Jim Coleman | Tips for making a tasty potato salad

Posted: June 28, 2007

Q. I think I make a good basic potato salad, but everybody's a critic. I hear, "I like the tang of vinegar instead of the smudge of mayonnaise," or "I make mine with a mustard-based vinaigrette." I'm looking for a couple of new recipes that will quiet my know-it-all friends.

- Jennifer M.

A. Jennifer, welcome to my world. Of course the first thing that comes to my mind is, "My, you look good in mayonnaise-smudged clothes." But I know we're too civilized to go that far. I can't believe people would come to your house, eat your potato salad, and then criticize your food. But nothing surprises me anymore.

I am sending you some recipes for different potato salads, but part of the fun of potato salad is not really using measured ingredients. Have some fun with them, but remember when you talk to the police, I never suggested cyanide as an ingredient. (Just kidding.)

On the serious side, the benefits of the mayonnaise (store-bought mayonnaise) potato salad, is that contrary to urban myths, store-bought mayonnaise is one of the great natural preservers. Just being hypothetical for a second, if your critics dropped dead and you spread them with store-bought mayonnaise, future archeologists would find very well preserved nagging food critics. Assuming that you are an avid reader of this column, you'll remember that I recently talked about German potato salad and that the Germans were probably responsible for bringing potato salad to the New World. And in that recent column we mentioned that German potato salad was served warm or room temperature, and because of the high vinegar level it had a long shelf life.

No one is really sure when people started serving potato salad chilled with a mayonnaise base, but this version was originally made with homemade mayonnaise before there were convenient grocery stores. Mayonnaise made at home is a totally different item from what we buy in jars at the store in that it doesn't have the acidity level and is made with raw eggs instead of pasteurized eggs. Come to think of it, once it goes bad, it would be a good way of knocking off your favorite food critic. But modern mayonnaise-based potato salad is made with store-bought mayonnaise, which has to have a high level of acidity to be sold in mass production. That acidity level is what makes commercial mayonnaise a natural preservative. When I go to a backyard barbecue, and as always am fashionably late, the first thing I do is head to items that were made with store-bought mayonnaise. Here are a few tips for creating your own critic-free, fun potato salad.

1. Use a waxy (red bliss or Yukon gold) not starchy potatoes (russet or baking potatoes).

2. Do not salt the water. It will begin to break down the potatoes.

3. Let them cool naturally. Do not run them under cold water (potatoes are like a sponge and will absorb the water.

4. Hard-cooked eggs are totally optional and will not make or break or your potato salad, though you'll find them in classic southern or American potato salad recipes.

5. If you have a favorite bottled salad dressing, use that next time and see how you like it.

6. I love onions, so that means regular onions, green onions, and chives all make it into my potato salad.

7. If you are a pickle fan and like adding diced pickles, and your recipe calls for a little vinegar, try a little of the pickle juice - especially if your dressing needs to be thinned out a little.

8. And though this is certainly not classic, I like adding blanched vegetables to my potato salad (this is a great way to get your kids to eat those horrible green things).

9. My mom would add grated cheese to potato salad, and growing up in Texas she would toss a little bit of salsa in with some cheddar and or pepper jack cheese with some jalapenos for a southwestern flair.

10. I love bacon, but if you add it to your salad make sure it's really crispy, and if it's not going to be eaten right away, sprinkle it over the top as a garnish so it doesn't get soggy.

11. But most important thing, Jennifer, is that the following recipes will wear well on your picky guests. *

Chef Jim Coleman, corporate chef at Normandy Farm and Blue Bell Country Club, and his wife, writer Candace Hagan, will answer your food questions. He is the author of three cookbooks,and the host of two nationally syndicated cooking shows - "A Chef's Table" on WHYY (91-FM) at noon Saturdays and "Flavors of America," on Channel 12 at 1 p.m. Saturdays and CN8 Monday through Friday, 4:30 p.m.

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