Want to start a fight at a barbecue? Two words: potato salad. Googling settles most quibbling over when to flip a burger or how long the chicken should cook. However, regional, familial and personal tastes, nay, mores regarding this picnic staple go deep and will not be moved.
I love potato salad, so I try it at every backyard cookout and potluck, which, my dear friend reminds me, is high-risk behavior. OK, he says that about all food cooked in the kitchens of strangers and, given his years in food service, it makes sense he regards room-temperature baked potatoes like foil-wrapped botulism grenades. And while we've all heard horror stories about family reunions laid to waste by a negligent relative's paprika-dusted Tupperware of poison, potato salad comes with aesthetic risks, too.
I admit to a self-destructive thrill, taking that first bite, not knowing if it's going to be the standard mayo or the weird sweetness of Miracle Whip "dressing." Still, even I know not to bother trying the salad when the potatoes are in slices, all glossy and sliding around in too much goop. Supermarket delis, in general, are Russian roulette, though I admit a brief dalliance with the loaded baked potato variety at WinCo. Don't judge. We've all got a past.
Central to the potato salad conflict is the schism over mayonnaise, which you cannot resolve because people who hate mayo hate it in a visceral way. Keep the peace by offering a separate salad for each faction. Make the mayo-averse in your life feel accepted and welcome at your spread by serving a potato salad dressed with olive oil and freshly chopped cilantro. It's light and flavorful with lemon juice, and it's so quick to put together it's nuts. If they also hate cilantro, you can sub in half a bunch of chopped flat leaf parsley, but I urge you to consider at what cost you want to keep this friendship going.
For those who embrace the mayo, whip up a Japanese potato salad. Yes, this is a thing — a savory, mashed-potato-meets-deviled-egg thing. It even shows up as a sandwich filling because Japan is not afraid of starch-on-starch. With very little variation — hold the peas, toss in corn, maybe a little ham, some minced onion — this is the salad that shows up at Japanese picnics and convenience stores alike, the paper-thin vegetables adding texture to the creamy mash. It can be served warm right away or chilled. But swear you won't leave it out for more than four hours max and swear — swear! — not to put it in the hot sun. Place the bowl atop another bowl filled with ice and set a passive-aggressive example for friends and family.
Cilantro Potato Salad
3 pounds small new or red potatoes
2 teaspoons coarse salt for boiling
3 green onions, chopped finely
½ bunch cilantro, chopped
¼ cup olive oil
juice of 1 small lemon
1 ½ teaspoons salt
Place the potatoes in a pot with enough cold water to cover them. Add the salt and bring it to a boil, then the heat to medium-high. Cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until a stabbed potato slides easily off the knife by itself. Drain the potatoes and place them in a large bowl and move them to the refrigerator when they are slightly cooled.
Once the potatoes are cold, cut them into halves or quarters, depending on how big they are. In a separate bowl, whisk the olive oil, lemon juice and salt until it forms an emulsion. Pour the dressing over the potatoes and toss them until coated. Add the chopped green onion and cilantro and toss until they are incorporated. Taste and add salt as needed. Serve immediately or chilled.
Japanese Potato Salad
4 large russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 teaspoons salt for boiling
2 ½ teaspoons rice vinegar
½ cup frozen peas, boiled or cooked in the microwave and cooled
1 carrot, quartered lengthwise and sliced paper thin
1 Japanese or Persian cucumber, cut lengthwise and sliced paper thin (½ a seeded English cucumber also works)
2 green onions, finely chopped
2 hard boiled eggs, chopped
¾ cup mayonnaise, preferably Kewpie
more salt to taste
Place the potatoes in a pot with enough cold water to cover them. Add the salt and bring it to a boil, then the heat to medium-high. Cook for another 10 minutes, or until a stabbed potato slides easily off the knife by itself. Drain the potatoes and place them in a large bowl. Sprinkle the potatoes with vinegar and mash them about halfway so that some lumps remain.
Add the sliced vegetables, boiled egg and mayonnaise, and mix until thoroughly combined. Add salt to taste. Serve immediately or chilled.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the Journal's arts and features editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.