Rethinking Potato Salad

When I was growing up in New England, we went to nearly a dozen cookouts every summer. Each one was the same: grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, corn on the cob, watermelon and potato salad. Standing in line to fill up my plate, I'd always be one step behind my mom. I'd smother my hot dog in yellow mustard and pickle relish, grab a buttery ear of sweet corn and gently balance my paper plate with a juicy slab of chilled watermelon.

At the end of the line, I would pause before the giant bowl of creamy potato salad. But before I could reach out to grab the spoon, my mother would turn around and give me the look that said, "Don't even think about it." It didn't matter how good that bowl of rich, mayo-drenched potato salad looked, potato salad was the forbidden food of the cookout.

Making Great Potato Salad

• Use waxy rather than floury potatoes, such as Yukon gold, red bliss and fingerlings. They have a creamy texture yet keep their shape well when cooked. Although russet potatoes are exceptionally tender, they don't hold their shape well when boiled and tend to get mushy.

  

• Cut potatoes into equal-sized pieces so they will cook evenly.

  

• Don't overcook potatoes. Take them off the heat while they're still slightly firm. Drain and let cool before assembling the salad.

  

• With or without skins? It's a personal preference. If you leave the skins on, be sure to scrub them well before cooking. Peeled potatoes work especially well for absorbing sauces such as pesto.

  

• Season the potatoes while still warm to absorb the flavors more fully.

  

• Warm potato salads taste best the day they are made; however, cold potato salads often taste better the next day. If you're making potato salad ahead of time, hold off on adding raw onions or fresh herbs until just before serving. You'll avoid unpleasant pungency and keep your herbs looking fresh.

There was simply no way my mom was going to chance bringing home her brood, sick from food poisoning. How could we know, after all, how long that potato salad had been sitting in the sun? How could we be assured that it was kept cold from the time it was made? It was too risky. So we never ate it, and we traveled home safe, every time.

Potato salad has been around for many cookouts. It was first introduced to Europe from the New World by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. These early potato salads were made by boiling potatoes in wine or a mixture of vinegar and spices. The more American version of potato salad is rooted in German cuisine and came here with European settlers.

The earliest written recipes for American potato salad date to the mid-19th century. Cooked potatoes were typically dressed with oil, vinegar and herbs, which culinary historians believe were introduced by German immigrants who had a penchant for sour, sweet and spicy ingredients such as vinegar, sugar and coarse mustard. Hot potato salad, usually made with bacon, onion and vinegar dressing, was so closely associated with German immigrants that it was called "German potato salad."

It's unclear who first added the mayo to potato salad. Bottled commercial mayonnaise became available in the early 1900s. Although it wasn't until the 1920s and 1930s, with the introduction of iconic American mayo brands such as Hellman's, Best Foods and Miracle Whip, that mayo-based salads became popular.

Early 20th century American recipes for mayo-based potato salad typically consisted of cooked potatoes and chopped celery seasoned with dried herbs and bathed in creamy mayo. Things haven't changed much in nearly a century. There is no one correct way to make potato salad; numerous regional variations exist, and virtually every American family has its own favorite recipe made with its own secret ingredient.

Since cookout season is upon us, no doubt you'll be invited to one or throw one yourself. Offer to make the potato salad. Sure, you could make traditional mayo-based potato salad, but how about something a bit more nontraditional? I have potato salad recipes that feature ingredients such as Asian lemon grass, Italian prosciutto and purple Peruvian potatoes. Each has its own flavor, though they share a few things in common: They're easy to make, they're really tasty, and they don't contain mayo (so my mom would actually let you eat them).

Lemon Grass And Ginger Potato Salad

Lemon Grass Ginger Potato Salad i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Lemon Grass Ginger Potato Salad
Susan Russo for NPR

Lemon grass is a Southeast Asian herb with a fresh, delicate lemon aroma and flavor. It is used frequently in Indonesian, Vietnamese and Thai cooking. Paired with spicy ginger and cool mint, it makes potato salad seem exotic.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 pounds red bliss potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

2 stalks lemon grass*

2 scallions, thinly sliced (plus extra for garnish, if desired)

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon water

1/2 jalapeno pepper (the more seeds, the hotter the flavor)**

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint (plus extra for garnish, if desired)

Scrub the potatoes well, rinse thoroughly and pat dry. Peel and cut into 1-inch pieces. Add to a medium-size pan of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, yet still hold their shape, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain and cool.

To prepare the lemon grass, remove the tough outer layers of the stalk. Once you reach the tender middle, mash it lightly with the side of a large knife to release its oil and fragrance. Then mince it.

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients except potatoes.

Place cooled potatoes in a large bowl. Pour lemon grass sauce over the potatoes and toss well until evenly coated. Garnish with additional finely chopped scallions and fresh mint, if desired. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.

Note: If you find raw onions too pungent, soak them in hot water for 2 minutes and drain before adding to the salad.

*Lemon grass is available at Asian specialty markets, organic markets and some major supermarkets. If you can't find lemon grass, substitute 1-1/2 teaspoons lemon zest with a splash of lemon juice.

**Jalapeno peppers are mildly hot. When de-seeding any hot peppers, it's a good idea to wear gloves. Cut off the top of the pepper; slice in half, lengthwise. Using the tip of a knife, remove as many seeds as desired. Then dice.

Arugula Pesto Potato Salad

Arugula Pesto Potato Salad i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Arugula Pesto Potato Salad
Susan Russo for NPR

Substituting peppery arugula for basil in pesto may not be traditional, but it sure is chic. If you're not going to use the pesto immediately, pour it in a small airtight container and cover with a layer of olive oil. This will prevent the pesto from turning brown.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

4 pounds red bliss potatoes, peeled

2-1/2 cups arugula

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus 2 tablespoons

1/4 cup walnuts or pine nuts, plus 1 tablespoon

2 tablespoons water

A generous seasoning of salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon

Scrub the potatoes well, rinse thoroughly and pat dry. Peel and cut into 1-inch pieces. Add to a medium-size pan of water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, yet still hold their shape, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain and cool.

Add arugula, cheese, nuts, water, salt and pepper to a food processor. Pour olive oil though processor chute (or add to other ingredients if yours doesn't have a chute), and process until smooth.

Place cooled potatoes in a large bowl. Pour pesto over potatoes, and toss gently until well coated. Before serving, drizzle with 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon toasted nuts and 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese. This potato salad tastes best when served slightly warm or at room temperature.

String Bean And Potato Salad With Prosciutto

String Bean And Potato Salad With Prosciutto i i
Susan Russo for NPR
String Bean And Potato Salad With Prosciutto
Susan Russo for NPR

Our family cookouts always featured my grandmother's Italian-style potato and string bean salad seasoned simply with extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar and fresh summer herbs. I don't think she would mind that I added salty, tender prosciutto for some flair.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 pounds red bliss potatoes, with skins

1/2 pound string beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon water

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Salt, to taste

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

2 ounces prosciutto, torn into thin strips

Scrub the potatoes well, rinse thoroughly and pat dry. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Add to a medium-size pan of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, yet still hold their shape, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain and cool, saving the water.

Place string beans in boiling potato water for 2 minutes. Drain and plunge into a bowl of ice water. (This will let them retain their vivid green color.) Drain and pat dry before assembling salad.

To make the dressing, whisk all of the remaining ingredients except prosciutto in a small bowl and set aside.

To prepare the salad, place cooled potatoes, string beans and prosciutto strips in a large bowl. Pour dressing over salad, and gently toss until well-coated. Garnish with additional herbs, if desired. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.

Patriotic Potato Salad

Patriotic Potato Salad i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Patriotic Potato Salad
Susan Russo for NPR

This red, white and blue potato salad will be the star attraction at any Fourth of July cookout. All-blue potatoes are slightly starchier but the same color as purple Peruvians, which are technically fingerling potatoes — smaller, thinner potatoes. Both work well, and both get their brilliant color from iron. Once cooked, the color will fade, but try this trick to minimize fading: Add a couple of splashes of white vinegar to the cooking water.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 pounds total Yukon gold, red bliss and all-blue or purple Peruvian* potatoes, with skins

A couple of splashes of white vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar**

1 tablespoon water

2 tablespoons fresh basil, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons parsley, thinly sliced

6 to 7 cranks of freshly ground black pepper

A generous sprinkling of salt, to taste

2 stalks celery, diced (about 1/2 cup)

4 radishes, very thinly sliced (about 1/4 cup)

Scrub the potatoes well, rinse thoroughly and pat dry. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Add to a medium-size pan of water (with a couple of splashes of white vinegar, if desired). Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, yet still hold their shape, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain and cool.

Meanwhile, whisk olive oil, white balsamic vinegar, water, herbs, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.

Drain potatoes and place in a large bowl. Add celery and radishes. Pour vinaigrette over the potatoes, and toss gently until well-coated. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

*Blue and purple potatoes are available at specialty markets as well as many major supermarkets.

**White balsamic vinegar is made from white wine vinegar and grapes. Because it is milder than traditional brown balsamic vinegar and doesn't stain food, it's preferable for this colorful salad. It can be found at specialty markets and many major supermarkets. Rice vinegar can be substituted.

About The Author

Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. She is working on a cookbook, Field Guide to Sandwiches (Quirk Books), which will be released in the fall of 2010. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.

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