Potato salad and a little comfort
Last night I made potato salad — lots and lots of potato salad. Enough to feed 35 to 40 people. My creation wasn't incredibly creative or earth-shattering. It wasn't my personal favorite. It was, however, a classic American potato salad, seen frequently at summer picnics. Garnished with finely chopped celery, red onion, and dressed with copious amounts of delicious mayonnaise, it was very, very tasty. I just hope it's worthy of the word "comforting."
This potato salad will be served at the SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals, which is like a Ronald McDonald House for families of critical care adult patients. They, too, need extended lodging at a reasonable price, a shuttle to and from the hospital, and friendly faces. They need a break from vending machines and hospital cafeterias, an opportunity to decompress and enjoy a meal with others. The house meal program provides that. Volunteers make and serve dinner an average of 4 nights a week at the SECU Family House. When my friend Jeanne asked if I would take charge of the starch one hot July night, I knew potatoes would end up on the menu.
Potatoes themselves are comforting. Plain, yes, but that's the beauty of the spud. Who doesn't love French fries, scalloped potatoes, or potato gnocchi? The humble potato is given soul with pats of butter and freshly chopped herbs, enlivened with bold spices. I needed a dish that was simple and easily identifiable, an offering that most people would enjoy and find soothing. Capriciousness was to be avoided.
Enter Classic American Potato Salad. Reheating isn't necessary. It can be made in advance. And I hope it brings positive memories to those who'll consume it: thoughts of grilled hot dogs and games played on vasts fields of grass, family bicycle rides and beach balls, squished sandwiches and suntan lotion. I hope my simple offering brings people a tiny bit of hope and a smile.
The following recipe isn't terribly exact. I kept tasting and stirring and adding and tasting again, making notes along the way, but I can't promise The World's Best Potato Salad if you follow this recipe to the letter. I can promise that it's a very good guide, a place to start— and I think that's how you should view any recipe. I did a lot of balancing between hot/bitter and sweet (mustard vs.sugar), putting in too much dry mustard initially, correcting by dissolving sugar in cider vinegar, adding more mayonnaise to round out the flavor. Homemade mayo is ideal, but I went with Duke's brand to save time (it's widely available in the South). If Duke's isn't available in your area, look for mayonnaise with very few ingredients listed on the label. You should be able to easily pronounce them all.
Classic American Potato Salad for a Crowd
Serves about 35 as a side dish
13 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons Coleman's dry mustard
3 tablespoons sugar
3 1/2 - 4 cups mayonnaise (homemade is ideal, or use a high-quality brand, like Duke's)
2 large bunches celery, finely chopped
3 red onions, finely diced
2 bunches parsley, finely chopped
freshly ground black pepper
After peeling the potatoes, check to see if they are roughly the same size. Cut any large potatoes in half - you want the pieces to be similar in size so they cook through and are done at the same time. Place the potatoes in large, heavy-bottomed pots (I used 3 large stockpots) and cover with cold water. Add a pinch of kosher salt to each pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the potatoes, uncovered, until easily pierced with a paring knife. Drain and cool until they can be handled. Cut into 1/2-inch squares.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the cider vinegar, sugar and dry mustard, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Whisk in the mayonnaise (it will thin out a bit). Add the celery, onion, parsley, and potatoes. Toss gently to evenly coat, and sprinkle with a few teaspoons of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Chill for at least one hour before serving. It's nice to sprinkle the potato salad at the end with additional freshly chopped parsley for color.