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Potato salad dates back to the early 19th century when German immigrants first arrived in America. In the two centuries since, the dish has made a name for itself as a mainstay of the cookout and an important symbol of family history and hierarchy.
But if I’m completely honest, I never quite understood the enduring attraction. In my potato salad experience, the dish is mundane and under-seasoned at best. And at worst, it’s sticky, heavy, chalky.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing awkward about the ingredients: potatoes, of course, and mayonnaise, mustard, relish, maybe some chives or onions, peppers or hot sauce. All these things are good and tasty and dynamic in their own right, full of flavor and brightness!
But somehow the components aren’t memorable together. The dressing doesn’t season the potatoes satisfactorily, and the textures and spices, which should be crunchy, manage to overwhelm and disappear into each other. No matter how much it’s tweaked and tweaked based on family preferences and newfangled ingredients, potato salad still manages to feel mundane and old-fashioned. That means it needs an overhaul to bring it from 1822 to 2022.
Enter: the groundbreaking new book, Black Food, curated and edited by Bryant Terry. The volume is a celebration and artifact of the modern African diaspora, with recipes, yes, but also meditations on music, culture, politics and power. In the book’s introduction, Terry shares the aim of the project and his mandate to its contributors: “I asked brilliant colleagues to offer dishes that embody their approach to cooking, drawing on history and memory while looking ahead.” And his 100+ recipes tick all the boxes – including a very forward-thinking potato salad by chef and stylist Monifa Dayo.
The genius of this salad is that it takes the best of what potato salad already is and fills in the missing gaps to help it reach its true potential – presenting us with something recognizable but utterly unconventional. Great attention to technique and some very clever ingredient swaps bring about this special dish fine too transcendent.
For one, the potatoes are handled with the care and finesse they deserve — considering they make up half of the recipe’s title. Cooking Yukon Golds cubes in a pot of water so fully salted that it becomes “cloudy,” as Dayo instructs, allows for an already very flavorful base to which we’ll add more layers. Beyond seasoning, Dayo’s recipe envisages a specific plan for cooking the potatoes, taking care to start them in cold water (to ensure a perfectly even rise in temperature, then finally boiling them) and finally spreading them on a tray and break them up into uneven pieces to create rugged parts.
Dousing the potatoes immediately with pickling liquid made from quick-pickled shallots and olive oil, then dusting them with more salt and pepper introduces the energetic acidity to the seasoning early on. And the precision doesn’t stop there. Instead of mayonnaise, Dayo takes us to the emulsion’s French cousin, aioli, with its fruity, garlicky bite, and softens it with grassy, sweet, whole-milk yogurt. Then capers, the pickled shallot solids, and wisps of coarsely chopped coriander and parsley bring crunch, brine, and herbal bitterness.
All of this would have been enough, but no: softly poached eggs are placed on top and roughly quartered, their frothy yolks mixing with the aioli yoghurt mixture. Curly tarragon and dill leaves are plucked from their stalks, awaiting their moment to act as the feather in this salad’s cap.
Just prior to garnishing occurs what is perhaps the most important step of the entire recipe: the briefest, most gentle hand-mixing of the salad ingredients, so tender that strands of aioli and slices of poached egg white remain intact and discernible in the mishmash. If you’re tempted to go overboard – well, don’t. Make it easy for yourself here; You worked so hard on the rest of your potato salad.
Recipe: Best Potato Salad Ever by Monifa Dayo
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