There’s something about potatoes — unassuming with their dirt-covered exterior, sometimes hiding fantastical interiors. Nothing about the vegetable screams spectacular as it hides under the ground collecting earth with a modest green plant above. But underneath the soil, the plant sprouts a collection of brown, tan, and sometimes even multi-colored orbs. Did you know there are close to 4,000 different varieties of potato? And did you also know that the annual diet of an average global citizen includes about 73 pounds of potato? 73 pounds of delicious starch! What vegetable is more versatile then the potato? To quote Sam from The Lord of the Rings, “Boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew.”
For reasons unknown to me, potato salad has always been one of my favorite things to eat. I’ve been known to eat heaping piles and nothing else. My favorite eateries are the ones that give potato salad as an option with your sandwich, as opposed to fries.
Molly Wizenberg’s opening chapter to her memoir, “A Homemade Life,” is about her father’s potato salad. The first sentence reads: “I had meant to start with something more glamorous than potato salad.” Now I on the other hand, see nothing wrong with starting there. But then again, like her father, Burg, I feel quite strongly about potato salad.
I however, am not one to judge the style in which it is prepared, as I enjoy many forms of this delectable side dish: skin on, skin off, mayo dressing, vinegar dressing, with or without bacon, with or without pickles; my palate is adaptable to all potato salads.
In most instances, I am partial to anything my mom makes. Her recipes, often handed down from her mom, continue to reign as my favorite in their respective categories. Her potato salad is no different. Mom’s potato selection for her salad is of the red variety, Red Pontiac; I believe is the specific variety. She leaves the skin on and tosses them in a mayo and Dijon mustard dressing, accompanied by pungent, peppery radishes, sweet green onions, and seasons it all with fresh, herbaceous dill.
Mom’s potato salad recipe still reigns, in my mind at least, as the paramount to all other potato salad recipes.
Molly Wizenberg’s opening chapter about potato salad is an ode to her father, Burg. There isn’t enough room on this blog to tell you about how wonderful my mother is, and how grateful I am to have learned from her, many culinary skills. I would need chapters upon chapters to tell her tale. Without going into comprehensive details, the subsequent paragraphs will give you just a taste of what it was like learning from my mom.
She, the proverbial working-class gourmet, would take what the pantry offered. If an ingredient from one of her staple recipes were missing, she would substitute with something else she had. No tomato paste for making sloppy joes? No worries, just use and ketchup and water instead. “It all depends on what I have in the pantry,” Mom would tell my sister, Angela, who with much consternation, has been pleading for some of Mom’s famous dishes ever since springing from home.
If Angela had only spent any time in the kitchen (yes I’m calling you out on this one, Angela), she would know Mom’s secrets. Mom taught me how to cut vegetables in a rocking motion, like a sewing machine sewing a stitch, to break down the vegetables in half the time. She taught me how to make a béchamel sauce when I wanted to learn how to make homemade mac ‘n’ cheese, “It starts with a roux – equal parts butter and flour; but make sure to cook the flour before adding the milk,” she showed me, whipping a whisk in a pot for several minutes before slowly pouring in milk while continuing to stir.
I don’t write down anything that I make, and I rarely use recipes. I must have learned that from Mom. Oddly enough she has a binder that is packed full of photocopied pages and tear-outs from an assortment of magazines and newspapers. Recipe collecting, I guess, was a hobby that she loved to do, regardless of whether they ever saw the lights of the kitchen. There was always a stack of magazines lying on a coffee table, or in a basket, and when I was a kid, I loved to look through them with Mom, ooing and awing at the exotic items pictured, pointing them out to Mom who would say, “Uhuh, looks good kiddo,” and went about thumbing through the next magazine in the stack.
Today, I take cues from her whenever I’m in doubt, and every meal I make, I have her in mind. I couldn’t escape that feeling even if I wanted to. I’m never alone in the kitchen. I’m always bringing people with me when I cook: my mother, grandmother, friends, lovers, and ex-lovers. Mom is always there, even though I don’t always notice it, she sneaks in like a worm on a leaf of lettuce.
The other day I got a bee in my bonnet to make a potato salad with fava beans. Mom was going to host Amber, Angela, and myself for dinner, and I was in charge of bringing a side dish – the perfect opportunity to test my potato and fava bean salad – only, I had yet to develop a recipe, and I was supposed to be at Mom’s house in just a few hours.
I literally went the store with a fraction of an idea about what else was going to go into the potato salad — other than potatoes and favas. After a few minutes of staring at vegetables, waiting for one of them to speak up, I had collected what I needed for a potato salad worthy of Mom’s approval.
Potato, fava bean, and asparagus salad with bacon
1 small shallot, finely chopped
2-3 strips of bacon cut into lardons
5 Yukon gold potatoes, diced
1/2 bunch of asparagus, cut into 1/4ths
1 lb. Fava beans, shelled
3-4 radishes, thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
1 avocado, peeled and pitted
3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons chopped green onion
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 clove garlic, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
To make dressing: in a blender, combine all ingredients. Process until smooth. Refrigerate until ready. (can be made a day ahead)
Cook potatoes in salted boiling water until tender; roughly 7-8 minutes. Strain and leave in a bowl to cool. In another pot, bring water to boil and blanch fava beans for 2-3 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and transfer to ice bath. Add asparagus to water and cook 3-4 minutes, remove and transfer to ice bath.
Cook bacon on med-high heat until done. Remove with slotted spoon, and pat with paper towel. Leave remaining bacon fat in the pan. Add shallots to pan, sauté 2-3 minutes, add favas and asparagus, and cook 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Once potatoes, asparagus and fava mixture is cool, combine in large bowl with radishes and bacon, and toss with dressing until evenly coated. Season with salt and pepper if needed.
*** I recommend allowing time for the flavors to marry; 6-8 hours if possible***