CONCORD, N.H. - Nothing says summer and outdoor eating like potato salad, an iconic blend of tender, starchy chunks and oil or mayonnaise with a bit of vinegary bite.
But this perennial favorite is easy to flub. The potatoes can be overcooked and mushy, or not even the right kind to start with. And the mayonnaise or oil can be overwhelming.
Vegetarians who avoid eggs face additional dilemmas. Some traditional recipes call for hard- boiled egg, and most call for mayonnaise, which traditionally also contains eggs.
Let's start there. Although it is possible to make your own mayonnaise substitute using pureed tofu and a variety of other ingredients, it's not recommended. The result tends to taste like pureed tofu with a variety of other ingredients added.
There are a variety of egg-free mayonnaise substitutes sold at most grocers and natural food stores, and many are quite good. Some emulate real mayonnaise, while others go for the sandwich spread-salad dressing style.
Then there is presentation. Who said every potato salad event must feature it by the tub? Next time, arrange individual servings in cups made from whole iceberg lettuce or cabbage leaves.
Potato salad also is great served in bread bowls, either a large one or many individual cups. The real treat is eating the mayo-soaked bowl after the salad is gone.
For cooking the perfect potato, we turn to the experts at Cook's Illustrated magazine, who made probably a trillion or so batches to get it just right for their cookbook, The Best Recipe (Boston Common Press, 1999).
Their advice is simple. Low-starch potatoes, such as Red Bliss, are best. Starchy potatoes break apart too easily to survive most salad recipes. Among cooking methods, they prefer boiling in unsalted water.
And don't peel unless you really want to, they wrote. And even if you do, wait until after the potatoes are boiled.
All the same, one of my favorite styles is roasted or grilled. The flames and dry heat give the potatoes a crispy texture and smoky flavor that is heavenly in potato salad.
For a flavorful roasted recipe, try Roasted Potato Salad With Herbs and Parmesan Cheese from Andrea Chesman's The Roasted Vegetable (Harvard Common Press, 2002, $12.95). Or try Leek and New Potato Salad With Truffle Oil from Clare Gordon-Smith's Flavoring with Olive Oil (Ryland, Peters & Small, 2003, $6.95).
Roasted Potato Salad With Herbs and Parmesan Dressing2 tablespoons sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
11/2 pounds small new potatoes, halved or quartered
1 shallot, minced
1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (or soy alternative)
6 cups torn mixed salad greens or mesclun mix
1/4 cup chopped mixed fresh herbs, such as basil, oregano, marjoram, parsley, thyme, sage and mint
1/2 Vidalia or other sweet onion, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, cut into wedges, for garnish
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet.
In a small bowl, combine the vinegar and mustard. Slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking until emulsified.
Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Place the potatoes and shallot in a large bowl. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette and toss to coat.
Transfer the potatoes to the baking sheet and arrange in a single layer.
Roast for 30 to 40 minutes, until the potatoes are lightly browned and tender when pierced with a fork. Stir the potatoes occasionally during cooking.
When the potatoes are done, sprinkle with half of the cheese and toss to coat.
In a large serving bowl, toss the greens, herbs, onion, potatoes and remaining cheese. Add the remaining vinaigrette and toss to coat.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Garnish with tomatoes and serve immediately.
Makes four to six servings.
Source: Andrea Chesman's "The Roasted Vegetable" (Harvard Common Press, 2002, $12.95).
Leek and New Potato Salad With Truffle Oil
11/2 pounds new potatoes
1 pound young leeks
2 to 4 tablespoons roughly chopped, fresh flat leaf parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons truffle oil (black or white), for serving
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the potatoes and cook for about 20 minutes, or until tender.
Meanwhile, bring a medium saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil. Trim the leeks and cut into 1-inch chunks.
Wash them thoroughly and cook in the boiling water for 5 to 7 minutes, or until just tender. Drain and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the parsley, olive oil, salt and pepper.
When the potatoes are done, drain and cut into halves. Add to the dressing while still warm.
Add the leeks and stir well to coat. Adjust salt and pepper as needed.
To serve, spoon onto individual plates and drizzle with truffle oil.