Summer's salad days
It would be hard to come up with a side dish that shows up at more reunions, picnics or other summer celebrations than potato salad.
This everywhere dish is also fairly personal, some family recipes being regarded almost as sacred documents. "I like the way Grandma used to make it" could be potato salad's mantra.
Fundamentally, this is a fairly basic dish: potatoes and seasonings. But the variety of what goes into it depends on the cook — mayonnaise or salad dressing, sour cream, mustard, vinegar, pickles, eggs, celery or radishes for crunch, sometimes capers.
Simple? Let's open it up more.
For example, what kind of potatoes will you use? Russets? Or maybe the smaller, red-skinned varieties? What about yellow potatoes, such as Yukon Gold?
This is where it gets tricky. Russets have a higher starch content and can become soft, mushy even, making for a softer salad. Smaller red and yellow varieties hold their shapes much better.
Jeff Windt, chef-owner of Catering By Design, uses only russets.
"I like what they bring to the salad," he said. "But I have a technique for cooking them which keeps them more firm."
Windt describes his potato salad as the "old-fashioned kind." and among his ingredients he uses a salad dressing such as Miracle Whip in place of mayonnaise, and he includes sour cream, onions and chives.
During the summer, Windt can go through as much as 80 pounds of potatoes per week. "It is a very popular salad," he said.
So what about the cooking technique? Experts recommend starting the potatoes in cold water and then bringing them to a simmer, not a rolling boil as they can bang into each other, maybe splitting some of them. You also get a better result by choosing potatoes that are roughly the same size.
Test for doneness by spearing one with a paring knife. If it goes in easily, the potatoes are done.
Another decision: to peel or not to peel after potatoes are cooked. Russets should be peeled, but for others it is the cook's choice. It is also a good idea to peel while they are still warm — not scorching hot, but warm enough to handle. They will then absorb the dressing better.
Some sprinkle a small amount of cider vinegar over the warm potatoes, which brings a lively dimension to the potato flavor. When they have cooled down for about an hour, add the rest of the ingredients you have chosen and refrigerate. Will it turn out like Grandma's? Maybe not exactly, but mighty good anyway.
Interestingly, in recent years the humble potato salad has undergone a transformation in some kitchens. Rather than mayo and its other accoutrements some recipes call for an olive oil vinaigrette and other vegetables, such as green beans, yielding a potato salad with something of a French accent.
Another variety that might appeal to Scandinavian taste buds calls for herring and sour cream. Of course, warm German potato salad with bacon is a longtime favorite.