Salad de Spud

While summer's bumper crop of fruits and vegetables often inspires simpler, lighter menus, some heavier but tried-and-true dishes remain perennial favorites--fried chicken, anyone? And macaroni salad, cole slaw and potato salad remain the literal triple-threat of the summer picnic table, popping up as soon as the days get longer and the kitchen hotter. Maybe it's tradition, maybe it's the sassy sweet-and-sour taste, or perhaps it's the thrilling risk of food poisoning contracted from mayonnaise that's been sweltering in the summer sun for hours. Whatever the reason, banishing these heavy hitters would be a needless act of self-denial and, unless you live alone, probably futile. Someone, somewhere, is going to get a hankering, and you better be prepared. Luckily, an ever-increasing range of formerly "exotic" ingredients means a chance to improvise and just maybe improve upon such time-honored favorites. Potato salad lends itself particularly well to such experimentation. The texture and taste of potatoes work nicely as a universal canvas, and the spuds themselves are generally less expensive than the dirt in which they grow. Knowing which potatoes to use can be a trickier matter. "There are 10 different kinds of white potatoes alone," notes Thad Wengert of Cornell Cooperative Extension Education Center. Potatoes should be in season locally in a few weeks, according to Wengert. Potatoes currently available may be left-over from last year but should have suffered no deterioration of nutrients if stored properly, he says. Green skin, however, indicates a potato is probably past the point of safe consumption. Most cookbooks advise using low-starch new or waxy potatoes, such as the Red Bliss, for potato salad. Higher starch potatoes such as the popular Idaho tend to fall apart with all the boiling and mixing involved. They're also rather dull-looking in a salad compared to delicate, thin-skinned choices. To a certain degree, however, a potato's a potato, and you can't really go too far wrong. Slightly crumbly potato salad is still better than none at all. Keeping a careful eye on the cooking process also goes a long way to ensuring things don't fall apart as well. Some recipes require the potatoes to be just parboiled (boiled in preparation for further cooking) while others call for boiling the potatoes for up to 20 minutes. Regardless, don't stray too far away from the oven after the first five or 10 minutes of cooking. As soon as the test potato can be easily pierced with a knife, rescue its brethren from the pot as well. Use a gentle hand when testing the potatoes for doneness; stabbing them with a fork will break them apart further. Cutting the potatoes after cooking is a bit easier and gives them a better chance of keeping it together during the boiling stage. Sliced potatoes provide more surface area to which dressing can cling, while cubes tend to crumble less and stand up better next to healthy chunks of onion or pepper. To skin or not to skin also tends to be a personal choice. Potatoes with the skin intact offer higher fiber content, but even peeled potatoes are a low-calorie, carbohydrate-rich and healthy option. If going the peeled route, peel the potatoes before boiling. The skins will slip off easily after boiling, but will take a good part of the potato with them. Despite potatoes' sterling nutritional reputation, they can become troublemakers when tossed in a traditional salad with mayonnaise. Regular commercial mayonnaise offers about 100 calories and 11 grams of fat in each tablespoon; all of those calories are from fat. Throw in some hard-boiled eggs and bacon bits and you've got a fatty fiesta. There are, however, options allowing you to have your potato salad and eat it, too. Nayonaise, for example, is a tofu-based dressing that allows that traditional taste but with only 35 calories and 3 grams of fat in each tablespoon. The texture of Nayonaise is smoother and thinner than egg-based mayonnaise. It's also a bit sweeter, rather like Miracle Whip, and may require adjusting some ingredients. Moving away from the creamy-dressing base of potato salad altogether is another option. Salsa, mustard or plain yogurt (OK, cut with a touch of mayonnaise) all reduce the overall fat content and still provide the moisture needed to pull the ingredients together. Jennifer Trainer Thompson's roasted potato salad (recipe below) uses olive oil rather than mayonnaise, for a dish lower in saturated fat. If the thought of doing much more than opening one jar exhausts you, you may want to check out a pre-mixed dressing such as Hellmann's One Step Potato Salad Dressing. This particular substitute is much sweeter (somewhat like tartar sauce) and tastes, well, like it came from a jar. While the price of a 16-ounce jar seems reasonable (about $2), vinegar, sugar and mayo are staple ingredients likely to be found in most pantries and have many more uses than gunk pre-destined to be used only a few ways. Use the sugar left-over from the lemonade, find the white vinegar last used for dyeing Easter eggs and add a dash of culinary confidence. The measuring involved for potato salad really is minimal; after one or two tries, you'll be relying more on taste than measuring spoons. Most potato salad starts with a basic dressing of mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. One word of advice: easy on the vinegar. It's easier to add vinegar than take it out. Adjusting for an overdose of vinegar requires adding sugar and, if a true disaster, perhaps a few more potatoes. Where you go from there can depend upon what's in season (see sidebar) and what's in the refrigerator. Early Vidalia onions can be replaced by scallions as summer evolves, while peas add natural sweetness. The roasted potato salad, for example, adapted nicely to ingredients available at the Regional Farmer's Market on a recent Saturday morning. Fresh cilantro rather than parsley added some kick and red peppers filled in well enough for jalapenos. Of course, on evenings when even boiling water seems like chore, sampling the potato salad at an area restaurant may be the best bet. INSERT LOCAL INFORMATION HERE. If you chose to dine at home instead, following are two easy and adaptable recipes that will have you out of the kitchen and back by the pool in no time.Tomato, Corn and Roasted Potato Salad Adapted from Jennifer Trainer Thompson's Jump Up and Kiss Me: Spicy Vegetarian Cooking (Ten Speed Press). This recipe offers a number of benefits: it uses no mayonnaise, some of the cooking can be done outdoors on a grill, and it uses summer's best ingredients. Almost any one of the ingredients can be eliminated or substituted...except for the potatoes. 4 cups small red potatoes (10 to 12)3 tablespoons olive oil4 cloves garlic, crushedSalt to tasteFreshly ground pepper to taste2 ears fresh corn3 to 4 jalapeno chiles, seeded and minced 1 tablespoon sesame oil3 cups quartered ripe plum tomatoes1 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley Balsamic-Dijon Vinaigrette (below)Boil the potatoes in salted water for about 15 minutes, removing from water while still firm. Let cool in water to keep skins intact. Cut in half and toss with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Preheat oven to 400 degrees or light grill. Roast potatoes, uncovered, in the oven or skewer and grill until tender and lightly browned (if cooking inside, the potatoes will be ready about 5 minutes after the smell of garlic begins to fill the kitchen). Blanch the ears of corn in boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain, cool and cut the kernels off cobs. Toss the jalapenos in a skillet with the sesame oil and toast lightly. Add the corn just before the peppers are done, stirring to separate the kernels. In a large bowl, combine the cooled potatoes with the corn mixture. Add tomatoes and parsley and toss with vinaigrette just before serving. Serves 6. Balsamic-Dijon Vinaigrette2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oilteaspoon coarsely ground black pepper Salt to taste (optional)Whisk ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Makes 1 cup. Classic Potato SaladAdapted from the label of Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise jar. Why fight tradition? 1 cup mayonnaise (or substitute such as Nayonaise) 2 tablespoons white vinegar2 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon sugar1teaspoon pepper 4 cups cubed, cooked potatoes (5 to 6 medium) 1 cup sliced celery1 cup chopped onion 2 hard-cooked eggs, choppedCombine the first 5 ingredients. Stir in remaining ingredients. Cover, chill. Makes 5 cups. Sweet Potato SaladAdapted from [it[The New Laurel's Kitche (Ten Speed Press). 2 cups cubed cooked sweet potato1 cup chopped green pepper 1 cup chopped celery 3 scallions, sliced thin1 cup chopped walnuts 2 tablespoons mayonnaise cup yogurtzest and juice of one lemon teaspoon salt Place sweet potato, green pepper, celery, scallions and walnuts in a small salad bowl. Stir together mayonnaise, yogurt, lemon zest and juice and salt. Adjust for salt and lemon juice. Makes 4 servings. Russian Potato SaladAlso from The New Laurel's Kitchen. 2 cups diced cooked potatoes2 cups diced cooked beets1 cup peas2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley2 scallions, thinly sliced2 tablespoons mayonnaise6 tablespoons yogurt2 tablespoons vinegardash black pepper teaspoon saltAll vegetables should be cold. Put potatoes, beets, peas, parsley and scallions in salad bowl. Mix together mayonnaise, yogurt, vinegar, salt and pepper. Toss together. Makes 6 servings.


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