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Jam Today

(article, Tod Davies)

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Potato salad is a perfect example of what we might call Recipe Fear of Failure. You know what I mean. The cookbooks that come out relentlessly every year change their minds about what you must and must not do about such a wide variety of things that I often wonder just how in God's name we all stand it. Do we really need someone to tell us that we MUST use waxy potatoes for a perfect effect?

Apparently so. 


h1. About the book and author

Tod Davies, the author of Jam Today, is also the publisher of Exterminating Angel Press, a new small press based in southern Oregon. She worked in the film industry for years. 

A native of San Francisco, Davies learned to cook as an adult. The loosely written recipes in her book rely on ingredients she has on hand or in the garden. 

Excerpt reprinted with permission of Exterminating Angel Press (2009).


It's interesting to watch the evolution of this kind of thing. When I was in my 20s, these recipes used to terrify me. Waxy potatoes? Oh my Lord. I don't even know what a WAXY POTATO is. Somehow I had this feeling that if I didn't use waxy potatoes, something would explode. Or the person I served the salad to would stop loving me and instantly leave me for the snide girl with big breasts who my mother thought was so much funnier than I was. Or I would be a failure in . . . in what? Whatever. 

Here is a great pleasure about getting older, and it's a pleasure I want to freely share with anyone who needs or would like it: You get to watch these recipes change, you get to watch the stern mothers and dads of the cooking world do 180-degree turns, while insisting the whole trip, that this point on the compass — no, THIS one — is the real, true, only way.

Diana Kennedy (who, by the way, is in my top 10 pantheon of writers, let alone cookbook writers) is a hilarious example of this. Read her early cookbooks. They are models of culinary dogmatism. You must use a special kind of Saran wrap because, apparently, some Mexican confidante of hers did. By her latest books, though, she's been thoroughly beaten up by life — lucky for us. And her attitude now is, "What the hell. Whatever tastes good. Who cares if it was originally made by Spanish nuns in a convent outside of Durango?"

But she, come to think of it, is an example of a passionately sincere writer who believes deeply in what she writes. She didn't do a 180-degree turn so much as evolve. Writers like Kennedy — those kind of people — have a lot to say.

The ones you want to look out for, and I mean to the extent of putting a metaphoric dagger through their black hearts and burying them under a full moon in a lead coffin, are the careerists. The careerist food writers. You can easily tell these guys. Whatever is the latest thing, they're for it. They all know where El Bulli is and who Thomas Keller trained (according to the cooking magazines, as far as I can tell, that's every publicized chef in the known world). They're for balsamic vinegar the minute everyone else is; they act like they're the first people in the world to drink whatever wines are suddenly all over the mass media (when this happens, suspect a new media consultant hired on by whatever product you're seeing pop up). 

I loathe them. Or perhaps not them — their works. I have sympathy for them, mind you. It's not easy making a living by carefully plotting a slight superiority to an audience that can turn on you in a second — kind of like working as a shark trainer when you have a bad paper cut on your hand. But the incredible stance that they know more than you do, and that they have to maintain that superiority in order to keep the whole machine turning over . . . I get so I want to overthrow our entire economic system just to set them and us free.

But you and I don't have to wait for the revolution to claim our own autonomy. We can make a potato salad with whatever the hell we have in the kitchen. And the only thing that matters is that we enjoy it and our loved ones enjoy it too.

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Back in the days when I couldn't figure out what a waxy potato was, I used russets or Idahos (I think they're the same; they look the same to me anyway). I loved the way they crumbled and mushed bits of themselves into the salads. I felt guilty about this, mind, because every new cookbook I had said that THE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT POTATO SALAD WAS THE INTEGRITY OF THE POTATOES. My potatoes, I had to sadly admit, were a complete failure in the integrity department. They didn't hold together, let alone hold their own. Instead, they joined with the rest of the ingredients to make a kind of celestial-tasting hash.

Of course, I eventually figured out the waxy-potato thing. Red potatoes, Yukon gold potatoes, boiling potatoes: they're bung full of that kind of integrity. But I didn't mess with them until recently, when the cooking mags and cookbooks began to stertorously announce that you MUST USE RUSSET POTATOES for potato salad, or be cast out into the darkness. It turns out that now that crumbling and mushing thing I was so embarrassed to love is just what you need for a new, hip, fresh, retro look at potato salad. Waxy potatoes . . . well. They're so . . . yesterday.

So now I felt sorry for those poor red potatoes. Perversely, when these new recipes appeared, dogmatically agreeing with what I had secretly thought all along, I started buying the waxy ones instead. 

And you know what? It doesn't matter what kind of potato you use for potato salad. It doesn't matter what kind of onion, either. It turns out they're all great. 

What you need for potato salad:

Enough potatoes for the amount of people you want to feed. You cut these in the shape you feel like. I like diced or sliced, myself. 

Then you cook them whatever way you feel like. You can boil them. You can bake them whole and cut them later. I like to steam them after they're cut up. So I do.

Then you put them in a big bowl and while they're still hot, sprinkle them with some white wine, or lemon juice, or a little light vinegar. Even some chicken broth. They'll soak this up and be tastier.

Now you add chopped onion of any kind (chives, white mild onion, red onion, scallions, shallots, onion tops from the plants you have in the garden) . . . and/or minced garlic . . . and as much chopped herbs as you like. Parsley for sure. Then one other, a mild one, if you have it: dill, or basil, or chervil. Tarragon, or marjoram, is good too, but you need to use a lighter hand with these. The other three you can just chop and add at will.

Toss with the dressing of your choice. A plain vinaigrette. A mustard vinaigrette. Mayonnaise. Garlic mayonnaise. Sour cream. Yogurt. A mix of mayo or sour cream. Or mayo and yogurt. Or yogurt and mustard if you're dieting. I like garlic mayonnaise. 

Salt and pepper, of course.

Serve hot, warm, or cold. On a bed of shredded lettuce is nice. 

This is what I did the other night:

Diced red potatoes, steamed, then sprinkled with white wine. I added chopped onion tops from the onion plants in the garden, and almost a whole chopped bunch of parsley. Lots of dill. Alex had harvested some really sweet peas, so I shelled those and added them raw. I had a bowl of garlic mayonnaise (aka aïoli) in the fridge, so tossed the salad with a few spoonfuls of that, salted and peppered, and served immediately, still warm, with sandwiches: bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato, and aïoli for me, and extra-sharp Cheddar, lettuce, avocado, tomato, and aïoli for him. Glass of rosé for me, a local ale for him. 

Unbelievably delicious, and perfect for the three-digit heat.

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