Lastly she garnished the appetizer generously with chopped parsley. It was the best herring salad I had ever tasted. Unlike other herring salads I've tried, it was not sweet or sweet-sour, but savory. The assertive taste of the fish was offset by the mild flavors of the potato and the eggs, creating a pleasing balance of flavors. The beets contributed a delicate sweetness, and the onion and parsley gave the salad a fresh, lively flavor. Today many use herring fillets to make the preparation easier, as removing the bones of a whole herring can be tedious. If fussing with salt fish isn't your thing, you can make this salad with sprats (Hebrew shaprutim), which come in cans. Some use mackerel or canned salmon. You can also use cooked fish. Thin strips of lox would be nice too. Goldman's shuba salad recipe calls for soaking the herring in milk, then chopping it. He uses pickled beets instead of boiled ones, and adds layers of grated tart apples and grated uncooked carrots to the salad's other elements. He recommends refrigerating the salad for several hours or overnight, so it becomes firm enough to slice into wedges. Anne Volokh, author of The Art of Russian Cuisine, calls her interpretation of the salad "herring under a blanket" and recommends using a glass bowl to show the colorful layers of herring, green onion, potatoes and beets. Her creamy sauce has one part sour cream to three parts mayonnaise. Other salads that resemble shuba also appear on Ashkenazi kiddush menus and buffet tables. Molly Lyons Bar-David, author of The Israeli Cookbook, quoted the great lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who "was wont to say, when he had eaten of the gourmet dishes of Paris and longed for his home in Russia, 'Give me a piece of Jewish herring, peppered, and with onions... for this is the soul and savor of food.'" According to Bar-David, a Russian-Polish Jewish way of making herring salad calls for mixing herring with cooked potatoes, cooked beets, dill pickles and onion, and a sour cream dressing. English Jews like kippers, or smoked herring, as "an indispensable snack at all personal religious festivities, from brit mila... to golden wedding anniversary," and prepare their kipper salad with potatoes, onion, mayonnaise and sour cream (but no beets). For an especially festive version of shuba salad, Israeli food expert and TV personality Israel Aharoni suggests embellishing the frugal fish salad with a symbol of luxury - a layer of caviar. FISH IN A COAT If you are buying a whole salted herring, soak it overnight in water, then remove the skin and the bones. Aharoni notes that you can use any kind of salted fish, such as palamida, lakerda or matias; after you remove any bones, he recommends soaking the fillets in milk. For easier options, choose canned kippers or sprats, or use marinated or pickled herring from a jar, canned salmon, or cooked fish. To cut the calories, spread the mayonnaise in a thin layer. Use light mayonnaise or, if you don't need a parve salad, make the dressing with 3 parts light mayonnaise and 1 part leben or low-fat yogurt. Rinse your hands immediately after handling the beets to avoid stains. 4 beets, about 3.8-5 cm. in diameter 700 to 900 gr. boiling potatoes of uniform size, scrubbed but not peeled 2 hard-boiled eggs, shelled 1 large or 2 small salted herrings, prepared as above, or 350-450 gr. marinated herring, or 2 to 3 small cans kippers or sprats 3 or 4 green onions, sliced, or 1⁄2 cup finely chopped regular or red onions about 1 cup mayonnaise Freshly ground pepper 3 Tbsp. chopped parsley Rinse beets, taking care not to pierce their skins. Put in a pan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 35 to 40 minutes or until tender. Let cool. Run beets under cold water and slip off the skins. Grate beets with a coarse grater. Put potatoes in large saucepan, cover with water by about 1 cm. and add salt. Bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until tender enough so that knife pierces center of largest potato easily and potato falls from knife when lifted, about 25 minutes. Do not overcook, or potatoes will fall apart when cut. Drain potatoes and peel while somewhat warm; the peel comes off more easily. Halve potatoes lengthwise, put them cut side downward, and slice them. Put potatoes in large bowl. Grate eggs with coarse grater. If using herring or other salt fish, after soaking and filleting them, cut the fillets in thin strips. If using kippers or sprats, dice them. Spread fish in a layer on a serving platter or put it at the bottom of a serving bowl. Sprinkle with the onions. Cover fish and onions with the potato slices. Season the mayonnaise with pepper and spread it over the potato. Top with the grated hard-boiled eggs in 1 layer, then with the grated beets. Sprinkle liberally with chopped parsley. Cover salad with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours or up to overnight. Serve cold. Makes 5 or 6 servings. Faye Levy's book 1,000 Jewish Recipes is also available in Russian.