I won't blame you if you're asking yourselves whether I'm really serious with this potato salad post. After all, isn't potato salad usually just a bland dollop of something whitish on your plate - highly perishable, flatly greasy and innocuous, nothing special, really? Yes - potato salad, with cold pasta salad trailing it closely, has in my mind always been Food To Be Avoided Like The Plague. But when Kurt Gutenbrunner - of Wallse and Cafe Sabarsky fame, not to mention Thor and Blaue Gans) wrote a piece in the New York Times about his favorite potato salad with nary a smidge of mayonnaise, I started paying attention.
I had clipped all four recipes printed with the article - Fennel and Blood Orange, Wilted Red Cabbage, Celery Root and Apple, and the aforementioned Potato and Cucumber. The other salads looked luscious in their own right, but a bit more wintery than what I was craving. The soft breeze at the end of my workday heralded warmer weather and the need for lighter fare - and the potato salad sounded just right. With no fingerlings to be found at my local store (and it being an off-market day), I bought a sack of Yukon Gold potatoes and left out the dill (for a long time, dill was my cilantro and I'm still not really over it).
What I loved about the recipe were the small, easy touches that really made a difference. A pinch of caraway seeds in the potato water to flavor them subtly, briefly boiling chopped onion in chicken stock to take the harsh edge off, a spoonful of yogurt or cream to add the barest touch of body, salting and draining cucumbers to have their springy flavor pop. I'm not usually one to worship at a chef's altar, but in this case the privilege of having Kurt's knowledge of how to coax out the best possible flavor in a totally pedestrian dish was invaluable.
Further proving Ben to be a sweetheart and a darling, he came over for dinner bearing two soft-shell crabs (unbidden!) on ice. We floured and fried them up in a pan of browned butter and ate them with a generous squeeze of lemon juice, alongside the vinegar-brightened potato salad that had crunch from the onions, the cucumbers and the mustard seed. The stock poured over the warm potatoes gave it a welcome creamy texture. Along with the crispy, saline crabs, it was a pretty spectacular Tuesday night dinner. I'll never look at potato salad the same way again.
Potato and Cucumber Salad
Serves 4 to 6
1 English cucumber, sliced paper thin
2 pounds Austrian crescent or other fingerling potatoes
Pinch caraway seeds
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon canola or sunflower seed oil (I left this out)
2 tablespoons sour cream, crème fraîche or plain yogurt, optional (I just used one spoonful)
1. Put cucumber slices in bowl, toss with 2 teaspoons salt, and set aside.
2. Put potatoes in saucepan, cover with water, add generous pinch salt and caraway, bring to a boil, and cook until potatoes are just tender. Drain, peel, and slice into a bowl while still warm. Season with salt and pepper.
3. In a saucepan, bring stock and onion to a simmer. Add to potatoes, and toss gently until silky and lightly thickened. Fold in mustard, vinegar and oils.
4. Drain cucumbers well, squeezing out excess liquid. (Liquid can be used in soups or sauces.) Fold cucumbers into potato salad. Add more salt, pepper and vinegar if needed. Add sour cream, crème fraîche or yogurt if wanted. Serve as first course or side dish.