I ONCE HEARD Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzles, talking on NPR about solving puzzles. Shortz was asked if it were okay for solvers to look things up on search engines, and he gave a great reply: It’s their puzzle, they can solve it any way they want.
Shortz’s answer always comes to mind when I start discussing potato salads. Everyone seems to have their own concept of what constitutes a perfect potato salad—some more orthodox than others—and that’s okay. This past week at a potluck I was presented with an “authentic German potato salad.” The salad listed yogurt as one of the ingredients, making it my first experience with this version of German potato salad. At cooking school, one of the German chefs had made a warm German potato salad that had no dairy at all. American potato salad is no different, having many variants of a classic “American” version. My dad was a fan of a plain potato salad, seasoned with no more more than mayonnaise, salt and pepper. Some think it’s not a potato salad without chopped pickles or egg or onion or mayonnaise. You get the idea. I’m fine with them all!
The fact is potato salad is a classic and a terrific way to to complement grilled foods. If you have time to make it advance, a cold mayonnaise-dressed salad is great. If you’re short of time, a warm salad dressed with vinegar and oil works. I really like vinegar in my mayo-and-sour-cream-dressed salad, but you do as you like.
The same holds true for which potato to choose. I use whichever potatoes I have on hand. Sometimes I have bought baby potatoes hoping to roast them whole and they end up cut in half in a warm salad. Or if I have only baking potatoes, I’m careful not to overcook the potatoes, but they work fine. Yes, it’s terrific if I have red potatoes, since they hold their shape best, but do the best with what you have.
Here are my three faves:
Classic American Potato Salad, Stephanie-Style: Boil peeled potatoes; keep small ones whole, halve or quarter larger ones. Drain and cut the boiled potato chunks into relatively equal pieces while still warm. Sprinkle the pieces with apple cider vinegar. Let them sit about 10 minutes. MIx together 2 parts mayonnaise with 1 part sour cream. Season with Dijon-style mustard, salt and pepper. Add to the potatoes along with chopped chives and diced hard-cooked eggs. Mix gently to coat the potatoes. Top with more chopped chives. Serve right away, or refrigerate until ready to eat. Ideally, the salad should be brought to room temperature before serving.
Warm German Salad, Stephanie-Style: Boil red or waxy white potatoes with the skin on, just until tender. Drain the potatoes and let them sit for 10 minutes to cool slightly. While they are cooling, heat a generous amount of oil in a sauté pan. Add some diced onions and cook until the onions are soft but not browned. Take the pan off the heat. Add white vinegar and enough oil to make as much dressing as you need. The ratio should be 2 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. Add chopped herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Peel the still-warm potatoes and cut into small chunks. Pour the dressing over. Toss to coat the potato chunks and serve warm.
Potato and Lentil Salad With a Mustard Dressing: Cook lentils until tender; drain and set aside. Boil small skin-on potatoes until just tender; fingerlings or baby potatoes are perfect. While the potatoes are boiling, make a mustard vinaigrette by mixing 1 part Dijon mustard with 1 part white-wine vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, chopped shallots and enough olive oil to make a dressing. When the potatoes are cooked through, drain and cut the small potatoes in half and quarter the larger ones. Place the potato chunks and the lentils in a large bowl. The amount of potatoes vis-à-vis lentils is up to you. Pour the dressing over the potatoes and lentils and toss to combine. Serve warm.
—Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
LittleBird “Stephanie Cooks” inspires meals every Monday.