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Pommes de terre

Food For Thought

“One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato more. One, two, three means out goes HE.” I haven’t heard kids chanting that counting-out verse for years, but it popped into my mind after my friend Madeline suggested that I write about potato salad. And that started me thinking about some of the things we know about and do with potatoes– as well as all the different ways we enjoy eating them.
I recently watched an old movie where someone mentioned that a potato shoved up the tail pipe of a car would prevent it from starting without really harming the car. That simple strategy has been featured in many a plot, prank and practical joke over the years. The lowly potato has also been elevated to the status of art in that it has been carved into temporary sculptures and shaped into intricate tools for stamping designs in ink and tempera paint in public school art rooms for generations. Even unintentionally, it has appeared as depictions of the American bison, President James Garfield, Mickey Mouse, and other recognizable shapes to be found in bags of potato chips.
It’s hard to believe, in light of the amount of potatoes consumed by Americans these days, that Europeans and Americans originally used them primarily as cattle feed, and they were eaten only by the very poor. Originating in Peru, the potato gets its name from the batata, or sweet potato, an unrelated species. Potatoes are mostly water (75 percent when freshly dug) and the rest consisting mainly of starch and sugar. It is those freshly-dug, or “new” potatoes that are ideal for the potato salad that Madeline and I were discussing.
Sadly, we agreed that most of the potato salads we have encountered in delis and restaurants these days seems to consist of older potatoes which become easily crumbled during the process of being combined with the other ingredients, resulting in the mushy texture we decided to call “mashed-potato salad.”
To achieve the kind of potato salad Madeline recalls from her Amana childhood, and that I learned to make from my German, Irish, English, Norwegian, Spanish ancestry, it is necessary to start with thin-skinned new potatoes cooked in their skins until they can be pierced with a toothpick, plunged into cold water to stop the cooking process, then cooled completely to room temperature before being cut into small chunks. The skins can be pulled off when the potatoes are cool enough to handle, but treat them gently. Piercing them with a fork or squeezing them even a little will cause them to break apart inside and you will not get firm, smooth chunks when they are cut up.
I learned to cut the potatoes into random-shaped small chunks rather than uniform dice or slices. This prevents the pieces from sticking together as they tend to do when all are the same shape, and makes it easier to mix them with the other ingredients without breaking them up further. The other ingredients must include plenty of hard-boiled eggs and chopped onion, with adequate sweet, sour, and spicy ingredients such as pickle relish, mustard, mayonnaise, cream, horseradish, salt and pepper. The proportions are a matter of taste and family tradition– I’ve found that each family has its own ideas of the exact flavor expected in potato salad, just as they all have their own standards for the best fried chicken, which you’ll surely want to serve with your potato salad.
My grandmother, accustomed to cooking large amounts of food for hard-working farmhands, always cooked at least twice as many potatoes as needed for a meal. In summer, when the potatoes were fresh and firm, she usually turned the extras into potato salad the next day. When the potatoes were older, and thus more mealy, they went into those comforting winter-time casseroles, creamed potatoes and peas, scalloped potatoes with cheese, or simply sliced and fried with onions to accompany anything from bacon and eggs in the morning to hot dogs and sauerkraut for supper, or any other meal that didn’t automatically result in a pan full of gravy made from the meat drippings.
And let me remind you to boil those eggs a maximum of 12 minutes and cool then immediately in plenty of cold water to prevent a greenish tinge around the yolks and that unpleasant sulfur odor. Keep the salad refrigerated and covered closely by pressing plastic wrap to the surface. This prevents moisture from accumulating on the top and making it unappealingly watery.