I am nothing if not predictable. If you invite me to a cookout during summer months and ask me to bring a dish — unless you specify dessert, or bread, or fruit — I will bring potato salad. Actually, I’ll probably bring potato salad even if you do have one of the aforementioned requests, and just pretend I didn’t get the message.
Why potato salad? I would say that it’s cheap, that it’s infinitely variable, that it keeps well, even in heat (no, the mayonnaise-laden varieties won’t make you sick if they sit out at a picnic) — but the truth is, I think I feel sorry for it, as a dish. Always a sucker for the underdog, in sports, movies, and food — I am drawn to dishes that were once ruined by family reunions and grocery store catering. I enjoy trying to give them a second life in an unsuspecting soul’s culinary repertoire, kind of like up-cycling a moo-moo into a hip halter sundress (has anyone done that yet? If not, start an Etsy shop and I’ll take a 20% finder’s fee).
But potatoes. They can be anything you want them to be. Don’t like mustard? Leave it out. Like mayo, but not as a bath for a handful of floating potato chunks? Don’t use much. Want something simple and clean? Toss cooked potatoes with a simple vinaigrette. There are a few tricks that make potato salads better, no matter your flavor:
- Cook potatoes only until they are just barely fork-tender, so they are not falling apart when it comes time to dress. I like waxy potatoes (red or yukon gold) best.
- If using a creamy dressing, toss still-warm potatoes with a little wine vinegar (1-2 Tbsp) and salt, and let sit until cool before adding the rest of your ingredients.
- Make your salad ahead, so it has at least an hour to sit at room temperature before serving.
- If cooking whole potatoes, cook them in their jackets, and peel after they cool enough to handle. If you want to cook them pre-cut, try steaming them instead of boiling — the starch clings to the surface and gives the potatoes a nice bite.
Since summer is about using up what’s fresh and attracting fruit flies on the kitchen counter, I rarely make the exact same potato salad twice. Which can make things difficult when people ask for the recipe — it often starts as a modification, but a little of this or that gets added until it tastes right. Which brings me to a final tip about potato salad: seasoning is everything. Potatoes are bland, so often just a splash of extra vinegar or salt at the end will make the flavors brighter and more accessible. So make sure to taste before serving, and be prepared to make necessary adjustments.
I took the following version to a party last weekend, and was asked for the recipe no less than 5 times. Since this one was so closely adapted from a Christopher Kimball recipe, it’s been thankfully easy to recall. A classic dijon vinaigrette with my own addition of dill — that summer herb that still confounds me in the garden as much as it pleases my soul. If you make this, do try to steam (rather than boil) the potatoes — it requires just a touch more maintenance but the texture is worth it.
Potato Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette, Dill, and Chives
adapted closely from a recipe in The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook, by Christopher Kimball
serves 8-10, or enough to please a cookout crowd
- 3 pounds waxy potatoes (yukon gold, new red, or fingerling)
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 5 Tbsp white wine vinegar, divided
- 1 1/2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp dijon mustard
- 6 Tbsp good olive oil
- 2 Tbsp each fresh dill and chives, minced
- ground black pepper, to taste
Scrub potatoes, and cut into 1/4 inch slices (no need to peel, but you might cut very large potatoes in half lengthwise before slicing). Place a steamer basket in a dutch oven large enough to hold the potatoes. Steam, stirring occasionally, until just fork-tender (about 20 minutes). Transfer to a large bowl.
While potatoes cook, whisk together the salt, 4 Tbsp vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, and olive oil until emulsified. When potatoes have cooled a bit but are still warm, pour dressing over potatoes and toss well. Let sit until cooled to room temperature.
Just before serving, add the last tablespoon vinegar, herbs, and ground black pepper to taste. Toss well, and taste for seasoning. Add additional splash of vinegar and/or salt if necessary.
Leftovers can be refrigerated, but taste best when brought to room temperature before serving.