My idea of the perfect summer is simple: weekends at the beach, patterned shorty shorts, magazines in front of the air conditioner, the coldest bottle of sauvignon blanc from the back of the cooler at the wine shop, and a diet organized around four major food groups. I know how I like the first three: Maine style, lightly dressed; chunky with generous squeezes of lime juice; broiled and smashed with good olive oil and vinegar until the juices run.Potato salad is trickier, with tuber lovers falling into camps of mayo vs. vinegar, peeled vs. unpeeled, chunky vs. smashed, and simple vs. gussied. The way you prefer it can reveal dimensions to your personality and upbringing; a cultural anthropologist could write a whole thesis on the socio-economic indicators of the potato salad eaten with a plate of ribs in South Carolina (eggs, celery salt, sweet relish) and the one served on the side of chicken cooked under a brick in Brooklyn (fingerling potatoes, horseradish, purple basil.)
In my mom’s potato salad, the russet potato is the leading man but Hellman’s is the star. You can draw a straight line from it to her upbringing in Hawaii, where mayo dresses macaroni salad, whole fish grilled with spicy lup cheong sausage, and slices of cucumber and tomato.
This summer marks my ninth in NYC, so I thought I’d create a version that speaks to the place I’ve called home the longest. Naturally, I turned to the German potato salad from Russ & Daughters, one of the most venerable NYC Institutions for New Yorkers Who Aren’t Ashamed to Eat a Whole Chocolate Babka & Holland Herring in the Same Meal.
The R&D salad is about texture and balance rather than toppings. Baby red potatoes are sliced into thin rounds, perfectly boiled, and tossed with vinegar dressing sweetened with a little sugar and cut through with briney capers, the sharp tang of raw red onion, and dill. A forkful of the good stuff wiggles on the tines and never crumbles in your mouth.
I generously adapted the R&D version, ditching the celery and dill for mustard seeds and a crumbling of bacon. I used white wine vinegar, but I’d try apple cider vinegar next time for added sweetness. I ate it with a plain cheeseburger and Bud Light one night and a dry-aged steak with a musty red wine another night. It was delightful with both.
German Potato Salad
Loosely inspired by Russ & Daughters
2 lbs baby red potatoes, sliced into 1/8″ rounds with a mandoline or sharp knife
4 slices of bacon
2 t mustard seeds
1/2 c. plain or white wine vinegar + 2 T water
1 t sugar
1/2 t kosher salt + more to taste
1/8 t paprika
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
3 T capers
2 T Chives
Black pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a boil then add the potato rounds. They’ll cook up quickly, so start testing them with the tip of a paring knife after 6 minutes. You should be able to pierce them with some resistance–it will take no longer than 7 minutes. Drain and set aside.
In a large saute pan, fry the bacon slices until they’re crispy. Drain on paper towels set over a plate. When they’re cool, roughly chop the slices. Set aside and save dirty bacon pan.
On medium heat, add the mustard seeds to a small sauce pan, toasting them for a minute. Add the vinegar, water, sugar, salt, and paprika. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat.
Warm the bacon pan on medium-low heat. Add the potatoes and pour the dressing over. Gently combine for about 2 minutes, making sure that the potatoes are fully covered in dressing. The potatoes will absorb it and the excess water will cook off.
Transfer the potatoes to a large bowl and add bacon, onions, capers, and chives. Salt and pepper to taste.
This salad can be served warm, but I think it’s best served cold the next day. It can keep in the fridge, covered, for up to 3 days.