If it’s mid-summer, there’s a good chance that potato salad will be making an appearance at the next barbecue, potluck or picnic. Potato salad is a hot-weather favorite, adaptable to a variety of add-ins, from bacon to fresh herbs.
A few years ago, potato salad was exonerated from its previous bad rap as a source of food poisoning if left out too long. Researchers found that commercially-prepared mayonnaise, made from pasteurized eggs, could actually retard the growth of bacteria, because it contains enough acid, from vinegar or lemon juice, to reduce the risk of food-borne illness.
Of course, almost all prepared vegetable or meat dishes need to be kept cool as much as possible to avoid spoilage, but potato salad is no more likely to be the culprit than other foods toted outside.
Even so, potato salads made without mayonnaise are a great hot-weather option. Swapping out the glops of mayo for a splash of olive oil makes a lighter-tasting salad that allows the fresh ingredients to shine.
One of Galveston’s newest restaurants, Fish Company Taco, offers an oil-dressed potato salad made with fennel and apples. Chef Daya Myers-Hurt developed the recipe to balance the crunch of raw vegetables with the melting texture of the potatoes. “Originally, we thought the potato salad would be one of our rotating-special side dishes, but it’s been so popular that it’s now on the daily menu,” co-owner Laura Myers-Hurt said.
While many of us think of potato salad as all-American, it’s part of the warm-weather cuisine of many cultures, especially throughout the Mediterranean. French versions add fresh herbs until the salad is more green than white, and Greek recipes include Kalamata olives and feta cheese.
One thing all the versions have in common is starting with the right kind of potato. Red, Yukon Gold or other thin-skinned varieties eliminate the need for peeling and will hold their shape better than starchier varieties such as russets, which can fall apart after boiling. Even the right potatoes can get mushy if overcooked; draining the hot water off with a colander will yield better-textured potatoes.
To get the potatoes to cook evenly all the way through, it helps to put the potatoes in water before heating it up. Unlike cooking pasta, when plunging the raw pasta into boiling water produces the best results, potatoes will cook better if they warm up along with the water.
Oil-dressed potato salads come together a little quicker, because you don’t have to toss the potatoes with the dressing while they are still warm, it lets the potatoes absorb more of the dressing and its flavors instead of just coating the outside.
Potato salads with oil-based dressings are usually better after 10 or 15 minutes at room temperature rather than ice-cold. Not only does this give the oil time to become fully liquid, it helps the herbs and seasonings to bloom and release their full flavor.