Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Great Potato Salad

With summer here, potato salad seems in season. Of course, I love it any time of year. And in some cultures, like in Scandanavia, it's seasonal in the winter. Especially if it has some boiled beets worked into it to color it that wonderful shocking pink*.

I grew up with glubby mayonaisey potato salad, sometimes made jaringly crunchy with chunks of celery and boringly bland with hard-boiled eggs. I've come a long way from those days. What exposed me to exciting potato salad was German delicatessens. Thinly sliced potatoes that, while fully cooked, still had some texture, a thin tangy dressing that excited your mouth, and an absence of distracting additives like mustard, cucumbers, celery and eggs, all made the salad a fabulous accompaniment to wonderful grilled sausages or a hearty sandwich.

I learned how to cook the potatoes to an ideal texture fairly by accident when working on catering as an early teenager with my neighbors, a German-American man, who was a great cook, and his Polish-American wife, who was also a fine cook. The accident was that with huge pots of potatoes to cook, the boiling water hardly simmered. When the potatoes were tender to piercing with a toothpick, they were still firm. Just not crunchy. I now get that texture by simmering the potatoes, unpeeled, in an open pan with plenty of water to cover, and never let a real boil take place. The starches in the potatoes set in place, and the skins do not burst, mostly. Waxy potatoes (Yukon gold, red-skinned) do well, but even starchy baking potatoes can be used if the simmering is very slow. Ideally potatoes about the same size are best to use, since they cook at the same rate. Thin-skinned potatoes do not need peeling after boiling, a modern touch, though traditionally for delicatessen potato salad the potatoes were peeled after boiling.

Potato salad is distinctly better when made a day or two in advance and allowed to marinate in the fridge. Here's a recipe that will serve six people as a side dish or appetizer.

German Delicatessen Style Potato Salad Tim

2 lbs small to medium 'waxy' potatoes, such as Yukon gold, red skinned, or Maine (if you live in New England)
1 large or 2 medium scallions (green onions) or 2 tablespoons minced onion (red is attractive)
4 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons mayonnaise ('real' mayonnaise works best)
1 tsp salt or to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespons finely minced parsley

Prepare the potatoes -- proper cooking is the most important step in making a good potato salad. Scrub the potatoes if dirt is clinging. In a large, uncovered pan with plenty of extra water, bring them just to a simmer over medium heat. Do not boil them rapidly or cover the pan. If the water is bubbling, pour in a little cool water to slow it. (The slow cooking allows the potatoes to firm up despite being fully cooked.) Move the pan occasionally to gently move the potatoes around. After 8-10 minutes, test a potato for doneness, ideally with a cake tester or a toothpick. When tender except for the very center, which should be slightly firm but not crunchy, remove from the heat, drain off the water, and allow to cool.

Peel the potatoes, if desired, and especially if the skins are thick. For red potatoes or many Yukon potatoes, peeling is not necessary. Slice potatoes 1/4-inch thick, cutting the potato in half first if large. Place in a large bowl for easy mixing. Slice the scallion finely, including the green parts, or finely mince the onion. Place them in a small bowl with the vinegar, sugar, mayonnaise, salt, pepper and minced parsley. Mix to break up the mayonnaise and stir the mixture into the potatoes. Mix gently with a large metal spoon (the back side works well and breaks the potatoes up less) -- or your hands (use plastic gloves to be sanitary if the salad is to be stored a long time). Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes, then mix again. Taste, and if necessary, add salt or vinegar or sugar. The taste should be slightly salty (the potato will absorb more) and tangy sweet-sour.

Potato salad is best if made in advance and refrigerated a few hours or up to several days. Before serving, stir gently, taste, and do any final adjustments of seasoning.


*Note: for Swedish-style pink potato salad, add 1 small boiled beet, peeled and cut in 1/8-inch shoestring strips. It takes a while and several gentle stirrings to get the color distributed.

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