Many food writers claim Elizabeth David, M.F.K. Fisher or Julia Child as their first inspirations. For me it was Laurie Colwin’s “Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen” (Vintage Contemporaries paperback, reprinted 2010). Originally published in 1988, Colwin’s was the first food writing to speak to me in a distinct voice. Chatty, funny, sensual, she wrote rambling, personal chapters about different landmark foods in her life — sometimes she didn’t even include a “real” recipe.
But for 22 years I’ve made her potato salad (also her oven-baked ribs) and served it to general acclaim. It tastes bright and fresh and is a textbook lesson in why you should grow your own potatoes or buy little babies from a local grower. Potatoes dug when field corn turns from the color of a John Deere tractor to a darker shade of green have a melted butter texture and tender skins.
Boil as many of these as you think you’ll need for a meal and leftovers. (With a sliced hard-boiled egg, this makes a wonderful summer breakfast.) If you’re boiling freshly dug and scrubbed potatoes (I don’t peel them but do wash and cut them into bite-size chunks), they won’t need more than 10 to 15 minutes. Stick a fork in to tell by feel. You don’t want them to disintegrate in potato salad — that’s a different dish, one called smashed potatoes!
Drain cooked potatoes and in salad bowl mix together reduced-fat mayonnaise, the juice of half a large lemon, a handful of fresh (never dried!) minced dill, a couple of finely chopped green onions and five to six generous turns of freshly ground black pepper. Eyeball the mixture to guesstimate if you have enough for your potatoes, and gently toss the potatoes in the dressing.
Take a taste. The lemon juice needs at least a couple of hours to “mellow” so don’t be alarmed if there’s a sharp taste of citrus. If you can’t taste lemon, you probably want to juice the other half. Other than that, do you need anything else? A LITTLE salt perhaps? Now’s the time to add because tender potato pieces are going to soak up all the flavors in the fridge while they chill.
That’s all there is to making the perfect potato salad. Since first eating this, I may have tried one or two other recipes (He Who Thinks Cookies Are a Food Group periodically requests “bacon, bacon, bacon”), but this is my gold standard. Sort of like the original Silver Palate’s brownie recipe with espresso powder and cinnamon added — nothing beats it.