From Memorial Day to Labor Day, potato salad is invited to nearly every party and picnic in America. It defines summer the way pumpkin pie defines autumn. But the potato is a relative newcomer to most of the world's cuisines.
Of all the ingredients Spanish explorers brought back to the Old World in the 15th and 16th centuries--tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers (both hot and sweet), vanilla and the rest--the potato took root like no other, both in the staple diet and in the imagination of cooks. It can be baked, boiled, roasted and fried. Mash it, slice it, cook it in cream or in broth. Make pancakes and savory puddings. Imagine a Briton sitting down to the table sans spuds, or Frenchmen eating their biftec without pommes frites.
Potatoes have been an important food in Britain, Ireland and the boggy regions of Germany and Scandinavia since the early 17th Century. In France, where the fried potato is king today, the noble tuber was scorned until the 18th-Century economist and agronomist A. A. Parmentier convinced Louis XVI to wear a potato flower and serve the vegetable at court. The number of French potato dishes that bear his name ensure his lasting fame.
The potato came to the American Colonies about 1710--via Ireland--and quickly became established here as well. Today, the potato is an important food crop just about everywhere except in hot climate regions such as the tropical lowlands, where local root vegetables take its place.
Dependence on the potato as a single crop was responsible, in the 19th Century, for vast migrations of people. The Irish potato famine of 1845-49 left 1 million dead and brought another 1 1/4 million to American shores. (A curious note: In 1939, Adolf Hitler accused the British of airlifting the Colorado potato beetle into Germany to sabotage its crop.)
Potatoes fall into two categories: dry, mealy ones, such as russets and Idahos, and waxy ones, such as new potatoes and yellow Finns. The mealy ones have more starch and are best for baking, mashing and frying, while the waxy varieties are best for cutting into scallops and using in potato salad. Waxy potatoes have more moisture and less starch, so they absorb less mayonnaise or oil in salads than the mealy variety.
Early-crop potatoes, or any potatoes when freshly dug, have a high sugar content and are preferable for salads. Luckily for picnickers, they come to market in the late spring and summer months. Mature, or main-crop, potatoes and potatoes that have been stored a while after having been dug, have less moisture and much, if not all, of their sugar has turned to starch.
To minimize the amount of water that they soak up during cooking, potatoes for salad should be boiled in their jackets and then peeled. Douse cooked potatoes with vinegar while still warm and let them cool. The vinegar helps firm the potato so that it won't crumble in the salad.
DELI POTATO SALAD
2 pounds medium potatoes
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon oil
3/4 cup diced onion
4 hard-cooked eggs, finely chopped
3 celery stalks, finely sliced
3 tablespoons chopped sweet pickles, optional
3 to 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Place potatoes in pan and cover with salted water. Cook over high heat until potatoes are tender. Drain and peel potatoes. Cut into chunks and place in mixing bowl. Sprinkle with vinegar. Cover and cool.
Heat oil in skillet. Add onion and saute, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add to potatoes along with eggs and celery. Add pickles and toss together gently. Bind ingredients with mayonnaise. Sprinkle with pepper and season to taste with salt. Mix well. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours before serving. Makes 6 servings.
PICNIC POTATO SALAD
2 pounds potatoes
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 thick slices bacon, diced
3/4 cup diced onion
1 medium green pepper, diced
Freshly ground pepper
Place potatoes in saucepan and cover with salted water. Cook over high heat until potatoes are tender. Drain and peel potatoes. Cut into chunks and place in mixing bowl. Sprinkle with vinegar. Cover and cool.
Combine olive oil, bacon, onion and green pepper in skillet. Cook over medium heat 10 minutes, stirring, or until bacon is cooked and onion and peppers are tender. Pour mixture over potatoes. Season to taste with pepper, mixing well. Let stand, covered, 2 hours. Adjust seasonings to taste before serving. Makes 6 servings.
WARM POTATO SALAD
3 tablespoons grainy mustard
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds small new potatoes
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Mix together mustard and egg in large mixing bowl. Combine cream and dried tarragon, if using, in small saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat. Remove from heat. Whisk hot cream into mustard-egg mixture. Add fresh tarragon, if using. Slowly whisk in olive oil.
Place potatoes in pan and cover with salted water. Cook over high heat until potatoes are tender. Drain and peel. Cut small potatoes in half, quarter larger ones, and place in mixing bowl. Sprinkle with vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and let stand 5 minutes. Pour dressing over potatoes and mix well. Adjust seasonings to taste before serving. Makes 6 servings.