Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tried and True - American Potato Salad

It is mid summer in Minnesota.  Time for family picnics.  Reunions.  Potlucks in the park.  Cold fried chicken.  Bread and butter sandwiches.  Baked beans.  And potato salad.  If you are lucky, homemade potato salad.  Grandma style.  Which is different from sophisticated minimalist French style.  I am ecumenical when it comes to potato salad.  I like just about any kind - if it is homemade.   Today we are going to talk about classic American style.  Which definitely fits into the category of a Tried and True dish.  And it really does not take very long to make - especially if you have mayonnaise and hard boiled eggs on hand. 

Close your eyes.  Clear your mind of distractions.  Now think back.  Tap into those deep food memories.  Think potato salad.  What comes up?  Is it the taste of the potato salad?  Or the face of someone? Your Mom?  Grandma?  Aunt Gertie?  Maybe even Uncle Bob?   I hope you have some potato salad warm feelings somewhere in your personal history.  And if you don't maybe it is time to make some.  If you learn how to make really good American potato salad, maybe someday someone close to you will have a potato salad memory with YOUR face in it.   I'll bet you never thought of achieving immortality by way of potato salad.  

What kind of potato should I use? 
Some people swear by waxy type boiling potatoes.  Some people prefer moderately starchy Yukon Golds.  Russets (also called baking potatoes) are probably the minority choice.  Which in this case I recommend - with proper handling technique.  The reason I recommend russets is that they have weaker cell walls.  This is what makes them more likely to fall apart when cooked and makes them nice for mashing.  It also means that flavoring - such as vinegar - can better penetrate to the interior of the potato pieces. 
If you don't have russets please don't let that stop you.  You can make a very nice potato salad with boiling potatoes or Yukon Golds too.  Certainly better than anything you can get pre-made in a plastic tub at the store.  (What do they do to those potatoes anyway?  To get them so rubbery?)

How should I prepare the potatoes?
Scrub and peel russet potatoes.  Cut into 3/4 inch pieces.   Put into a pot with water to cover and bring to a boil.  Add 2 t. salt for 2 pounds of potatoes.  Simmer until potatoes are just tender.   When the potatoes are cooked, drain well and place in a bowl.  Add 2 T. white vinegar or white wine vinegar.  Stir gently with a rubber spatula.  Let stand until potatoes are about room temperature, about 30 minutes.  (Remember to save the potato cooking water in a jar in the refrigerator.  It is great for making yeast breads or for adding to stock.)

What kind of dressing should I use?  
This is enough for 2 pounds of potatoes and can be multiplied.
Mix together: 1/2 cup mayonnaise (purchased or homemade), 1/2 cup chopped celery, 2 T. minced onion (I like sweet varieties of onions for potato salad.  Red onions are also nice.  Scallions will work too in a pinch), 3/4 t. powdered mustard, 3/4 t. celery seed, 2 T. chopped fresh parsley, 1/2 t. salt, 1/4 t. pepper.
Optional:  2 large hard cooked eggs, peeled and diced
(Note - Onions are not optional in classic American potato salad.  However, they are optional in the Norwegian-American version with which I am familiar.  At Lanesboro's Sons of Norway Lodge annual spring luncheon two kinds of homemade potato salad are offered along with the barbecue and pies.  They are both very tasty and include eggs and mayonnaise (probably Miracle Whip actually).  One kind has onions and one does not.  Some people can't handle that spicy kind of food, dontcha know?)

Combining the potatoes and dressing
 Use care in combining the potatoes and dressing.  I would use a rubber spatula and fold the dressing and eggs into the potatoes.  This is because you don't want the potatoes to get too smooshy.  Cover and chill at least one hour and serve.  If the potato salad seems too dry, add up to 2 T more mayonnaise.  Potato salad is best used within 2-3 days.

What about pickle relish?  Can I put that in potato salad?
Whether to use pickles and pickle relish is a personal choice.    I love a little chopped gherkin sweet pickle in potato salad.  You might prefer the taste of a dill pickle or a little pickle relish.  I even like a few sliced radishes in my potato salad.  That is the great thing about being the cook.  You can make it the way you like it.

And as long as we are talking about pickles and radishes, let's mention olives and capers.  If you are cooking for an adventurous family you might consider adding one or both of these items.  It might not be classic American potato salad any more, but it would be tasty.  Don't go overboard.  If I added capers,  I probably would not add pickles or olives.  Less is more.

A word on potato salad safety
We have all read or heard stories about how 50 people got sick after a family reunion because they ate potato salad made with mayonnaise that went bad.  I think these dangers get overblown -- but it still is a good idea to think about proper handling with ANY food.  What you are trying to avoid is growth of harmful bacteria.  The good news is that acid inhibits bacteria.  The vinegar in potato salad and in mayonnaise will perform that important task.  As a practical matter, you might have to worry more about spoilage coming from the potatoes than from the mayonnaise.  Either way - you do need to think about bacteria.  First, make sure your hands are clean and you use clean tools and cutting boards when you are making the salad.  And then keep the potato salad cold -- it should be kept refrigerated at a temperature less than 40 degrees.  The temperature danger zone for foodborne bacteria is between 40 and 140 degrees.  

Once the salad is removed from a refrigerator it should be served and eaten within hours - depending on temperature conditions.  Use common sense.  If it is very warm or the sun is hot and shining on the food, you might want to put the serving bowl in a larger bowl filled with some ice.  

Have a great summer weekend.  Stay safe.  And I hope you get to eat some homemade potato salad.

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