Italian-style Potato Salad

As far as I can tell, there are a lot of variances in making a simple and humble potato salad. Most versions use a base of small or cubed potatoes (usually steamed) that are tossed with vinegar, salt, pepper, oil, mustard and onions.

The classic Southern-German style also includes bacon and some kind of broth to loosen everything. In the North of Germany, the potato salad base includes mayonnaise, which makes it quite similar to its American counterpart. Potato salads in the US are almost always consumed cold and can include dill pickles, chives, chopped bell peppers, celery and some chopped hard-boiled eggs.

The Italian version, which I favor, keeps it simple and only includes some chopped parsley and sometimes a few capers…and of course, the use of extra virgin olive oil and a splash of red wine vinegar.

There are many ways to get started in making a potato salad, but I think the first place to begin is simply with the potato. Choose a waxy-style potato when making this salad because they will hold their shape much longer than a starchy variety usually used in making a mash…and here’s the reason. Waxy-style potatoes have a thicker cell wall and less starch. When heat is applied to the potato during the cooking process, the starch begins to expand, but there isn’t enough to break the strong cell walls. Conversely, starchy (or mealy, as they are sometimes known) potatoes have thinner cell walls and a lot more starch. So, when heat is applied, the starch begins to expand and eventually…poof…the walls break down and the potato will lose its shape. This is perfect for a mash, but not so good for a salad.

This Italian version relies completely on high quality ingredients (a common thread in all Italian cooking), so don’t think about skimping if you want a very tasty salad. Another key step is to make sure you toss the oil and vinegar into the warm salad so that the potatoes soak up the flavors. Serve this salad warm or cold.

Yield: makes about 6-8 servings

  • 750 grams (1 1/2 pounds) small waxy-style potatoes (see above)
  • 5 grams (1/2 tablespoon) sea salt
  • 1 onion, sliced very thin
  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
  • 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • about 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 bunch parsley, chopped roughly
  • Wash your potatoes well and place them in a steamer. Bring the pot of water to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the steamer and cook the potatoes until a knife easily pierces the flesh. This will take anywhere from 20-40 minutes, depending on the size of your potatoes (see tips below for instructions on boiling potatoes instead of steaming them).
  • Meanwhile, combine the salt, sliced onion, capers, red wine vinegar and lemon in a large bowl. Mix well and allow the dressing to sit for 15 minutes before adding the olive oil. Check and adjust your seasoning (it should appear slightly over seasoned).
  • When the potatoes are cooked, remove them from the steamer and cool for 10 minutes on a large plate. Remove the skin if you like by simply peeling it off with a knife. Cut your potatoes into bite-sized pieces if they are too big, otherwise leave them whole.
  • Add the dressing to the warm potatoes and mix well. Cool completely if serving cold. Otherwise, add the chopped parsley and adjust the seasoning then serve warm.

Jack’s Fresh Tip

You can use larger potatoes in this recipe, but just be sure to cut them in uniform, bite-sized pieces prior to cooking. You can also leave the skin on or remove it – that is totally your call.

You can boil the potatoes instead of steaming them. Just put them into a large pot and cover with cold water. Add the salt to the water when it begins to boil. Cover and cook over medium heat until the potatoes are cooked through – a knife or skewer should easily pierce the potato.

Make your dressing while the potatoes are cooking and be sure to mix it with the cooked potatoes while they are still warm – this will help get the vinaigrette into the potatoes rather than sinking to the bottom of the bowl.

Always re-check your seasoning before serving. The change in temperature and time will cause the seasoning to diminish a bit. So, you may need to add a bit more salt, lemon juice or oil to create that perfect potato salad.

Toss the parsley into the salad just before serving. If you add it too early and keep it overnight, the lovely green color of the parsley will fade because of the acid.

As a variation, consider adding a tablespoon each of dry mustard and sweet paprika, which will yield a Hungarian-style salad.

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