Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
With an eye to easy summer eating, warm up to potato salad

By Elan Head

Summer weekends are upon us, and to me that means two things: pools and potato salad.

The pools are obvious. As for potato salad, well, one way or another, my outdoor dining adventures always  have included it, whether Iím out on a picnic or at home by the grill.

Itís a summertime tradition, and not one Iím inclined to give up.

Now, potato salad is something that people feel strongly about. Iím pretty sure you have a favorite picnic potato salad recipe, and Iím not going to tell you how to make it.

Instead, Iím going to talk about a different kind of potato salad: the warm kind. Itís not a replacement for the cold, creamy stuff you pack on picnics, but pretty scrumptious nonetheless.

My interest in warm potato salads is primarily due to my husband, who, among his many quirks, professes to hate cold potatoes in any form.

Without conceding his point--I love cold potato salad--I will say that, yeah, the starchy texture of potatoes is typically better hot.

Warm potato salads are also convenient if you forget to make the cold stuff ahead (and thatís the real reason I make them so often).

Warm or cold, the best choice for salad is red-skinned new potatoes, which hold up well to boiling. Baking potatoes, like Russets, will tend to mush and fall apart.

For my warm potato salad, I borrow a tip from Cookís Illustrated, which recommends slicing the potatoes before cooking them. Not only will the pretty red skins adhere all the better, youíll cut down on cooking time and avoid having to handle the proverbial hot potato.

So: For a family of four hungry potato salad eaters, thoroughly scrub two pounds of small new potatoes and slice into rounds about ľ-inch thick.

Put the potatoes in a pot, cover them with plenty of cold water, add one tablespoon of salt, and bring the whole thing to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a brisk simmer and cook the potatoes until tender but not soft, five or 10 minutes.

You can probably tell that the potatoes are done just by poking at them. But if youíd like to bite into a slice, spear it with a fork and run it under cold water first, to avoid burning your mouth. (Not that Iíve ever done that before.)

When the potatoes are done, drain them well. Carefully transfer the slices directly to a serving bowl.

So much for the potatoes. Now for the dressing, a vinaigrette, which you make while the potatoes are cooking.

Hereís the basic formula: one to three teaspoons of Dijon mustard (depending on how mustardy you like it) whisked with two tablespoons of red or white wine vinegar and five tablespoons of best-quality olive oil.

Some freshly ground black pepper and ľ teaspoon salt is a good idea, too.

When the potatoes are just barely cool enough to handle, drizzle the vinaigrette over them and, with clean hands, toss gently to combine. Salt the potatoes to taste.

If youíre adding extras, toss them in at the same time. Fresh herbs are always in order: chopped fresh parsley, chives, tarragon and/or thyme.

So are alliums, i.e., the onion family. Add finely chopped shallots, sliced scallions or even sliced green garlic (if you can find it) directly to the salad.

Or, finely chop ľ of a red onion and soak it in two tablespoons of wine vinegar, mixed with ľ teaspoon sugar, for 10 minutes. Substitute this mixture for the vinegar in your dressing.

And if youíre feeling adventurous, try mixing in some chopped, oil-cured black olives and oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes. Garnish with slices of freshly hard-boiled egg.

Itís not your motherís potato salad--but then, itís not supposed to be.