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Behold the marinera, Murcia’s favorite tapa, which always goes oh so well with that first cold lager. For those non-Murcianos out there reading this, the marinera is a mound of ensaladilla rusa, a creamy potato and tuna salad studded with bits of pickled cucumbers, carrots and olives, served on a looped breadstick and topped with an anchovy. You can also order a marinero, the same base but topped with a tangy vinegar-cured anchovy, a boqueron, instead. If anchovies aren’t your thing, than the anchovy-free bicicleta (yes, bicycle, go figure) is for you.

I’m a definite marinera fan. I love the salty anchovies, and the contrast they give to the sweet and tangy notes of the salad. I also love the challenge of eating a marinera, which takes some practice, and still often results in breadstick fractures that undermine the structural integrity. This is nothing that a few exciting rescue bites can’t solve, however, like swooping in for ice cream that’s about to fall off the cone.

The ensaladilla rusa, Russian Salad, can be found in bars and homes throughout Spain in various forms, the best of which is often, of course, the one made by mamá. Yet I have found that Murcianos are particularly proud of their Russian Salad, and turn up their noses at the cooked peas and carrots, often canned or frozen, typically found in other cities’ versions. I have never tried the ensaladilla elsewhere, but must admit that the other variations sound rather dreary to me, more Siberian, say, than Mediterranean.

Ensaladilla rusa is ubiquitous in Murcia throughout the year, a reliable presence at bars, family meals and gatherings like soccer parties and picnics. It is a comfort food for many, an old standby that never lets down, which, after three years here, it has become for me. After time away, one of the first things I crave is a marinera and a beer (they go hand in hand, after all). I feel almost like a local as I bite in, savoring the now familiar flavors anew.

Ensaladilla Rusa

Murcia’s Ensaladilla Rusa

Jazz up your next potluck with this flavorful twist on the potato salad.

As with many salads, the exact quantity you use of all the ingredients is a matter of personal preference (for example, I like lots of pickles and olives, and often add an extra can of tuna). Some people like to add diced hard-boiled eggs directly to the salad.

In terms of mayonnaise, use your favorite, homemade or store-bought, because you definitely notice the flavor. Hellman’s is the store-bought brand of choice in Murcia, although Manolo says the Hellman’s he’s tried in the US tastes different (not bad, he says, just different).

In Murcia (and in the rest of Spain, too, I think), you can buy the variantes (the pickled bits) pre-chopped in jars or in bulk at farmers’ markets next to the olives. In the US, I have been able to make my own variantes using minced carrots and cornichons (tangy French-style pickles, rather than dill) and their juice (see Cooking Note). *Take note: this step should be done two days ahead, so you can make the salad one day ahead.

Locally made looped breadsticks called rosquillas are used to make the marineras, although I’ve yet to come across any in the States. The circular Italian breadsticks (taralli), which I have seen in Italian markets, would work well, or even crackers. The challenge of the hole in the middle is fun, but the most important element of the breadstick, I would say, is the crunch.

For the salad

4 medium potatoes, peeled, quartered and rinsed in cold water until the water runs clear  – a waxy potato works best, like Yellow Finn or Yukon Gold

1 6-ounce can of solid tuna packed in olive oil, drained and flaked with a fork

1/2 cup variantes (a mix of minced pickled cucumbers and carrots – see Cooking Note)

1/4 cup anchovy stuffed olives, minced, plus more for decorating

3/4 cup mayonnaise, or more to taste, plus more for decorating

3 hard-boiled eggs, for decorating

For the marineras (or marineros or bicicletas)

Circular breadsticks (like taralli), or crackers

Anchovies packed in oil (or vinegar-cured boquerones) (Optional)

For the salad

Place potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and then add salt. Cook at a gentle boil until the potatoes are just cooked through, but not falling apart, about 10-15 minutes (just at the point when the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork). Drain and allow to cool.

Blend the tuna with the potatoes in a large bowl using a fork. The potatoes should break down to a chunky purée in the mixing process. Add the variantes and minced olives and stir until evenly distributed. Slowly add mayonnaise by the large spoonful, tasting once the salad holds together to decide if you wish to add more or not (the salad should not get to the point that it’s runny, however). Smooth out the surface for decorating.

Drop mayonnaise by the spoonful over the salad and spread with a rubber spatula until a thin layer covers the surface. Then grate two hard-boiled eggs evenly over the mayonnaise, resulting in a soft yellow cushion for the final decorative flourishes, several whole olives and one sliced hard-boiled egg. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours before serving. This salad is even more flavorful if prepared a day ahead.

For the marineras (or marineros or bicicletas)

Place a scoop of chilled ensaladilla rusa on a circular breadstick or cracker; lay an anchovy on top.

  •  Cooking Note: To make 1/2 cup of  variantes (pictured below – I know, the lighting is terrible), you’ll need to place roughly 4 tablespoons of minced carrots and 4 tablespoons of minced cornichons in a small bowl and add enough cornichon juice to cover. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use. Make your variantes at least a day before you make the salad so that the carrots are nice and pickled by the time you add them.

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