Now that you all have your creative juices flowing and are looking for the perfect food to grill or barbecue, I thought it would be nice to share a recipe for the classic accompaniment to a barbecue: potato salad. Or is that a Midwestern thing? I am never sure whether the things I find "normal" are actually a) "normal" b) American or c) Midwestern. Or d) "normal for my family "! Anyway, to me any outdoor eating requires a really good potato salad to round it off. This Sunday, despite the relentless Paris rain, we fired up the grill in honor of the 4th of July and I did my best to make the best potato salad in Paris. And I think I did pretty well.
In our family there were two camps of food thought on many dishes, including potato salad: the Irish grandmother and the Austrian grandmother. We each had our preferences for stuffing (Austrian), cookies (Irish), coffee cake (Irish) and potato salad (tie). Okay, so the last one was a tie. That is why the potato salad I make is a mongrel child of the two traditions. Austro-Irish potato salad.
The Irish grandmother made a very onion-y salad as I recall, with lots of mayonnaise and celery and egg. I find celery and egg to be irritating intruders in my salad and leave them out. The Austrian grandmother used more vinegar and (I think) slightly more bacon than the Irish one, no mayonnaise. I think: it may have been home-made mayonnaise, which tends to go more transluscent in a potato salad. Some tips I gleaned from the grandmothers and have worked out for myself:
- Red potatoes work better than golden ones. They do not break as easily and are easier to peel.
- Adding the dressing while the potatoes are warm will allow them to absorb the flavors better.
- There is no such thing as too much bacon in a potato salad.
- If you layer the potatoes and dressing as you peel the potatoes, you will need to stir less and the potatoes don't break as much.
For more tips on potatoes and potato salad production, you can check out this site I found.
Perfect Potato Salad
2 lbs red (waxy) potatoes
2 small onions
1 Tbs celery salt
400 grams (about two cups) of thinly sliced bacon bits, uncooked*
a handful of small pickles, sliced
2 cups mayonnaise
3 Tbs sweet mustard
1/3 cup cider vinegar
freshly ground pepper
While the potatoes are boiling (in their skins!) prepare the dressing. Fry the bacon bits while you chop the two small onions very finely. When I was little, I hated biting into potato salad and getting a large chunk of raw onion (still do in fact) and so I use my nifty onion chopper to get it really fine. (As an aside, I grabbed this one as part of my inheritance from my Austrian grandmother's kitchen. I felt so guilty about getting this prized item that when I saw similar models on sale in Paris I bought four of them for myself, my siblings and my eldest niece. Turns out they aren't actually that rare and no one was impressed...sigh.) Once the bacon bits are nice and crispy, remove them from the pan from the heat to cool. Do not drain!! Mix the bacon bits, the grease, the vinegar, the mustard, the mayonnaise and onion in a bowl. Add the sliced pickles and celery salt. You could also add some chopped tomato at this point although I didn't bother this time around.
Once the potatoes are just barely done, remove them from the heat and drain them. Fill the pot with cold water to cool them. You'll probably want to drain and refill with cold water at least once more to cool them to the point of being able to touch them. Drain the potatoes thoroughly, as otherwise the last ones you peel will be soggy by the time you get to them.
Peel the potatoes by pulling the skin carefully away from the meat. Slice in pieces about a half a cm or a quarter of an inch thick. Thick enough not to break too easily and thin enough to get a good dressing-to-potato ratio. Once you have a layer of potato slices in the bottom of a large bowl, drizzle dressing over the potatoes and start another layer of potato slices. Keep layering until all the sauce and potatoes are incorporated. Mix very carefully so that you don't end up with mayonnaise potato sludge and refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
The reason I thought this recipe worked so well is that I didn't stint on any of the seasoning, from vinegar to mustard to bacon. The sweet mustard gave it a distinctly German potato salad flavor. (My Fanny Farmer Cookbook calls for sugar in its German potato salad.) I thought about using capers instead of the pickle, but decided it would be a bit too posh for such a working class dish. And so it was delicious, both on the day and the next night as part of a dinner dinner of leftover barbecued chicken sandwiches with cold sausages and two kinds of salad!
* For the bacon, I used a variety of lardons you can sometimes find in France; they are called "allumettes" and as the name suggests are matchstick sized and shaped. They are more tender than the usual lardons.