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

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