As we all know, there are plenty of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books out there. But this post is all about potato salad for the soul. Potato salad is a staple for most summer picnics, birthdays, 4th of July parties, etc. But the recipes for potato salad differ greatly, depending on where you’re from and what your own family traditions are.
The following is some history of potato salad:
“*Originally grown in South America, potatoes were first introduced in Europe by Spanish explorers somewhere around the 16th century. After that, many European countries started using them in their cuisine, with ingredients dependent on local custom. Then, as European settlers came to America, they brought their own versions of the simple, humble dish.
“One of the first recipes ever mentioned comes from 1597 and includes prunes, wine, oil and vinegar. Cold potato salads evolved from British and French recipes while warm ones followed the German preference for hot vinegar and bacon dressings served over vegetables.
“What we think of as potato salad may have originated in Germany, where they used a dressing with a ‘vinegar’ bite, like sauerkraut. Some versions featured a little coarse mustard and others cut the sour with a little sugar. Most added some kind of meat like bacon. One of the biggest differences between German potato salad and others is that it is still usually served warm, not cold.
“By the time potato salad traveled to France, the French palate demanded a full-scale vinaigrette. Unlike German potato salad, its French cousin contains potatoes and other vegetables in a light vinaigrette, with Dijon mustard and sweet tarragon.
“Once established on our shores, makers of potato salad typically used mayonnaise as the dressing base, not vinegar. Nowadays, potato salad is served as a side dish from Syria to Brazil and, of course, at nearly every backyard summer party here in the United States.”
Pretty interesting, isn’t it? I suspect that the arguments about potato salad have raged ever since 1597, too.
What’s most intriguing about the great potato salad debates is what defines the very elements of potato salad. It starts with the potatoes: some people swear by Yukon Gold potatoes, some will only use Maine or Idaho potatoes, some prefer Red Bliss potatoes, and some choose only fingerling potatoes.
When the potatoes are cooked, some people will simply drain them and let them cool, then add in the other ingredients. Others like to infuse the hot potatoes with cider vinegar and/or sweet pickle juice, then let them cool.
Then there is the question of what is mixed in with the potatoes: chopped onion, green or red peppers, olives, capers, shredded carrots, hard-boiled eggs, sweet or dill pickles, and, in the South, sometimes salted peanuts. And seasonings: salt and pepper? Cumin? Tarragon? Parsley? Paprika? Or a mixture of some or all of them?
The final question is the dressing: will it simply be mayonnaise? Mayonnaise mixed with mustard or pickle juice or sugar? Vinegar and mayonnaise?
Over the years, I’ve perfected my own potato salad recipe, and here it is:
- Red Bliss potatoes, scrubbed and cubed into bite-sized pieces (depending on the crowd, I use anywhere from 6-10)
- 2-4 hard-boiled eggs, cooled and chopped
- one medium sweet or purple onion, chopped
- 3-4 ribs of celery, chopped
- several snips of fresh chives
- S & P
- cider vinegar
- sweet pickle juice
- **Gold’s mustard
- Boil the chopped potatoes until you can spear a piece with a fork and it slides right off. Drain the potatoes and set aside.
- In a big bowl, pour in about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of cider vinegar, depending on how many potatoes you have. Add to this about 1/8 to 1/4 cup of sweet pickle juice.
- Pour the hot potatoes into the big bowl, and, using a large spoon, spoon the potatoes up from the bottom of the bowl until they are mixed well with the vinegar and juice. (Be gentle–you don’t want to end up with mashed potatoes.) You can always add more vinegar and pickle juice if you like. Let sit until cool. At this point, I like to salt and pepper the potatoes and stir again. You may also add more later on.
- While the potatoes are cooling, mix up the dressing: in small bowl, put in about 4-6 tablespoons of mayonnaise, a good splurt of mustard, and some pickle juice. Whisk together until well mixed. Taste to be sure you’ve got the mix the way you want it. There’s no law against adding more mayo, or mustard or pickle juice–let your taste buds be your guide.
- Shell the cooled hard-boiled eggs, then put each one in an egg slicer and slice. Then pick up the sliced egg and re-position it the other way so that you can slice them the other way; the end product is well-chopped eggs.
- Once the potatoes are cold, mix in the chopped onion, celery and fresh chives. Add the dressing and gently fold it into the salad so that all the ingredients are coated.
- Sprinkle on some paprika, then put the potato salad in the refrigerator for an hour or so, or, best of all–overnight.
Potato salad is not only a comfort food, but also a true soul food and conversation starter. Everyone likes to discuss how their mom or grandmother made her version. It is rarely made and enjoyed during the cold weather (of course you can go the German route and serve it warm); it is a summer-y dish that brings us all back to those lovely carefree days of picnics and parties. It helps us forget that, too soon, winter will again be upon us.
**Or you can use spicy brown mustard, Dijon mustard or simply CYM (Cheap Yellow Mustard)