Potato salad with a side of family politics

  • Maggie Perkins
  • For the Austin American-Statesman
12:00 a.m. Tuesday, June 27, 2017 Austin360 Eats
You make this easy potato salad by boiling red potatoes and then smashing them with a glass. Contributed by Maggie Perkins

When I was growing up, there were really only two kinds of potato salad: Your mama’s and my mama’s. Whether vinegar-, mayonnaise- or mustard-based, warm or cold, my mama’s was always better than your mama’s.

More than one family meal has been tarnished by the argument. No matter how tiny the sweet onion was minced, your baby sister would always discover it and loudly proclaim the culinary insult to the table. Potato salad becomes part of your identity. I might not be able to remember all of my ex-husbands’ middle names, but I remember their mamas’ potato salads.

Even today, people have very strong feelings about their potato salad. Some insist on crunch in the form of raw vegetables. Some want no crunch at all. Some demand sweet pickle relish, others say “No, no, NO!” My own mother added many ingredients: bacon, dill pickles, bell pepper, onion, celery, eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, green olives. We loved it all, except the paprika with which she decorated the finished product.

No kid likes paprika.

And, boy, did she whip the potatoes! She took out the hand-mixer and creamed those babies until smooth. I didn’t eat a chunky potato salad until I was married. I thought everyone whipped the potatoes. My in-laws let me know, with no delicacy, that whipped potato salad was not normal, at all.

I like potatoes in various textures, depending on the kind of salad, and I break them down with my grandmother’s potato masher. I like crunch, but I don’t like sweet pickles or relish. I don’t add eggs, and I don’t want mustard to touch the bowl. Don’t even whisper mustard when I’m making the potato salad, please.

When it comes to mayonnaise, I’m particular. No “salad dressing,” only the real stuff. I have brand preferences for the different types of potato salad I serve. One of my recipes even uses sour cream, and another decadent version uses a fancy soft cheese.

Not one calls for paprika.

We’re going to leave be that classic potato salad argument and let the passionate opinions duke it out.

Today, we’re concentrating on a handful of novel approaches, salads that stand out from the standard-bearers. Two, in fact, use leftovers. Three hail from “The Peace, Love and Potato Salad Cookbook” by Zack Brown, the guy made famous on the internet for his potato salad Kickstarter.

The Ohio-based Brown set a $10 goal to make his first potato salad (maybe he used the fancy soft cheese). It was the summer of 2014, and on a whim he posted his project to Kickstarter. The campaign went viral.

It might have been the capricious collective conscious of the internet, charmed by this guy’s daring or his enthusiasm or his whimsical nature or maybe just potatoes, but what began as Brown’s stunt project became the fourth-most-viewed Kickstarter campaign to date, raising tens of thousands of dollars to fight hunger and homelessness. Almost 7,000 backers from 74 countries received thank-yous in the form of this pledged cookbook, a collaboration between Brown and recipe developer Teresa Blackburn.

This year, Brown and Blackburn released a book for the rest of us: “The Peace, Love and Potato Salad Cookbook” (Spring House Press, $16.95).

Ahead of the July 4 holiday, I compiled a few tips from Brown and my own potato salad education to help you improve your own potato salads.

Stick with low-starch, waxy potatoes — new, fingerling, red and Yukon Gold — for salads. They hold their shape best during boiling. All-purpose white potatoes are fine, but avoid starchier baking potato types like russet.

Possibly the simplest recipe in Brown’s book is the smashed red potato salad, which was also my favorite. Baby new potatoes have a more intense flavor than their larger counterparts, so they’re especially good for roasting and smashing into a flavorful potato salad, but the grated ginger that seasons the roasting potatoes was a perfect subtle flavor addition that I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

Go gentle with that smashing, though. With a drinking glass, I eventually discovered the best pressure to use — pressing the glass all the way down to the table or kitchen counter created a thinned pile of mash that was difficult to handle, but a slow, steady pressure downward, with an audible skin-cracking, pressed potatoes into 1/2-inch thick rounds, a perfect smash for salads.

If you like onions but not the way they can overwhelm the dish, try soaking the onion pieces in lemon juice to take away the bite and sweeten them just enough to complement the dish.

If you have leftover potato salad, scoop it like I do on top of gumbo or any other comfort food, but Brown offers a unique solution we taco-loving Texans will find intriguing: Using potato salad instead of refried beans on a tostada or maybe even a soft taco. It’s just crazy enough to work.

On hot summer days, ensure the food safety of your potato salad, or any dish served cold, by transporting in a chilled cooler. Avoid bacterial growth by limiting the time it sits at “food temperature danger zone,” which is between 41 degrees and 135 degrees, to one hour or less. Consider serving your bowl nestled into a larger bowl of ice for an extra measure of caution.

After the Boil Cajun Potato Salad

I learned how to cook, and to eat, in South Louisiana, where we had seasonal seafood boils that always included potatoes. I had lots of leftover potatoes after a boil once and decided to use those well-seasoned potatoes in a potato salad later that week.

If you aren’t making a big seafood boil, you can still make this recipe. Cover 2 pounds of baby new potatoes with a few inches with well-salted water that also has about 1 tablespoon of liquid crab boil, which is available at local grocery stores and fish markets. Add an onion and a lemon, each halved, and boil until potatoes are fork tender. Discard lemon and onion before continuing with the recipe, below.

This is one of my most requested recipes. After a big seafood boil, I’ll make a gumbo from the leftover shrimp, crab or crawfish, and then serve the gumbo with a scoop of this savory potato salad and a sprinkle of chopped scallions on top. If you squint, it might look like a hot fudge sundae. It’s even better than that.

2 pounds refrigerated boiled potatoes, leftover from seafood boil

½ cup mayonnaise

½ cup sour cream

¼ cup chopped celery

¼ cup minced parsley

¼ sliced scallions, green tops only

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large mixing bowl, smash boiled potatoes with a potato masher or the back of a large spoon. Combine with remaining ingredients. Correct seasonings. Chill and serve. Serves 8 to 10.

— Maggie Perkins, Notes From Maggie’s Farm

French Bean & Potato Salad With Aioli

“Haricot vert” is the French term for green beans, specifically the young tender beans. Green beans are beginning to make their appearance at local markets, and backyard farmers’ vines might already be teeming with them. They pair beautifully with young, new potatoes such as fingerlings or baby reds. Leave the large beans for a long braise, and select the shorter, thinner beans for this potato salad with a French flair.

I like to zest a little lemon over this warmed salad for a slightly sweet note that enhances the citrus juice in the aioli. Prepared aioli may be found refrigerated in a deli case, or in shelf-stable jars among the condiments aisle of your local grocery. If you have difficulty locating it, approximate its flavor and texture by blending your favorite mayonnaise, minced garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice in a blender or food processor.

6 small potatoes, quartered

½ pound haricot vert (young green beans), trimmed, sliced

½ cup prepared aioli

½ cup minced flat-leaf parsley

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 small red onions, halved and sliced thinly

Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large Dutch oven, bring potatoes to a boil in salted water, reduce heat and cook until fork tender, about 15 minutes. Strain potatoes out of the boiling water and set aside. (Save the water to cook the green beans.)

Prepare an ice bath in a large mixing bowl by filling halfway with water, and adding a cup or two of ice cubes. Set aside.

Bring water back to a boil, and add green beans. Reduce heat to a medium boil and cook beans until just tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Shock green beans in the ice bath. Allow beans to cool about a minute, then remove and drain on paper towels.

Prepare dressing in a large mixing or serving bowl by combining aioli, parsley and olive oil. Mix well, then fold in potatoes, green beans and sliced onion. Serve warm or chilled. Serves 6.

— Maggie Perkins, Notes From Maggie’s Farm

Black-Eyed Pea Potato Salad

Even having several potato salad favorites in my own repertoire, I’m always willing and eager to see what other cooks have up their sleeves. I was intrigued by recipe developer Teresa Blackburn’s creativity to combine potato salad and Hoppin’ John. The salad is easy on the eyes and conjures memories of my grandfather’s vegetable garden. Peas, potatoes, okra? I’m pretty sure he’d want a second helping. Even with the paprika.

½ cup thinly sliced red onion

Juice of 1 lemon

1 jar pickled okra, ¼ cup juice reserved

¼ cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

¼ cup diced celery leaves from the tops of stalks

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups thawed or canned black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained

6 cups cooked red-skinned potatoes, cut in 1-inch chunks

1 teaspoon ground paprika for garnish

Toss onion with lemon juice and set aside for 15 minutes

For the salad dressing, mix together the okra juice, mayo, mustard and celery leaves, plus salt and black pepper to taste.

Place black-eyed peas and potatoes in a large bowl and add onions. Toss well.

Drizzle mixture with dressing and toss to coat. Serve in a shallow bowl, topped with a dusting of paprika and pickled okra pods. Serves 8.

— From “The Peace, Love and Potato Salad Cookbook” (Spring House Press, $16.95) by Zack Brown with Teresa Blackburn

Smashed Red Potato Salad With Buttermilk Dressing

Why smash a perfectly good round new potato after it’s been boiled? To create one of the easiest and most delicious recipes in this book — that’s why. Boiling the potatoes softens them for smashing, then they’re roasted with oil and ginger to add a nice crispness to the skins and edges. When they’re tossed in the buttermilk dressing, this goes from simple to sublime.

3 pounds baby red new potatoes

½ cup canola oil

Sea salt and black pepper

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

½ cup buttermilk

¼ cup mayonnaise

1 teaspoon dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Put potatoes in a pot, cover with cold salted water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain potatoes.

Place potatoes on a flat surface and gently smash them one by one with the bottom of a glass or can.

Drizzle two rimmed baking sheets with a bit of the oil and spread to coat the bottom of the pan. Place smashed potatoes in a single layer on the pans. Drizzle potatoes with remaining oil, turning to coat both sides. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and ginger. Roast smashed potatoes until golden brown, about 20 minutes, flipping halfway through. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

For the dressing, whisk together buttermilk, mayo, brown sugar, thyme, oregano and chives, along with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve in a bowl or platter and drizzle with the dressing. Sprinkle with chives. Serves 8.

— From “The Peace, Love and Potato Salad Cookbook” (Spring House Press, $16.95) by Zack Brown with Teresa Blackburn

Grilled Flank Steak & Potato Salad Tostadas With Chimichurri Sauce

This is a riff on a classic taco you can find served all over South and Central America, as well as most of the U.S. these days. Instead of using soft flour or corn tortillas, this recipe starts with tostadas, which are made by lightly frying tortillas until they are flat and crispy. This delicious recipe is perfect for a do-it-yourself tostada bar, as well. Feel free to save time and use ready-to-eat flank steak from the deli or hot bar at your favorite upscale grocer. Serve with a cold Mexican or South American beer.

For the chimichurri sauce:

1 cup packed Italian parsley

¼ cup packed cilantro

2 tablespoons fresh oregano

2 garlic cloves, smashed

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ cup olive oil

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

Sea salt to taste

For the tostadas:

Store-bought or homemade tostadas

Shredded romaine lettuce

1 to 2 cups leftover potato salad (homemade or store-bought)

1 pound flank steak, marinated in lime juice and taco seasoning, then grilled and thinly sliced

Avocado slices

Jalapeño peppers, thinly sliced

Lime wedges

Make the chimichurri sauce: Put parsley, cilantro, oregano, garlic, red pepper flakes and cumin in a food processor. Pulse a few times. Add olive oil, vinegar and a pinch of sea salt. Puree ingredients. Pour into a jar with a tight-fitting lid and let stand until ready to use. Chill if making ahead of time.

Assemble the salad: Spread about eight tostadas out on a flat surface or on plates. Top each tostada with lettuce, a generous spoonful of potato salad, a couple of slices of flank steak and a drizzle of chimichurri sauce. Finish with sliced of avocado, jalapeño and lime wedges.

— From “The Peace, Love and Potato Salad Cookbook” (Spring House Press, $16.95) by Zack Brown with Teresa Blackburn

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