Few things are as refreshing and at the same time filling as chilled pickled herring and potato salad. Well, maybe only the same salad including brined cucumber for an extra sour cooling touch… Last weekend I went on a short grocery shopping trip to Germany and brought back some delicacies I cannot find neither in Switzerland nor in France. Some, as pickled herring in oil or vinegared herring in creamy sauces, do exist here, but they do not hold a candle to the ones found in Germany or Poland. The pickled herring I used in this salad was the plumpest and fattest I have had for ages and all the herring amateurs know how these two characteristics are crucial in good quality herrings.
On an extremely hot, humid, sunny evening, this salad was a superb treat for someone who has been dreaming of good pickled herring for years. I hope you will forgive my reposting this old recipe. Apart from a slight photo improvement, I thought that maybe such a simple, but luscious dish, promoting cheap, healthy and apparently ecological fish merits a reminder every two years…
The product I have used here is not strong, very sour vinegared herring, but lightly cured (soused) herring, called “matjes” or “maatjes”. It plays a big role in Northern European, German and Slavic countries and is also often associated with the Jewish cuisine. People who didn’t grow up in these cultures may be put off at first by the cured herring’s strong smell and taste, but they usually end up in succumbing to its addictive, complex flavour and mellow, meaty texture.
Herring has been preserved in brine since the Middle Ages, but the salt concentration was so high, the fish had to be desalted by soaking before it was consumed. In the XIIIth century the Dutch have improved this process creating a light brining technique, which doesn’t require desalting. “Maatjesharing”, often called “maatjes” is an example of this curing technique and is now readily available in many European countries, usually sold covered in oil (see TIPS below).
Matjes are often eaten simply with chopped onions and bread or in different salads, usually including potatoes. This salad is probably the oldest and the simplest one I know. I have been preparing it since I was a teenager and whenever I want a simple herring dish, this is the first thing I think of. The reason is simple: potatoes, onions and mayonnaise are simply the winning company for cured herring. Here I have also added brined sour cucumber (see the TIPS below), which makes this dish a bit lighter and even more refreshing thanks to its sour touch. You can also add here hard-boiled eggs if you want more protein. If you want to add some fresh herbs, dill is perfect for both the herring and the potatoes, but chives or green onions are also good.
I usually have this salad as a main dish with bread (black bread is particularly advised here!), but it can be also a starter, in which case it serves 6. If you are a big herring fan, you might like this Layered Herring Salad (with eggs, beetroot, onions and potatoes). The photo is not inspiring but the dish is exquisite. Accidentally, Charles has recently posted a particularly tempting list of Swedish dishes and a very tempting “deconstructed” herring salad among them.
If you want to see myriads of herring cold and hot dishes ideas, visit either Three-Cookies or Easily Good Eats (a collection of recipes), both blogs by the same author, a real herring connoisseur, who I hope, will decide one day to write a herring cookery book. (I am already queueing up for a signed copy!).
TIPS: As you might have noticed on the photo, I have added some brine pickled cucumbers (also known as “fermented cucumbers” or “sour cucumbers”). They are not obligatory but their sour taste goes perfectly well with this salad. You can find them in Central and Eastern European grocery shops. In order to make sure you don’t buy vinegar-pickled cucumbers, make sure the water in the jar is slightly “cloudy” and there is a whitish sediment on the bottom. Sometimes they are also sold in plastic bags, in the refrigerated section (these are often better). Then you know they are brine-pickled, not vinegared.
Important: do not throw the salty cucumber brine! It’s perfect against hangover.
If your country doesn’t have a pickled herring-eating tradition, look for Polish or Russian grocery shops, where it’s one of the most sought after – hence often available – products. Herrings usually labelled “matjes”, “matjas” or something similar are packed with oil, not vinegar (it’s easy to see even if you don’t understand the ingredients). A small amount of vinegar is always included, but the oily liquid is the sign this is the good herring for this salad.
Do not use red onion here. It’s too delicate and simply doesn’t stand the strength of the herring taste. White, strong onion or shallot are the only possible options.
In my opinion this salad doesn’t need to swim in mayonnaise, so as you can see on the photo above, its small amount it simply adds some creaminess.
Preparation: 30 minutes + min. 2 hours chilling in the fridge
Ingredients (serves 3 as a main dish):
400 g/about 14 oz cured herrings in oil
1 medium onion
1 kg/about 2 lbs potatoes
(3 medium brine pickled cucumbers)
a couple of tablespoons mayonnaise (add 1 teaspoon mustard if you have bland mayonnaise)
Cook the potatoes, peel them and cut into bite-sized pieces.
Drain the herring, cut it into bite-sized pieces too.
Do the same with brined cucumbers, if using.
Chop the onion.
Combine the herring, the warm potatoes, the mayonnaise, add salt, pepper, the onion and put into the fridge for at least 2 hours.
Serve very cold.