We were invited to spend Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) with our friend Diana and her family. We were excited to be able to experience a real Spanish Christmas with a real Spanish family. In Spain, Christmas Eve is a bigger celebration that Christmas Day (I wrote about the Spanish holiday season here).
Diana’s mother, Margarita, hosted dinner at her home. We knew Margarita was a good cook from what Diana has told us and from our personal experience sampling some of her homemade fruit preserves, sauces, and soups. This made us even more excited for the nochebuena feast. Dinner in Spain is not usually eaten until at least 9pm. Typically dinner is a smaller than the midday meal, although nochebuena is a notable exception.
We arrived at Margarita’s home at 8:30pm. Diana, her daughter, Diana, and sister, Reyes, were already there helping with preparation and readying the dining table. We sat in the salon (living room) and visited for a bit and soon the delicious looking food started coming out; plates of cured meat, bread, paté, wine, a delicious spinach salad with goat cheese and pomegranate, a layered dish of avocado and salmon and of course, the pièce de résistance, ensaladilla rusa.
Ensaladilla rusa (or Russian salad) is a very popular dish in Spain. It was first described to us by our profesora, Marta. After she listed off a few ingredients, were were like, “oh, it’s potato salad.” Then we had ensaladilla rusa. While it certainly is reminiscent of American potato salad, it is much better, en mi opinión. We have had it most often as tapas and occasionally as a side dish. We have never had it anywhere close to as good as Margarita’s nochebuena ensaladilla rusa though.
Why is it called ensaladilla rusa, you might ask (we did). Usually we just get a shrug or an “I don’t know.” To be fair, when we asked Diana she said, “why do American’s call patatas fritas french fries?” Touché. I did some googling and found this history (and recipe!) of the salad itself but it is still unclear as to when it became popular in Spain. We also, until the writing of this very post, have been calling it ensalada rusa. Ensalada is the Spanish name for salad. In reading it, I understand the pronunciation difference but I suppose our ears aren’t finally tuned enough to pick up the difference when we’ve been offered ensaladilla rusa (in quick, native Spanish). Both ensalada and ensaladilla translate to salad so I texted Diana to ask her the difference. She said they only use ensaladilla for the russian salad. Fair enough.
Anyway, in describing ensaladilla rusa, I don’t think it would necessarily be appealing to the typical American. “Well, it’s like potato salad only with peas and tuna” but let me tell you, it is delicious. I’ve thought about how good Margarita’s was several times since we’ve have it. Her’s was layered and even included fresh shrimp on top. She sliced it like a cake and we each received a hefty wedge.
After devouring the first slice, she offered me another. I was already getting full but it was so good and it seemed rude to decline (she spent two hours making it!), so I asked for a little more “un poco”. Reyes looked at me and said, “My mom doesn’t know the meaning of a little when it comes to food” and indeed, another generous slice was placed on my plate. With Phil’s help, I finished the second slice. To my and my full belly’s surprise, Margarita had disappeared into the kitchen and was making yet another course (not pictured, sorry!) of gulas/angulas sauteed in olive oil and garlic with shrimp. Angulas are baby eels and gulas is a seafood product that is very common in Spain made of fish paste to resemble angulas (both look like spaghetti). It is kind of like buying crab meat verses imitation crab meat in the U.S. I am not familiar enough with gulas or angulas to taste the difference and only know that whatever Margarita served was delicious.
Next, out came the coffee and desert platters; chocolate, polvorón, turrón, and other tasty delights. I was SO full that I only managed to eat a couple of pieces of turrón and split a polvorón with Phil.
After desert we popped a bottle of champagne and toasted. Margarita also served us a orujo that had been infused with blueberries for six months. Orujo is a Galician pomance brandy, a liquor distilled from the pomance or remnants of a grape pressing (for wine). It was very good, though you could tell the liquor had quite a high alcohol content (100 proof as it turns out!) but the blueberries mellowed it out. She also served us infused cherries as well.
We had such a wonderful night, eating, drinking, and laughing. Diana and her family are not only warm and welcoming but also have a good sense of humor. They are our kind of people. In fact, we had such a good time, we didn’t leave until 1 am! Young Diana had been watching the Santa tracker online, so we figured it was best to go home and go to bed so he wouldn’t skip our place, as we’ve been very good this year 🙃