Tony writes: We had our annual b.good summer party a few weeks ago. Among other things, we made up a couple of potato and pasta salads that went over surprisingly well (that’s b.good star Edy in the pic tossing together a batch); a handful of folks even asked me for the recipes, which is my version of a winning scratch ticket. But here’s the thing: as much as I relish moments – hell, even split seconds – that lead to some sort of increased self-esteem, I don’t think the accolades were directed at our pasta and potato salads. Not really, at least. Rather I think it was more a commentary on what passes for potato and pasta salad these days. Call it the “mayo effect”. Nothing wrong with mayo in and of itself, but it’s indulgent and when it’s used in glop-ing proportions to saturate plain, white starches (themselves, #1 Most Frown-Inducing Ingredient on nutritionists’ lists these days), then you’ve got a heavy summer side that’s neither all that satisfying, nor good for you. No way am I going to talk you out of pasta or potato salad – no nutritionist can convince me that they aren’t a fine and necessary part of the summer cookout season. Just that pasta and potato salads can actually be a lot better without the mayo. Here’s how:
The Potato Salad 411: My approach to potato salad is not so much a recipe as it is a basic formula for tasting and testing and tossing the whole thing together. It relies on a few basic tenets:
Use Yukon Golds: This yellow-fleshed spud is perfect for potato salad: it has the best flavor – buttery and rich – and the best texture – firm and creamy – for the application. Baking potatoes (like Russets) break up into mush in a salad while red potatoes don’t have the same flavor as Yukons and their texture becomes gummy after cooling. Baby Yukons are easier to cut (just halve or quarter), though larger Yukons are cheaper. Either way, don’t peel the potatoes; the skin helps them hold together during cooking and tossing; and, besides, it packs plenty of nutrients.
Vinegar is the primary ingredient that separates my potato salads from the gloppy masses. It’s a German thing. The vinegar provides a lighter but more intense baseline for the salad than rich, creamy mayo. I like how sharp white wine vinegar or red wine vinegar pair with Yukon Golds, though cider vinegar also works with fallish potato salads (think apple, bacon, and fresh tarragon). Follow the German potato salad method and toss the potatoes with the vinegar while they’re still warm so it soaks in; then toss with olive oil and the other seasonings.
Basic Potato Salad Formula (Vinegar + Vegetable + Pantry Ingredients): I won’t give you a full-on recipe, because the truth is I don’t follow one. Rather mine is more or less a method: cut the potatoes in uniform 1-inch pieces (leave the skin on), transfer to a pot, cover with cold water by a couple of inches, and stir in a good sprinkling of salt (an important step; salt draws out the flavor of the potatoes – the water should be as salty as the ocean). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a very gentle simmer. Cook until the potatoes are tender, but not breaking up, about 10 to 15 minutes of simmering after they hit a boil. Drain well, then transfer to a baking sheet, spread in a thin, even layer, and cool until the potatoes are about room temp. Toss with a good splash of red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar (you can always add more, so don’t go crazy) and then a splash of olive oil. Season with black pepper and toss with some mix of vegetables, herbs, and cheese. Now, as we round into summer, I’m partial to corn, fresh thyme, Parmigiano, and chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Fresh basil, diced green beans, and roasted red peppers are also a nice pairing. Cook the vegetables first before adding to the potatoes (grill, saute, or roast them) and then let your culinary instincts guide you, seasoning with more salt, pepper, vinegar, and oil to taste, adding in colorful embellishments or pantry foodstuffs (capers, olives, fresh herbs, etc…).
The Pasta Salad 411: A lot of the same tenets apply to pasta salads. Vinegar is important, but the type matters as much as the actual amounts. I tend to avoid balsamic vinegar in pasta salads (or use it sparingly). It’s overly sweet without adding much actual tang. I instead favor red wine vinegar. Below are a couple of my other rules and an exceedingly simple formula.
Serve pasta salads warm-ish: Italians don’t do pasta salads, at least not cold ones. Pasta is at its best warm and is perfectly fine room temp, but it starts to suffer after being refrigerated. It’s a texture thing. The solution? Prepare the salad ingredients ahead of time if you like, but only cook the pasta (and toss it with these ingredients) just before serving or before guests arrive.
Formula: Small pasta shapes work best – easy to spear with a fork and their texture holds up to over- or under-cooking. Penne is a standard, though smaller varieties like ditalini, orrechiette or bow ties also work. To go with the pasta, include something green (it could be blanched asparagus, broccoli, or peas, or a delicate leaf like baby spinach or baby bok choy or even fresh basil) and pair with complementary flavorings: of course, the vinegar and oil (see my vinegar note above) as well as other seasonal vegetables – grape tomatoes and sweet corn are perfect right now, though sun-dried tomatoes or canned corn work out of season. And then there are briny pantry ingredients – like capers and olives – as well as cheese – fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano, and crumbled feta are good picks, though feel free to get a little crazy; smoked cheeses – like mozzarella or the Spanish Idiazabal – are a nice change of pace. Blanch, cut, and chop all of these ingredients ahead of time and set in a large serving bowl. An hour or so before serving, cook off the pasta and toss. The pasta will hold perfectly at room temp for an hour or two.