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Theory and Practice of Potato Salad

July 19, 2010

Several weeks ago in the New York Times Alex Witchel wrote a piece about her inability to sear fish on high heat, worrying too much about scorched food, scorched pans, and smoke alarms ringing throughout the house. It was James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Good Cooking, published in 1977, that taught the less heat-inhibited members of her household – first her father, then her husband – to surrender to the flame, and let high heat work its magic, resulting in a crispy crust and a moist interior. Funnily enough, I recently picked up an old copy of that book a tag sale, and had been happily flipping through it, re-inspired by Beard’s direct and opinioned prose and recipes.

Julia Child has enjoyed a well-deserved resurgence of interest and affection, thanks in large part to the movie “Julie and Julia,” which reminded us of how dramatically Julia flipped the switch on for so many people in the kitchen. However, the late James Beard likewise left his beefy thumbprint on American cooks, with his observant writing, his intense respect for technique and ingredients, and his lifelong devotion to great home cooking. Recently I had one of the most satisfying kitchen moments in recent years, thanks to his old-fashioned recipe for potato salad.

The reason it was so satisfying was twofold. First, the kids and I grew the potatoes ourselves, in the actual earth. Early this spring we buried chunks of old sprouted potatoes in the garden, and shortly afterwards thick leafy plants shot out of the soil. Last weekend I stuck my hand in the dirt and found myself clutching a potato. One potato, two potato, three potato, more. It was like an Easter egg hunt, only for a Jewish adult – absolutely thrilling.

I wanted to make a potato salad with no frills; in fact, I wanted to make the most basic, unadorned potato salad possible, because all I wanted to taste was the potatoes. That we grew. In the ground.

I wanted to see what James Beard would do with the humble potato. (BTW, if you want to sound in the know, refer to him as Jim Beard, which is what his friends called him. But, if you never actually met the man – like me – James is probably safer on the affectation scale.) The name was the first thing to pull me in: “Alexandre Dumas Potato Salad,” from The New James Beard Cookbook, published in 1981. Could it sound any more wonderfully retro? “The classic French potato salad with a wine-and-oil marinade. First introduced in Alexandre Dumas’s Dictionary of Cuisine,” wrote Beard in the headnote. The directions: “Boil the potatoes in their skins in salted water to cover until just pierceable. Drain and peel while hot. Slice them into a bowl, season to taste with salt and pepper, and pour the wine and oil over them. Let them cool, then add the vinegar, parsley, and green onions or chives, and toss lightly. Serve with cold meats or chicken, or as part of a summer buffet.” Perfect.

A few babies that will get replanted to the next crop.

And it was. Next up, green tomatoes starting to blush and a lone 2-inch cucumber that we’re watching like a cat.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Claudia permalink
    July 22, 2010 9:49 am

    That potato salad sounds yummy! I’m guessing you grew the potatoes without chemicals? (‘Cause they’re a root crop, potatoes tend to absorb more chemicals when they’re grown conventionally. But you probably alreday know this…)
    May I suggest trying a potato salad I had this summer using a mix of white and sweet potatoes. Just add mayo, chopped onions, & celery.

  2. July 22, 2010 9:59 am

    That sounds fantastic! And yes, no chemicals in the whole garden…and I didn’t really realize that about the root plants, but of course it makes total sense. Thanks!

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