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Tips for a 4th of July potato salad


As I've written before, potato salad is very personal, like spaghetti sauce, grilled cheese sandwiches and exactly how we like our coffee or tea. Some of us recoil at anything sweet — sweet pickles or relish, Miracle Whip — while others don't call it potato salad without that sweet flourish.

But however we prefer it, many of us want it on the Fourth of July, especially if a barbecue is part of our tradition.

I think potato salad is usually best, with a few exceptions, when made with waxy rather than mealy potatoes, which can fall apart and almost mash themselves if cooked too long. Mashed potato salad is actually a classic dish in certain regions of the world, but it is best when it's intentional, not accidental.

For the best potato salads, get local dry-farmed potatoes, as they have much more flavor than generic supermarket potatoes. You'll find them at farmers markets.

It is important, no matter what style of potato salad you are making, to dress the potatoes while they are still warm. You don't have to add a full dressing at this point, as you'll see in Marshall House Potato Salad, though you can. Just be sure to reserve some to add as you complete the salad.

For more potato salad recipes from the Seasonal Pantry archives, visit Eat This Now at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

Potatoes and mussels are great companions, and many salads combine them, some with few other ingredients, others with a lot of seasonal vegetables. I keep my version fairly simply so that the earthy potatoes and succulent briny mussels shine through.

Potato and Mussel Salad

Makes 8 to 10 servings

3 pounds small new potatoes, scrubbed and sliced into 1/8-inch rounds

— Kosher salt

— Juice of 2 lemons

? cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

5 to 6 pounds PEI mussels, scrubbed

— Black pepper in a mill

3 shallots or 1 red onion, cut into small dice

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon best-quality white wine vinegar, such as Banyuls

? cup chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves

Put the potatoes into a medium saucepan, cover with water by at least 2 inches, season generously with salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer gently until the potatoes are tender but not mushy, about 7 to 9 minutes, depending on exact thickness.

Drain thoroughly and transfer to a wide shallow bowl. Reserve a tablespoon of lemon juice and drizzle the rest over the potatoes, along with half the olive oil. Set aside.

Meanwhile, set a large heavy skillet or a stove-top griddle over high heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle with a little pan and if it sizzles immediately, it is ready; if not, heat another minutes or so and test again.

When the pan or griddle is very hot, add a single layer of mussels, which will begin to pop open almost immediately. Agitate the pan or gently move the mussels on the griddle until all have opened. Transfer to a large bowl and continue until all the mussels have been cooked. Let cool until easy to handle and then remove the mussels from their shells. If any juices have collected in the bowl, pour them through a strainer onto the potatoes.

Season the mussels with several turns of black pepper.

Put the shallots or onion into a small bowl, add the reserved lemon juice and the vinegar and season with salt. Let rest a few minutes, add the remaining olive oil, taste and correct for acid and salt.

Add the mussels to the potatoes, along with the dressing and the parsley. Toss gently and serve.

Variation: Slice 1 pint of cherry tomatoes in half and add them to the potatoes along with the mussels.

More than two decades after the closing of Marshall House, the Santa Rosa restaurant that was where Ca'Bianca is now, people still talk lovingly about the potato salad. Back then, people were extremely fat phobic, and owner Axel Roelz grew weary of people telling him that they "never used bacon." As a result, when customers asked for the recipe, he left out the most important step, marinating the warm potatoes in hot bacon fat. People would complain that their version wasn't as good as the restaurant's, but they still wouldn't make the obvious leap, that the bacon fat is essential to the salad's alchemy. Most of us are no longer that fat phobic, but if you choose to leave out that step, don't complain.

Marshall House Potato Salad

Makes 6 to 8 servings

3 pounds potatoes (medium Yukon Gold or Russets)

1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

8 ounces bacon, diced

2 tablespoons stoneground mustard

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

1/3 cup olive oil

6 ounces beef stock

? cup distilled vinegar

1 medium yellow onion, minced

3 tablespoons minced parsley

? teaspoon white pepper

? teaspoon sugar

2 or 3 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and cut in wedges

— Tomato wedges for garnish

— Sprigs of Italian parsley for garnish

Put the potatoes in a large pot, cover with water, add one tablespoon of the salt and the caraway seeds, bring to a boil and cook until fork tender, from 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes. Drain the water from the potatoes and let them sit until cool enough to handle. Peel, cut into very thin slices and set aside.

Fry the bacon until crisp, use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon to absorbent paper and pour the drippings over the warm potatoes.

Combine the mustard and mayonnaise in a medium bowl. Add the olive oil, stock, vinegar, onions, parsley, remaining 2 teaspoons of salt, white pepper and sugar and stir well. Add the bacon and stir again.

Set aside about a tablespoon of the dressing and fold the rest into the potatoes. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving platter and garnish with eggs and tomatoes. Drizzle with the reserved tablespoon of dressing and serve immediately.

One way to introduce luscious smoky flavors into a potato salad is to serve grilled meat directly on top of it. In this version, I love the concentrated flavor of the skirt steak combined with the bright delicacy of radishes. It is important to get the balance of acid correct, so be sure to taste, taste, taste until it is absolutely delicious.

Potato Salad with Grilled Skirt Steak and Radish Vinaigrette

Makes 8 servings

2 pounds red potatoes, scrubbed clean but not peeled

— Kosher salt

1 shallot, minced

4 or 5 radishes, trimmed and minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 tablespoons champagne or white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 tablespoons fresh snipped chives

— Black pepper in a mill

2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

1 pound skirt steak, cut into 3 or 4 crosswise pieces

1 bunch French breakfast radishes, leaves separated, thinly sliced

1 bunch radish leaves, cut into very thin ribbons

1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced

8 ounces very small Blue Lake green beans, blanched

3 tablespoon Italian parsley

Put the potatoes into a large saucepan, cover with water by at least 2 inches and season generously with salt. Bring to a boil and cook until the potatoes are tender but not mushy. Drain and transfer to a wide shallow bowl to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette. Put the shallot, minced radishes and garlic into a bowl, season with salt, add the vinegar and lemon juice and set aside for a few minutes. Add the chives, season with several turns of black pepper and stir in the olive oil. Taste and correct for acid and salt. Set aside.

When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice them thinly and put them in a wide shallow serving bowl. Spoon about half the dressing over the potatoes and set aside.

Prepare a charcoal fire or heat a stove-top or propane grill.

Season the steak all over with salt and pepper. Set it on the grill, cook for 2 minutes, turn and cook for 2 minutes more. Transfer to a plate, cover with a loose fitting lid or a sheet of aluminum foil and let rest 3 to 4 minutes.

While the meat rests, add the radishes, radish leaves and green beans to the potatoes and toss gently.

Cut the steak into thin strips, slicing with the grain. Arrange on top of the potatoes and spoon the remaining dressing over the salad. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with Italian parsley and serve immediately.

Alternately, the salad can be served on individual plates. You may also toss the meat with the vegetables before serving.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM.

E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.