Summer salad with potatoes. | Archives

Potatoes are like rice, polenta, cous-cous and pasta in that they are one of the world’s great staples. And just like the other four, one of their main jobs is to absorb the flavours of nearby ingredients.
When I was a member of a Mallorcan gastronomic group, we would rave about the marvellous taste of the potatoes in, say, an oxtail stew enriched with a good Ribera del Duero red and seasonal herbs.

But one of the group always said: “Bah, potatoes! We go on about how marvellous they are, but all they do is soak up the flavours of everything in the recipe.” He was dead right. We add potatoes so they can be saturated with the juices of the oxtail, the essences of the red wine and every speck of seasoning in the recipe. The tastier the potatoes, the more successful the dish.

Potatoes are an extremely versatile starch: they can comfort us on freezing cold days (in an oxtail stew, for instance) and they can be just as soothing on the hottest day of a Mallorcan summer.
And that brings me to one of the most popular dishes I know: potato salad. There must be some people who don’t like potato salad, but I have never met any of them.

One of the surprising things about potato salad is that no two cooks ever make identical versions. If 20 people were given the same mayonnaise, potatoes from the same crop and the same seasonings, they would end up making 20 quite different potato salads.

The fact is, however, that few people nowadays would make such a simple potato salad as I’ve described above. All cooks want to add little touches that make their potato salad different and special.
Some cooks would insist on adding chopped anchovies, others would want slivers of roasted red peppers, canned tuna would be someone’s must have ingredient, others would choose a different taste of the sea by mixing in shelled prawns and some would assert that their version must have an all-essential contrast of textures in the form of snippets of crisply fried bacon or Iberian cured ham.
Black olives are also another essential addition for many, both for their characteristic taste and for providing a dramatic touch of black for what is a very white dish.

Some cooks add cold cooked meats to their potato salad: chopped roast chicken, boiled ham or bacon, slivers of roast pork, thinly sliced salami, plus all kinds of firm white fish and other seafood.
If some of the above ingredients are included, we raise a simple potato salad to a light luncheon dish ideal for those hot summer days when we don’t want to get involved in cooking.
When we think of potato salad, most of us envision one smothered in mayonnaise, but one of my favourites doesn’t contain a drop of mayo. It’s a simple version you find in Spanish and French cuisine.

This classic potato salad is dressed with virgen extra olive oil, a little red wine vinegar and finely snipped crisp chives. And nothing else.This salad will always taste better if you sprinkle some of the vinegar over the potatoes as soon as they are drained and are still hot, leaving them for 10 minutes before drizzling on generous amounts of virgen extra olive oil.

Most Spanish housewives would also add little strips of roasted red peppers, chopped anchovies, black olives (Mallorca’s panssides are best) or green olives stuffed with red peppers. But the most important ingredient in a potato salad is the potato. Use the waxy kind such as the Mallorcan ‘patató’, available at most supermarkets.

Opposite the old Bulletin offices in Calle San Felio, there was a small tapas bar that served an unusual potato salad. It was simple and basic: boiled potatoes mixed with olive oil, roughly chopped hard boiled eggs, plus a scattering of capers. And that was it.

The cook, a Mallorcan woman in her 60s, was unorthodox in that she used floury potatoes, so they disintegrated when the other ingredients were mixed in, leaving only a few lumpy bits here and there.
Those floury potatoes came as a surprise, but I thought this was simply the cook’s way of doing it, perhaps because it was more economical and less work than a conventional potato salad.

But many years later, when reading Claudia Roden’s first edition of A Book of Middle Eastern Cooking, I came across the same potato salad as served in the San Felio tapas bar. It turned out to be a Sephardic dish from the cuisine of Jewish people of Spanish descent.

It was almost certainly a potato salad made by Palma’s Jewish community. Claudia Roden’s recipe was more sophisticated than that of the tapas bar. It included a good amount of butter, which helped to give it a rich touch of succulence.

I gave my copy of A Book of Middle Eastern Cooking to an American woman who had discovered Middle Eastern Cooking and was keen to learn more. A second and enlarged edition of the book had just been published and I had ordered it.

But the Sephardic potato salad wasn’t in the second edition, and it was excluded from Claudia Roden’s superb The Book of Jewish Food, published by Penguin Books in 1999.

I took that to mean that Roden’s later research must have cast some doubt on the Sephardic origin of this potato salad. But that didn’t change my opinion: Sephardic or not, I consider it to be the best potato salad I’ve ever come across.

For this simple and unusual potato salad, you will need:

  • 2 kilos floury potatoes
  • 250 grs butter
  • virgen extra olive oil
  • 8 hard-boiled eggs
  • 100 grs plump capers
  • salt and pepper

Peel the potatoes, cut them into wedges of roughly the same size and boil them in salted water until just soft. Drain them and put them into a deepish bowl with the butter cut into small pieces.
Mix the butter into the hot potatoes with a fork, at the same time gently breaking them. Season to taste with black pepper and mix in 70 grs of the capers. Drizzle over some oil, but not too much to begin with.

Shell five of the hard-boiled eggs, chop roughly, and mix into the potatoes. If the mixture looks a bit dry, drizzle over some more olive oil.

Leave the salad for an hour and mix in more olive oil if necessary. The potato salad should be well lubricated but not swimming in oil.

Transfer the potato salad to a suitable flat serving dish and smooth the surface with a spatula. Mash the other three hard-boiled eggs with a fork until they look like breadcrumbs. Sprinkle them evenly over the surface and dot with the remaining capers.

Do not be tempted to add any other ingredients to this potato salad. It is unusual, simple, and so succulently scrummy it will disappear quickly once diners start to serve themselves.