THIS SPUD'S FOR YOU; Potato salad's appeal flies high among Fourth of July celebrants

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fourth of July is the ultimate outdoor party. Picnics and barbecues are as prevalent as parades and patriotism. And in all likelihood, potato salad will be a welcome guest at many summer feasts.

"Of the holy icons of the Fourth, potato salad is there," says Jo Alexander, a spokeswoman for Eddie's of Roland Park. "People really like tradition."

She said the grocery stores on Roland Avenue and North Charles Street will be offering a red, white and blue potato salad as a patriotic gesture this year, as well as standard versions including "our all-time favorite, red-skin potato."

Store-bought or homemade, potato salad serves as a subtle foil to such outdoor fare as burgers, steaks and chicken. But it's hardly a second-class act. The side dish is easily jazzed up with all kinds of additions, from bacon to seafood to fennel.

"It may be the potato's relatively neutral flavor and gentle texture that makes it so adaptable," says cookbook author James Peterson in "Vegetables" (William Morrow, 1998). "Few of us realize how many versions of potato salad there are ... and how easily a potato salad can be varied and livened up with a few different ingredients."

Besides potatoes, most traditional salads include mayonnaise, celery, hard-boiled eggs and extras such as raw onions or pickles, he says. His own favorite features a sauce with homemade mayonnaise and plenty of fresh herbs.

"The mayonnaise is usually made with extra-virgin olive oil and garlic, and from time to time a little saffron or curry powder is thrown in for flavor and color," Peterson says. "Celery is essential for crunch and a fresh green flavor. Onions or shallots add the necessary pizazz."

Then there are the tubers.

Peterson prefers Yukon Gold or red and white waxy, or firm, potatoes because they don't fall apart as easily as other kinds. He also recommends layering potatoes with dressing rather than tossing the ingredients to avoid breaking the potatoes into pieces.

Cooking teacher and syndicated writer Betty Rosbottom also uses red skins, which she slices and leaves unpeeled in her Roasted New Potato and Watercress Salad. But she steers away from boiling the potatoes.

"I roast them with chopped garlic, herbs and olive oil," she writes in "American Favorites" (Houghton Mifflin, 1996). "After roasting, [I] toss them with mustard, vinegar and shallots. Just before serving, I stir peppery watercress sprigs into the salad."

Just about every cooking magazine includes a potato-salad recipe or two during the summer months. An article in July's Celebrity Dish, a new publication by TV Guide, offers these "spud-salad secrets":

Instead of russet baking potatoes, always use boiling potatoes, which contain less starch and more moisture. Choices include red-skinned varieties, Yukon Gold, Purple Peruvian and White Rose.

Look for full-flavored heirloom potatoes at farmers' markets. Be sure they're boiling varieties.

Always choose firm potatoes that have smooth, blemish-free skin, without eyes or a green tinge.

At Graul's markets, potato salad is always a big seller, says Terry Kennedy, department manager of gourmet prepared food and the deli in Timonium. The store sells five kinds of potato salads, including home style with mustard and egg, red skin with dill and sour cream, and a three-potato potato salad with red, white and sweet potatoes.

He acknowledges that the regular home-style potato salad always sells quickly.

He says customers are sometimes hesitant to try new kinds, fretting that their family or friends won't like something different.

But Kennedy takes such thinking as a challenge. "We encourage people to try the three-potato and red-potato with sour cream," he says. "My job, and the guys at the counter, is to educate folks."

For Independence Day, though, you can't miss wowing guests with Patriotic Potato Salad from "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook" (Workman, 1985) by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins with Sarah Leah Chase.

The authors' description sets the stage for a festive Fourth of July dish: "Fresh garden herbs and vegetables join together in our midsummer potato salad. Dill, parsley, scallions and carrots create a confetti effect that anticipates a celebration."

Patriotic Potato Salad

Serves 8

14 small new red potatoes, scrubbed clean

6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and halved

1 medium-size carrot, peeled and grated

2 medium-size scallions (green onions, white part and 2 inches green), thinly sliced in rounds

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon caraway seeds

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3/4 cup sour cream

3/4 cup mayonnaise (see note)

Heat a medium-size saucepan of water to boiling. Add the potatoes and cook just until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain, cool and cut in half.

Combine the eggs, potatoes, carrot and scallions in a large bowl. Add the dill, parsley, caraway, salt and pepper and gently toss to combine.

Mix the sour cream and mayonnaise and gently fold into the potato mixture.

Refrigerate the salad several hours before serving to allow flavors to blend.

Note: The authors recommend using Hellmann's mayonnaise. - From "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook," (Workman, 1985) by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins with Sarah Leah Chase

Indian-Style Sweet Potato Salad

Serves 4 as a side dish

1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, regular waxy potatoes or Yukon Gold potatoes

1 medium red onion

2 teaspoons coarse salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup plain yogurt

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

leaves from 1 bunch cilantro

leaves from 1 bunch mint

Cover the sweet potatoes with cold water in a pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Immediately reduce the heat to low and simmer gently until the potatoes feel soft all the way through when poked with a small knife, about 30 minutes. Don't overcook them or they'll fall apart when you construct the salad. Drain the sweet potatoes, let them cool at room temperature and chill them for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator. (Regular potatoes don't need to be chilled.)

Slice the onion as thin as you can - a vegetable slicer works well for this - and rub the slices with the coarse salt until you can't feel the salt on your fingers. The salt softens the onion and helps its texture meld with that of the sweet potatoes. Drain the onion in a colander for 20 minutes, quickly rinse the onion under cold water and squeeze the softened onion slices in your fingers to extract as much of their juice as you can.

Combine the vegetable oil with the cumin and coriander in a small saucepan.

Cook the spices over medium heat while stirring with a wooden spoon until you smell their fragrance, about 2 minutes. Stir in the red and black pepper, yogurt and lemon juice.

Peel the sweet potatoes by pulling away the skin with your fingers or with a paring knife. Slice the sweet potatoes into rounds about 1/3 inch thick.

Chop the cilantro and mint leaves - this is best done last so the mint leaves don't turn black and loose their fragrance - and stir them into the yogurt-spice sauce. Arrange the sweet potato slices in alternating layers with the onion and the yogurt-spice sauce in a salad bowl or baking dish, finishing with a layer of sauce. Serve at room temperature or slightly cool. - From "Vegetables" (William Morrow, 1998) by James Peterson

Parisian Potato Salad

Serves 6 as a side dish

2 pounds large Yukon Gold or red or white waxy potatoes

2 tablespoons dry white wine

1/4 cup good quality white-wine vinegar

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 shallots, minced

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley (preferably Italian variety)

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the potatoes in a 4-quart pot and add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and then turn the heat down to maintain at a gentle simmer. Simmer gently for about 25 minutes until the potatoes can easily be penetrated with a paring knife or skewer but still offer a little resistance. Don't cook the potatoes until the peels crack or they will be overcooked. Drain the potatoes in a colander and let cool for about 10 minutes to make them easier to handle. Don't let them cool for too long or they'll be harder to peel.

Peel the potatoes by holding them in one hand with a towel and pulling off the peel in long strips with a paring knife. Whisk together the rest of the ingredients in a small bowl. Slice the potatoes into 1/4 -inch-thick rounds and layer them in a square or oval glass, earthenware, or porcelain gratin or baking dish large enough to hold the potatoes in about 4 layers. Sprinkle each layer with a quarter of the wine-oil-shallot mixture, quickly stirring the mixture each time so the ingredients stay evenly distributed. Serve at room temperature or slightly cooler but not directly out of the refrigerator. When serving the salad, be sure to reach all the way to the bottom of the dish - the dressing tends to settle to the bottom. Variation: Toss 1 pound of cooked shellfish such as small shrimp, bay scallops, lobster meat, crab meat or mussel meats (you'll need to steam 4 to 5 pounds of mussels to get 1 pound of meats) with the potato salad. This will make 8 first-course servings. - From "Vegetables" (William Morrow, 1998) by James Peterson

Roasted New Potato and Watercress Salad

Serves 6

2 1/2 pounds red-skin new potatoes, cleaned, unpeeled

1 1/2 tablespoons finely minced garlic (about 6 large cloves)

1 teaspoon salt, plus more if needed

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more if needed

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary leaves

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed

2 tablespoons white wine-vinegar, plus more if needed

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 cup finely chopped shallots

1 cup watercress sprigs, cleaned and patted dry

Arrange a rack at the center position and preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a large, heavy baking pan or a large, ovenproof cast-iron skillet with nonstick cooking spray. Cut each potato in half lengthwise and slice potatoes into 1/2 -inch-thick wedges; place in pan. Combine garlic, salt, pepper, thyme, rosemary and oil in a small mixing bowl and whisk well to blend. Pour mixture evenly over potatoes and toss well. Bake potatoes until they are tender when pierced with a knife and lightly golden, 45 to 55 minutes or more, stirring every 10 to 12 minutes to be sure they don't stick. When done, remove and cool to room temperature. (Potatoes can be baked 4 to 5 hours ahead and left loosely covered with foil at cool room temperature.)

To assemble salad: Transfer potatoes with a slotted spoon to a mixing bowl. Pour all the liquid and pan drippings from pan into measuring cup. If you do not have 1/3 cup, add enough oil to make this amount. Add vinegar, mustard and shallots. Whisk well to blend. Pour mixture over potatoes and taste and season as needed with vinegar, salt and pepper. Let potatoes stand for at least 1 hour or up to 2 hours, uncovered, at a cool room temperature.

Just before serving, toss salad with watercress sprigs and taste once more for seasoning. Serve salad at room temperature, mounded on a serving platter or in an earthenware bowl. - From "American Favorites" (Houghton Mifflin, 1996) by Betty Rosbottom

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