A lighter, spicier spin on the summertime potato salad
Recently I had a discussion with a friend who scoffed when I brought up serving potato salad at a picnic. “Overrated” and “disgusting” were the two adjectives used to describe it. Distressingly, this was not the first time I had heard this sentiment. And I get it, most people didn’t grow up with great potato salad, so they think the mealy, oddly sweet stuff from the grocery store is all there is. If I had that as my reference point, I’d hate it too.
Fortunately, though, I grew up with great potato salad. My mom always made hers fresh and in a bowl as big as a steel drum. She’d boil potatoes, peel them while still steaming hot, then use a paring knife to deftly lob off bite-size chunks into the bowl (all with bare hands, mind you). Then, while the potatoes were still warm, she’d assemble the dressing right on top of them: Handfuls of minced raw red onion added bite to lighten the heavy potatoes. Dill pickle relish (not sweet, please) and yellow mustard added more tang, while diced celery added plenty of crunch. She used a light hand with the mayonnaise and a heavy one with the Lawry’s seasoned salt and black pepper. That potato salad was zesty and bracing in the best way, and never felt heavy or gloppy with mayo.
When looking to make a potato salad of my own that was all the things my mother’s was — and none of the things people hate about it — I knew I wanted mine to taste just as sharp and fresh. I had recently served a platter of boiled potatoes, cucumbers and sugar snap peas with a garlicky zhoug dip that got rave reviews from my guests, so I decided to “salad-ify” it into a one-bowl potato salad.
I started with small new potatoes — the kind about the size of golf balls — and boiled them until they were just tender. I leave the skins on too, because I like the texture they add to the salad, plus they help keep the potatoes from becoming mealy in the water and salad. Adding cucumbers to the potato salad is surely not new but it was a wonderful discovery for me, contributing just the right amount of cold crunch — more lively than celery — to balance the hefty potatoes. Along with the sugar snap peas, the proportions of “crunchy green” to potatoes was in a better balance to win over “it’s too heavy” haters.
But the dressing really sealed the deal. I don’t know why I had never contemplated adding fresh chiles to potato salad. It’s a wonderful combination, as any fan of papas con rajas can tell you, and works even better when the chiles are cold. For my bright and spicy dressing inspired by zhoug, the famous Yemeni chile sauce, I started with serrano chiles and cilantro, but I didn’t add them completely raw. Chiles and herbs tend to dull in color and turn brown once cut or blended, and I wanted my dressing to stay bright green, so I blanched them for a few seconds in boiling water before cooking the potatoes in that same water. It was a great way to use all that water twice and preserve the color of the verdant aromatics.
After blanching the cilantro and chiles, I blend them with a lot of garlic, ground black pepper, cumin and cardamom into an intensely aromatic sauce. Mayonnaise goes in next to add body and make the dressing creamy. You can absolutely use Greek yogurt if you want, but I prefer mayonnaise because it allows the aromatics in the dressing to stand out more; if you use vegan mayonnaise, the whole dish is vegan too. Though there is a lot of garlic in the dressing, I find its bite, along with the powerful aroma of cardamom, to be tamed perfectly so that it’s noticeable but not dominant. And in my tests, I preferred leaving the seeds in from one chile while taking out the seeds in the other three. That level of spice, again, offered enough heat to cut through the heaviness of the potatoes without setting my mouth on fire. If you want an even spicier dressing, then go half-and-half with the chile seeds.
Once the dressing is mixed, I add it to the potatoes while they’re still warm. This is important because it allows the dressing to seep into the potatoes, marrying their flavors better than if you slapped the dressing on a cold potato. Once the potatoes are cooled, however, I then add the cucumbers and snap peas and let the whole thing chill in the fridge. Served ice cold with more fresh cilantro on top, this ain’t no grocery store potato salad. And that’s precisely because it will stick in your memory for all the right reasons.
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