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Potato salad key to Fourth of July

Celebrate America's independence and heritage with international alternatives to the standard side dish.

Ellen Sweets
Potato salad is a favorite side dish in the South, but cooks can look to other regions of the world for inventive ways to make this summer staple.

Nothing says summer like charred chicken, big fat hamburgers, smoky ribs (OK, OK – nicely grilled tempeh for non-carnivores), lemonade and potato salad. Memorial Day might kick off the grilling season, but the Fourth of July marks the start of that serious "who's-bringing-the-potato-salad?" time of year.

You might have a tried-and-true recipe you've used for years; haven't a clue how to make one; or you're sick to death of the tried-and-true. In any case, you are in luck, because there are enough potato permutations to satisfy any salad philosophy.

"The New York Times Heritage Cookbook" credits Idaho with a Fourth of July potato salad, quite possibly because Idaho — despite its reputation as Spud Central — felt distanced from that part of the country where potato salad is so thoroughly entrenched. In the South, potato salad recipes are sacrosanct.

John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, says the dish has become iconic throughout the South because it is a perfect accompaniment to other Southern favorites such as fried chicken and barbecue. But spud salad can be found around the world. You think I'm kidding? Several years ago I visited Leonidion, a centuries-old mountain village on Greece's Arcadian peninsula in the Peloponnesus. A summer meal in one of the small, family-owned restaurants in the town center consisted of a series of small plates — tiny fried fish, eggplant dip; fresh-baked pita; sliced tomatoes; and, drum roll, please: potato salad made with locally pressed olive oil; straight-from-the-tree-lemons; red onion, feta and sliced kalamata olives.

Closer to home, Austin entrepreneur Magda Boudni is of Polish descent, but the potato salad she makes is, in her words, the same one everybody all over Russia makes. It incorporates carrots, apple, onion, peas and dill flavor — either dill weed or pickles. The recipe Boudni makes is the same one her mother and grandmother made — not unlike traditional family dishes handed down from generation to generation in Anyplace, U.S.A. The Russian-style mayonnaise laced with caviar is sold at Sasha's Gourmet Russian Market, which she and her husband own.

The international appeal of potato salad extends to Kendall and John Antonelli, who own Antonelli's Cheese Shop in Hyde Park. The shop specializes in artisan cheeses but also includes, among other delicacies, black truffles, a central ingredient in the high-dollar French potato salad in Patricia Wells' "Simply French" cookbook.

Both Antonellis are potato salad lovers partial to John's family recipe. The Italian name comes from his father, but it is the potato salad of his German mother and grandmother that frequently beckons.

"I have multiple potato salad favorites, but I'm most partial to my family's version 'cause that's what I grew up with," he says. "The recipe started with my great-great-grandmother and got passed down by word of mouth; nothing was ever documented.

"Finally a great aunt stood by her and held a measuring cup under everything she poured so we finally got something written down. The ingredients are pretty basic — Yukon Gold or red potatoes; an onion cut up and steeped in warm water; canola, corn or vegetable oil; cider vinegar, salt and pepper and maybe sugar. Then we serve it with various garnishes — bacon crumbles, fresh-cut tomatoes, hard-boiled egg. Oh man, now I want potato salad!"

New York-based Susan Simon, who divides her time between the Big Apple and Italy, devoted one of her four cookbooks to all kinds of salads, including one with potatoes, capers and anchovies. It can be dressed up or down with peas, French-cut green beans, slivers of grape tomatoes, shallots, celery or carrots.

Austin artist Sandra Huston never much cared for potato salad at all until she tried a warm German salad. "I was convinced I would die of food poisoning until I was told I would die of regret if I didn't do it, and was that ever true," she says. "I never liked potato salad before I discovered it warm, with dill pickles."

So the lesson here is don't knock it if you haven't tried it. Potatoes are as versatile as they are ubiquitous, so a recipe for a salad made with them is a guide, not gospel. Assemble ingredients according to the recipe, then decide if you want more or less of something else: dill pickles or dill weed; hot or cold; sliced or diced; green beans instead of peas (fresh is better but frozen is OK); lemon juice instead of vinegar.

Show some independence.

It's a potato. It can handle it.

Fourth of July Potato Salad

Idaho, spud central to most Americans, is represented in "The New York Times Heritage Cookbook" with this tasty version of an iconic American food. Serves 24.

2½ quarts cooked diced potatoes

1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced

1 small green pepper, diced

2 cups hearts of celery, with leaves

½ cup finely grated onion or chopped scallions (green onions)

2 cups mayonnaise

3 Tbsp. lemon juice

2 Tbsp. prepared mustard

2 tsp. sugar

1½ tsp. salt, or to taste

½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

6 hard-boiled eggs, roughly chopped

Combine potatoes, cucumber, green pepper, celery and onion (or scallions) in a large bowl and chill well.

Combine mayonnaise, lemon juice, mustard, sugar, salt and pepper.

Add eggs to potato mixture and pour dressing over all. Toss to mix. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Russian Potato Salad

Russian mayonnaise is available from Sasha's Gourmet Russian market (459-1449). To create your own, add ¼ cup red or black caviar, ½ cup sour cream and a teaspoon dill weed. If you feel yourself resisting the authenticity of including pickled tongue, you can substitute diced ham or smoked sausage or omit meat altogether. This is a guide, remember? Not gospel. Serves 6-8

8-10 medium potatoes, preferably the same size, scrubbed

2 cups baby carrots, sliced in chunks

1½ cups dill pickle relish

1 cup frozen baby green peas, thawed

3 hard boiled eggs, peeled

2 Granny Smith apples, cored, peeled and chopped coarsely

1 medium white onion, cut into chunks

1 cup mayonnaise, preferably Russian, more if desired

2 cups pickled tongue, cubed (optional)

½ tsp. sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

In a large stockpot, steam or boil potatoes until a knife slides easily through one of them. Remove from heat, blanch in cold water, drain and set aside until cool enough to handle.

Boil/steam carrots until almost done. Run under cold water to stop the cooking, and drain.

When potatoes are cool to the touch, peel and cut into chunks and place them in a large mixing bowl. Add carrots, peas, onions, eggs, pickles, mayonnaise, sugar and black pepper.

Toss gently, using a wooden spoon or large rubber spatula. This can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator, but bring to room temperature before serving.

Lamb's Lettuce, Potato and Black Truffle Salad

Leave it to the French to tart up the lowly potato. Here is a recipe from "Simply French" by Patricia Wells and Joël Robuchon. Wells characterizes this salad as nature's way of saying, "The earth is wonderful. To get a sense of the earth, eat truffles." In other words, combine two wonders of the earth in a sublime layered salad. Fresh truffles aren't easy to find, but with advance notice, Antonelli's Cheese Shop (531-9610) will get them for you. Ask for the lamb's lettuce (also called corn salad or mâche) at a farmers market, Whole Foods or Central Market. Allow time. You will need a steamer. Serves 4.

1-2 whole black truffles (about 2 oz.)

2/3 cup vinaigrette (see recipe below)

10 small potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled

Handful of lamb's lettuce, rinsed and patted dry, for garnish

Coarse sea salt, for garnish

Small bunch of fresh chives, finely minced, for garnish

Begin preparing at least 5 hours before you plan to serve the salad. With a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler, carefully trim the truffles to an even ball. Place the whole truffles in an airtight container and refrigerate. Save truffle peelings for the vinaigrette.

Prepare the vinaigrette in a large bowl, and stir in the truffle peelings. Set aside.

Place potatoes in a steamer and steam until a skewer or sharp knife inserted into a potato comes away easily, about 15-20 minutes.

While the potatoes are still hot, peel them and slice into thin, even rounds about ¼-inch thick. Place them in the bowl with the truffle vinaigrette and toss thoroughly. Cover, and set aside at room temperature for at least 4 hours to allow the potatoes to absorb the vinaigrette.

When you are ready to serve the salad, drain the potatoes, reserving the vinaigrette. Set both aside.

Remove truffles from the refrigerator. With a sharp knife, slice them as evenly and thinly as possible. Dip the slices into the reserved vinaigrette (don't douse or soak the slices; you simply want to add a hint of the vinaigrette flavor).

On each salad plate, arrange the lamb's lettuce leaves petal fashion, just inside the edge of the plate.

Arrange a ring of alternating potato and truffle slices, working counterclockwise. Place another ring, again alternating the slices of truffle and potato, and slightly overlapping the outer ring. For the third ring, slightly overlap the second ring. Place a single slice of truffle at the center of the "crown." Carefully sprinkle each truffle with salt and each potato with chives. Serve immediately.

Vinaigrette

This is salad dressing can be adapted to include garlic, mustard, fresh herbs or lemon juice depending on the salad. It can even incorporate pan drippings from roasted meat. It can be made in batches and kept for several days, refrigerated, in a small jar. Shake vigorously to reblend ingredients. Makes about 2/3 cup vinaigrette.

1 tablespoon best-quality red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon best-quality sherry wine vinegar

Sea salt to taste

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground white pepper to taste

1 tablespoon minced black truffle (optional)

1-2 tablespoons poultry or meat drippings (optional)

In a small bowl whisk together the vinegars and salt. Add oil in a thin stream, whisking until well blended. Season with pepper to taste. If using meat/poulty drippings, add truffle shavings and cooking juices (or just truffle) and stir to blend.

Greek Potato Salad

Any small waxy potato will do, but I'm partial to the small red ones. You can peel them if you wish, but I leave the skins on – it's where the nutrients are. They should all be about the same size so they will cook uniformly. Serves 4-6.

1½ pounds red potatoes, steamed

½ cup olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

1 Tbsp. water

1½ tsp. fresh oregano

2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley

1 shallot sliced thin and separated into rings

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

¾ cup feta

In a large bowl, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, water, oregano, parsley and shallot until dressing emulsifies or thickens. Add potatoes and, using your hands, toss the potatoes with salt, pepper and feta.

Lobster and Potato Salad with Tarragon

This elegant salad is adapted from "One Potato, Two Potato" by Roy Finamore. It can be served as a lunch or brunch meal or, doubled, as a lovely dinner entrée on a sweltering evening — preceded by a creamy chilled soup and served with sourdough. Serves 4.

1½ pound Ruby Crescent or small creamer potatoes

Coarse salt

½ pound green beans, topped, tailed and cut into 1½-inch pieces (or frozen cut green beans, thawed, but not cooked)

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced

1 pound lobster meat (check for sales of lobster tails, which are easier than wrangling whole lobsters)

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup heavy cream

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1½ tsp.s chopped fresh tarragon (or ¾ tsp. dried)

In a saucepan, cover with cold water by a little over a half-inch. Add a generous pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover partially and cook until potatoes are tender. Drain cooked potatoes on a rack in the sink and let them cool in a single layer.

Bring another pot of salted water to a boil and drop in the beans. Boil until just tender, about 4 minutes. Just before draining them, drop the red pepper into the water for 20-30 seconds. This takes away just the slightest crunch so they blend better with other salad ingredients. Drain beans and peppers again and immediately rinse in ice-cold water (to stop the cooking). Drain again and layer onto a clean kitchen towel to dry.

When the potatoes are at room temperature, peel and cut them into small pieces. Hey — come on, we're talking lobster salad here; it's worth taking the time. Drop them into a large mixing bowl.

Chop lobster meat into bite-size pieces and add to the potatoes. Add beans and peppers. Season lightly with salt and pepper, then gently toss to combine ingredients.

Whisk heavy cream until it is frothy and beginning to thicken. Whisk in mayonnaise. Add tarragon and season with salt and pepper. Spoon salad onto plates and pass the dressing in a sauce boat.

Warm Potato Salad ?with Beer Dressing

What could be more German than potatoes and beer, asks Louisiana chef John Folse, who included this recipe in his gargantuan, 800-page "Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine." Serves 6.

3 pounds new potatoes, skin on

1 cup beer

¼ cup olive oil

¼ cup sliced green onions

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

¼ cup cane syrup

1 Tbsp. minced garlic

1 Tbsp. Creole mustard

½ tsp. sugar

¼ cup salad oil

Salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Louisiana hot sauce to taste

2 small Bermuda onions

¼ cup julienned green bell peppers

¼ cup julienned yellow bell peppers

In a 1-gallon stockpot, boil potatoes in lightly salted water 20 minutes or until tender. Do not overcook. When tender, drain, spread on a towel and allow to cool slightly.

In a sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Stir in green onions, parsley, beer, can syrup and garlic. Bring to a low boil and cook for 2-3 minutes.

Place hot ingredients in a blender or food processor. Add mustard and sugar and season to taste using salt, pepper and hot sauce. When potatoes are cool enough to handle but still warm, slice ¼-inch thick. Place in a large mixing bowl and toss with onions, bell peppers and dressing. Let salad rest for 15 minutes. Stir again and serve.

Update: An earlier version of this story omitted the recipe for vinaigrette dressing for the Lamb’s Lettuce, Potato and Black Truffle Salad. The recipe is from “Simply French” by Patricia Wells and Joël Robuchon.