Potato salad is one of those incredibly personal things, like spaghetti sauce. Most of us ate it when we were kids, imprinting on our mother’s versions no matter how bland, sweet, or poorly prepared. Mama’s potato salad became a reference point, the touchstone by which all other potato salads have been judged ever since. Some of us think other versions border on blasphemy.
I like many styles of potato salad, but they all must be tangy. Add sweet pickle relish, Kraft miracle whip, or sugar, and I’ll start whining. I’d rather go hungry, and I have on several occasions.
Perusing several dozen cookbooks confirmed my belief that the variations between most potato salads remains subtle, regardless of the trendy ingredients that might work their way in to a signature version. There are three categories, mayonnaise-based, vinaigrette-based, and bacon-and-vinegar based, such as German potato salad. A chef might add cornichons instead of gherkins, or oil-based olives instead of California ripe olives. You might find dried tomatoes (okay in the right context, which is rare), pesto (almost always a bad idea), or capers (a nice touch). I’ve seen avocado, duck, honey orange dressing, fresh salmon, scallops, smoked trout all folded into a defenseless little potato salad. You name it, it’s probably found it’s way into potato salad at one time or another. But still, the basics remain the same: good potatoes, cooked just right, marinated in something rich and acidic while they are still warm, then tossed with a few other vegetables and, sometimes, meat or fish, and a good creamy or tangy dressing.
In this week’s feature, I offer my favorites, some perfect in the summer, others year round. I makes other potato salads, such as one with salt cod and fresh artichokes, but they are for other seasons, not summer.