Ilse's All-Star Herring Salad

If you are of a saving disposition, you know how satisfying it is to be going through old storage boxes looking for, say, a potato ricer and among the hoarded tools find a great saucepan you’d completely forgotten you had.

You also know what’s coming next; the find was a recipe. I was searching for a pre-computer Good Food column about 3 Day Black Fruitcake (requested by Colleen back on Halloween – eek!). This involved pawing through many boxes of ancient clippings. And there among them was a guide to herring with the recipe for Ilse’s Salad, the great converter of herring haters into passionate fans.

Ilse's Salad, with beets, potatoes,apples and onions - and herring

Ilse's Salad, with beets, potatoes, apples and onions - and herring

When the piece came out in 1985, the things that herring had going for it included great taste, moderate price and lots of health-promoting fatty acids. Now we can add: less endangered than most of the fish you’d actually like to eat and less well-seasoned with toxic pollutants than most other fatty fish.

I’m speaking here of pickled herring, a dependable staple available almost everywhere. Fresh herring, one of the world’s tastier foodstuffs, more or less doesn’t exist because it has a shelf life of about 5 minutes. Like mackerel, bluefish and similar delights, it gets disagreeably fishy so fast only those who’ve eaten it right off the boat know how delicious it can be, and it’s almost never sold in U.S. fishmarkets. Of course we never used to see edible fresh sardines, either, so maybe eventually…

where was I? Oh, the recipe

Ilse’s Herring Salad

Ilse is my friend Monika’s mom, one of those mom’s with wide arms for all her daughter’s pals. Also an excellent cook. Being German, she says this is a German recipe, but variants with these basic ingredients are popular all over the Northern European herring belt, from the Netherlands through Germany and Scandinavia on to Poland and Russia.

This version is a real  crowd-pleaser, mild enough for herring neophytes without being at all namby-pamby. Easy to make, too, although not instant if you follow Ilse’s directions and cut the ingredients into neat, tiny dice. It still tastes good if you just chop everything into roughly the same size chunks, but the truth is Ilse’s right – it tastes better  if you take the time to make it the way she does.

For about 7 cups, appetizers for 8, lunch for 4, really a lot of canapes if it’s going out as small dollops on pieces of French bread ( Ilse) or mild rye (me).

1 lb. boiling (waxy) potatoes, steamed and peeled

2/3 lb beets, roasted and peeled

1 lb crisp apples, peeled and cored

1 large dill pickle

1 medium sized sweet onion

3/4 pound mild-pickled herring filets – the herring from a 13 oz jar of herring in wine sauce can be used if necessary


salt and pepper

@ 3 tablespoons lemon juice

@ 1 tablespoon sugar

¾ c. chopped walnuts ( optional, but don’t tell Ilse I said so)

1. Cut potatoes, beets, pickle and onion into ¼ inch dice, putting them into a good sized mixing bowl as you go.

2. Cut the herring into slightly larger little dice and add them.

3. Stir in just enough mayonnaise to bind and season lightly with salt and pepper. Proceed to add lemon juice by tablespoons and sugar by teaspoons until you have a pleasing sweet sour balance. Adjust the salt and pepper (and stir in the walnuts). That’s it. The salad will keep in the fridge for a couple of days.

In Monika's kitchen, 1985. Ilse out front. You can tell which one is Monika and which one is me.

In Alan and Monika's kitchen, @1985. Ilse out front. You can tell which one is Monika and which one is me.

Photo by Alan Magee

PS.  Hang on Colleen; I found it! – at the very bottom of the very last box (go figure), in the form of a very messy manuscript.  Jerusalem awaits transcription but we are making headway. 

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1 Comment »

  • Thanks for the delightfully personal recipe. Very authentic except for the walnuts which don’t really ‘fit’ taste-wise.(Please leave them out or I’ll tell Ilse!)

    Hi Ruth,

    Welcome to the blog – and of course to leaving out the walnuts if they don’t work for you. As noted in the text, they’re “optional,” and I probably wouldn’t have put them in at all if the recipe were mine (it’s Ilse’s, so she’s not going to be terribly surprised when you tell her about them.)

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