One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato Salads

Here's a trio of cool, creamy spuds for your summer entertaining

Summer is finally upon us, and along with sunny skies, lazy days, and casual outdoor entertaining come picnics, barbeques, and buffets.

Whether the meal is a lavish wedding spread, a cookout on the beach, sandwiches at the pool, or a cold summer dinner, potato salad is probably on the menu. It is the quintessential seasonal side dish.

Potato salad seems to be a peculiar phenomenon of the American kitchen.

No matter what your ethnic background, region of the country you live in, or your lifestyle, it is bound to be a part of your culinary repertoire. In a random, informal phone survey, everyone I spoke to had their own version of potato salad to which they were faithful.

Another peculiarity is that most people do not use a recipe for potato salad. They don't weigh or measure - they tend to wing it. They do it by feel, by eyeballing, by approximation. They know what ingredients make it their own, and rarely give quantities a second thought.

Potato salad is more American than apple pie - which is true, but odd - because there is also French potato salad, German, Bavarian, Brazilian, Scandinavian, and, well, you get the point.

Potato salads are paradoxical. They are both highly personal and widely pervasive, often plain and humble but sometimes fancy and elegant, historically traditional and as contemporary as today, appreciated by meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. Whatever its form, it never ceases to be a "comfort food."

And though shapes and colors, flavors and textures are infinite among the more than 3,500 varieties of potatoes that exist, when it comes to salad the choices narrow. For the best potato salad, it becomes quite simple.

Hands down, the potatoes considered best for potato salad are red or red bliss.

With their low-starch and waxy consistency, these flavorful potatoes best keep their shape, whether sliced, quartered, or diced. They also retain their red jackets nicely after they are cooked. An all-purpose white potato might be second choice.

Always use new potatoes, the fresh seasonal crop, for potato salad. Storage potatoes like those we get in winter, are not well-suited for these salads.

You can make your potato salad creamy white, flecked, or dense with green, yellow, red, or, like the one I grew up on, pink. With the proliferation of golden, purple, and bright red-skinned potatoes, the color combinations expand to an even more artful palette.

In keeping with the Olympics theme, I suspect there will be a lot of red, white, and blue potato salad this summer.

Be forewarned - blue potatoes are beautiful and delicious, but not very well-suited to boiling, cooling, and cutting. As with the appealing russets and Yukon golds and numerous specialty varieties, these potatoes have a higher starch content and a drier flesh. They are generally better baked or mashed.

But if the spirit of the flag is what you're after, you might try microwaving the blues, which is more apt to give them a texture conducive to slicing and dicing.

Though the dozens of potato salad recipes I perused are dramatically different, there are some common denominators.

Basically, cooked potatoes are mixed with some combination of the following: chopped egg, onion, celery, pickles or pickle relish, peppers, scallions, parsley, pimento, celery seed, chives, tarragon, garlic, shallots, or dill.

Shrimp, nuts, beans, olives, beets, and sun-dried tomatoes often appear as variations. And some fancier versions use caviar, smoked salmon, salmon roe, capers, cucumber, bacon bits, ham, or anchovies.

All the potato salads are dressed with one of the following variations: mayonnaise or an oil and vinegar base; sour cream or heavy cream; or various salad dressings, with mustard sometimes added.

A few tricks of technique can contribute to making every version of this dish the best that it can be: Use waxy, low-starch potatoes and boil them with the skins on.

Prepare and cut the potatoes when they're cool enough to handle. Then toss them with a dressing while they are still warm (this imparts the best flavor) with something acidic - a marinade, vinegar, citrus juice - and season with salt and pepper to taste.

When the potatoes are chilled and combined with your particular choice of ingredients and garnishes, taste and dress the salad again.

Double-check the seasoning, and your personal recipe will also become the perfect potato salad.

The Pink Potato Salad is the one I grew up with. My mother inherited it from her mother, who took her lead from a wonderful cook at the summer camp I attended as a child.

Red Bliss Potato Salad With Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Karen Schluntz, chef at the Zuxuz restaurant in Brookline, Mass., contributed the following potato salad recipe. The first time I made it, I used sweet purple onions and loved the result - but the green scallions of the original recipe look much prettier.

1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes

2 lbs. red bliss potatoes

Vegetable oil

1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

1 bunch scallions, chopped

The Marinade:

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon garlic, minced

1 teaspoon shallots, minced

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

1/2 cup Balsamic vinegar

2 cups olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

(This marinade makes enough for several batches of potato salad. Leftover marinade may be kept in the refrigerator for several weeks.)

Place the sun-dried tomatoes in enough warm water to cover until plumped up - about an hour. (If the tomatoes are stored in oil, this step is not necessary.)

Wash and dry potatoes. Toss lightly with vegetable oil, salt, and pepper and place in roasting pan. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven until cooked and are tender when pricked with a fork, (about 20 to 30 minutes.)

Toast pine nuts in a small frying pan with a small amount of oil over medium heat until lightly brown, stirring ocasionally. (Be sure and watch them closely as they brown.)

Place mustard, garlic, shallots, lemon juice, and both vinegars in blender or food processor. With machine running, pour in the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until ingredients emulsify. Add salt and pepper to taste, and adjust seasonings.

When potatoes are roasted, allow them to cool slightly before cutting them into quarters.

Julienne the sun-dried tomatoes, chop the scallions, and add to potatoes.

Pour 1/2-to-3/4 cup of marinade over the potatoes. Mix well to coat all ingredients.

Prior to serving, taste, adjust seasonings, and top with toasted pine nuts. Best served at room temperature.

The following sweet potato salad is an especially good accompaniment with chicken or pork.

Serves 6 to 8.

Sweet Potato Salad

3 to 5 large sweet potatoes, (about 2 lbs.)

Juice of 4 limes (about 1/4 cup)

2 medium apples, peeled, cored, and cubed

2 large stalks of celery, chopped

1/2-cup coarsely chopped pecans


Boil potatoes until soft; drain, and allow to cool enough to peel. Cut potatoes into cubes. Place in a non-metal mixing bowl, sprinkle with lime juice, toss, and refrigerate. Add apples, celery, and nuts and enough mayonnaise to coat well.

Chill before serving.

Serves 6 to 8.

Pink Potato Salad

2 lbs. red bliss potatoes

1/2 cup prepared, bottled red French dressing

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

1/2 purple onion, diced

1 medium green pepper, diced


Salt and pepper to taste

Boil potatoes with the skin on until tender. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, but still warm, peel and slice them. Marinate potatoes (with enough French dressing to coat) for several hours, preferably overnight.

Add the eggs, onion, green pepper, and enough mayonnaise to coat well, plus salt and pepper to taste.

Serve chilled.

Serves 6 to 8.

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