Potato Digging in the Kitchen Garden
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La Belle Cuisine
A Writer in the Kitchen
by Laurie Colwin, 1988, HarperCollins
(Reissued March 2000)
“There is no such thing as really bad
potato salad. So long as the potatoes
are not undercooked, it all tastes
pretty good to me. Some potato salads
are sublime, some are miraculous and
some are merely ordinary, but I
to taste any that was awful.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of going to lunch on a summer
Saturday to Conklin’s drugstore on the main street of Lake Ronkonkoma
my parents and sister. In those days, drugstores had booths, fountains and
grills. They made bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, fried eggs, egg
salad, and hot fudge sundaes. What I remember most was the potato salad.
It was the standard American kind: potatoes and onions in a creamy
mayonnaise dressing spiked with vinegar and black pepper: no chopped
no celery. I still make this variety myself, with scallions substituted
onions and dill as an addition.
When I was young, potato salad was considered summer food. My mother made
her mother’s version, which included chopped celery and catsup in
dressing. It was known as pink potato salad and was served at picnics
barbecues as an accompaniment to fried or grilled chicken. No one
have thought of serving it in a formal setting.
Once I was out on my own and could cook to please myself, I figured that
since I loved potato salad so much, other people did, too. I began to serve
to my friends at dinner parties.
‘Oh, potato salad,’ they would say. ‘I haven’t had any homemade in years!’
I gave it to them with thin sliced, peppery flank steak, and with cold roast
chicken in the summer and hot roast chicken in the winter. It was always
For a while I turned my back on the old-fashioned kind and began to branch
out. The possibilities were endless, since for every cook there are at least
three potato salad recipes. [For La Belle Cuisine, obviously there is no
limit whatsoever.] I stole shamelessly from my friends. I made potato salad
with funghi porcini, and with curried mayonnaise, and with chopped egg and
walnut. But time after time I returned to my old standby: potatoes,
scallions and dill. I must confess that I have never used
this. I use Hellman’s, cut with lemon juice. [So do we,
usually, unless we
have some Duke’s on hand. Those Southerners among you
Among cooks there is always a discussion about the right potato. When in
doubt, the new red potato comes close to being all purpose, but it does not
absorb the dressing the way an Idaho or russet does. The new red
potato allows itself to be delicately coated with dressing. The mealier
it up like a sponge and thereby take more dressing. The
result is creamier,
but both are very good. Totally useless, in my opinion,
is something billed
a salad potato: a soapy, greenish-looking creature
which when cooked is
waxy and watery at the same time – an unfortunate
[I cannot resist inserting here that I consider the German Salatkartoffel an
exception. It stands up for itself. It has character as well as flavor.
Germans know their potatoes!]
If you can find them, the tiny potatoes of early autumn are delicious. They
are the size of quail’s eggs and are wonderful steamed, cooled and eaten
a French olive oil, salt, pepper, and a drop of lemon juice.
I have a friend, a man in his seventies who fled Vienna on the eve of World
War II and ended up in Bogotá, who once every two years comes to New York.
When I first met him, I invited him for dinner.
‘What would you like me to cook?’ I asked him.
‘I am a meat and potatoes man,’ he said. ‘I want hamburgers and that
wonderful American potato salad.’
I said I did not approve of cooking hamburgers at home – that they were
strictly restaurant food – but that I would make meat loaf. I told him that
I made an especially good potato salad.
He appeared one July evening, dressed in a woolly sport coat. We begged
to take it off and he did, revealing a pair of snappy-looking suspenders.
Thus liberated, he sat down to dinner. I watched anxiously, wondering what
this feinschmecker would make of my potato salad.
‘What do you think?’ I said. I thought it almost perfect: creamy, oniony
with just a jolt of vinegar.
‘This is not at all what I had in mind!’ he said forcefully.
‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘This is A-plus American potato salad.’
‘I did not say it was not delicious,’ he said. It is just not the potato
was thinking of.’
‘And what potato salad were you thinking of?’
‘What they serve in the delicatessen around the corner from my hotel,’
said. I knew the place. It was a Greek coffee shop.
‘But Dr. Hecht,’ I said, ‘that stuff is made in five-hundred-gallon drums
and sent all over the city.’
‘Exactly!’ he said. ‘It tastes the same wherever I go. That is its charm.’
He ate three helpings of mine, which mollified me enough to get me to
that I liked the coffee shop variety myself.
The following recipes are stolen from
Karen Edwards’s Warm Potato Salad with
1. Boil six
Idaho potatoes. Steam half a pound of string beans.
2. Keep the potatoes warm. Cut the beans into longish pieces. Cut the
potatoes – some of the skin will come off and some will stay on.
3. Make a vinaigrette – lots of it: 3/4 cup of olive oil, a teaspoon of
Dijon mustard, juice of one or two lemons, lots of garlic, salt and
taste. The secret of this salad is lots and lots of dressing.
4. Dress the warm potatoes and beans, and add chopped scallions at
Rob Wynne’s Potato Salad with Crème Fraîche
1. Cook as many
new potatoes as you need. Slice and cool.
2. Skin as many cucumbers (even if you are using kirbys) as will
amount of potatoes. Cut into julienne and drain.
3. Dress with a mixture of half mayonnaise, half crème fraîche, and
pepper and a hint of garlic.
My own potato
salad is a snap. Idaho or new red potatoes can be used.
Boil the potatoes.
Make a dressing of Hellman’s mayonnaise thinned with lemon juice and
seasoned with black pepper. This does not need salt – prepared mayonnaise is
quite salty enough. Mix the cut-up potatoes with chopped scallion and finely
minced dill. Pour the dressing over and let sit
for an hour
or so before
It is always wise to make too much potato salad. Even if you are cooking
two, make enough for five. Potato salad improves with age – that is, if
are lucky enough to have any left over."
[You probably think this is
all Laurie Colwin has to say about potato salad.
Think again. How about
Warm Potato Salad with Fried Red Peppers…]
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