Thursday, June 23, 2016

Picnics and Potato Salad- American Icons

     Nothing says summer quite like a picnic. The first warm days of spring give us a chance to shake off the winter dust and get outdoors. Gather up some close friends or your family, throw together some blankets, chairs, picnic ware and FOOD.  It’s really all about the food. Picnic food can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. It’s your picnic- are you going for the casual kids-in-the-park picnic, a big family reunion potluck or a romantic lake-side meal shared on a blanket? For most people the word picnic brings back memories of family, tons of relatives, tons of food, Frisbees and lawn games, and roasting marshmallows at the end of the day.

     Where did this tradition come from? Historians trace it’s origin back to the 17th century, where it really was not a picnic in the modern sense, but rather a bunch of aristocrats drinking wine- outside. When I hear the word picnic, I think of not only my own family’s memories, but I imagine generations of Americans packing the kids in the station wagon and heading out to the lake or park on a gorgeous sunny Saturday with their stockpile of goodies for the meal. It has become a new American tradition. The company picnic. The class reunion picnic. Memorial Day picnic. Labor Day picnic. Just because we want to picnic.

     Growing up in Iowa, for my family a picnic meant two things- cold beer, and potato salad. We very rarely strayed from that formula for perfection. My dad still has the old green picnic basket he’d won as a gift in a raffle and for years and years my mom packed that basket with plastic dishes and forks and all our favorite picnic foods. Loaded the old red cooler with ice, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Shasta sodas and we’d head to the lake. Sometimes my dad would grab a bag of charcoal, some burgers and dogs, and we would grill at the park, other times we would grab a bucket of chicken on the way. No matter what the main course was, it was never a picnic without potato salad.

     My mother was a potato salad MASTER CHEF. I would not say she was an exceptional cook when it came to most dishes, but her potato salad…….the highlight of the meal. And for as delicious as I think it is, it was a simply prepared dish, but sometimes, as they say, less IS more. Her simple toss of potatoes, eggs, mayo, pickles and mustard is one of my best food memories growing up. She never drowned it in dressing like grocery store potato salad. She would never even consider leaving out the pickles. She always finished with a big poof of paprika on the top- I don’t know why, but that was just her signature thing. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Erika’s Picnic Potato Salad

·         6-8 medium sized Russet potatoes, scrubbed
·         6 large eggs
·         ½ medium onion, chopped
·         ½ cup chopped dill pickle
·         1 cup mayonnaise
·         2-3 tb yellow mustard
·         1 tb chopped fresh dill
·         Salt, pepper, paprika

Place potatoes in large saucepan and cover with cool water. Add eggs. Bring to boil over high heat until boiling, reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender (remove eggs after 12 minutes and set aside). Rinse potatoes with cool water until cool enough to handle. Peel and cut into chunks. Peel and chunk the hard boiled eggs. Toss potatoes, eggs, onions, pickles in large bowl. In small bowl mix remaining ingredients except paprika. Toss with potatoes to coat evenly. Sprinkle with paprika. Cover and chill until completely cold. Toss again and serve.  *Note- you may need additional mayonnaise and mustard if potatoes absorb too much dressing.

     When you are raised around good, hearty food, and have a father who is the 70s version of the foodie, you can’t help but develop an interest in cooking. Dad is a cookbook collector, so therefore, I am a cookbook collector. Dad was always experimenting with cooking, especially French style recipes, so therefore, I also am always experimenting with food, especially French style recipes. Funny how that happens. It’s only natural then that I felt a need to come up with a potato salad that was still picnic-worthy, but all mine. Playing on the salad nicoise theme, and always remembering how much my mom hated it when people served “German potato salad” hot- she was born and raised in Germany, which I suppose qualifies her as an expert, when it really should be served at room temperature, I often make my French potato salad in the summer.  Cute fingerling potatoes, tender haricots verts, zingy Dijon vinaigrette, served at room temperature- and no mayo – makes this a great alternative to traditional potato salad. I will go out of my way to plan a meal around this salad if I find fingerling potatoes and haricots verts at the same time!

French Potato Salad

·         3 lbs new potatoes or fingerlings, scrubbed, unpeeled, cut in half
·         ½ lb haricots verts, trimmed
·         ½ cup finely chopped onion
·         1 tb freshly squeezed lemon juice
·         1 tb apple cider or champagne vinegar
·         1 tb Dijon mustard
·         Salt and pepper
·         ½ cup olive oil

Place potatoes in large saucepan, bring to boil over high heat, reduce and boil softly until tender. Watch carefully- they can take as little as 10 minutes. Drain and rinse with cool water. Refill saucepan with water and bring to boil. Add haricots verts and cook for just a minute or two, immediately drain and plunge in ice bath to stop cooking. Toss with potatoes and onions in bowl.  In small bowl or jar combine dressing ingredients. Shake or whisk to combine, pour over vegetables, and toss to coat. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

     Working so closely with people who are very passionate about food, I wanted to throw the question out there for the world- is a picnic a picnic without potato salad? It was overwhelmingly obvious that people love their potato salad. Of all the people who responded to my question, only a couple said they did not like potato salad.  The next obvious step was to ask them what is their favorite “non-traditional” potato salad recipe?  I got some very creative responses.  German potato salad, of course, was mentioned, as was “potato” salad made with this disturbing new trend of swapping the potatoes for cauliflower. Not to trash on the cauli, I absolutely love the stuff, but let’s be honest, guys, I don’t care how you prepare it, it does not taste like potatoes. Ever. All kinds of different herbs, different dressings, even different types of potatoes appeared in the recipes my friends shared. It was hard to narrow it down to just ONE to share! In the end it came down to which one was, for me, the polar opposite of Erika’s Potato Salad, and that honor goes to-

Perri Pender’s Country Cottage Potato Salad

·         6 large unpeeled red potatoes
·         10 green onions, chopped
·         2 cups mayonnaise
·         1 24 oz carton small curd cottage cheese
·         Salt and pepper

Place potatoes in a large pot and cover with salted water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and allow to steam dry for a minute or two. When cool enough to handle, cut into ¼ inch thick slices; refrigerate until cold.
Spread about ½ cup of mayonnaise on the bottom and up the sides of a large salad bowl. Place half the potato slices in the bowl in a layer. Generously season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle half the green onions over the potatoes; layer half the cottage cheese and half the remaining mayonnaise. Repeat layers ending with mayonnaise. Spread to sides of the bowl to seal in the layers. Sprinkle black pepper on top of the salad, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Toss well before serving. 

**Recipe courtesy of Perri Pender and can be found on

      Now I really want to pack the picnic basket with delicious food, cold drinks, and a blanket and enjoy a day in the sunshine. Fresh air, blue Iowa skies, and…….ants. What’s a picnic without ants? 

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