You say potato salad

Everyone has an opinion on the picnic staple

I say kartoffelsalat.

I say kartoffelsalat.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Our country is divided. As the grilling season kicks off this Memorial Day weekend, one part of America is comforted by thoughts of mayonnaise and the savory glue it provides to so much traditional fare—burgers, artichoke dip, and, most importantly, giant bowls of potato salad.

The other part of the country is gagging at the mere thought of the slimy white condiment.

I like mayo, and I love it in the familiar recipe for “potluck potato salad,” as Better Homes & Gardens calls it, consisting of russets, hard-boiled eggs, pickles, celery and vinegar. Your family may swear their version is the best, but even though there are a handful of variations to the basic approach—with or without green onions or black olives; sweet versus dill (or relish versus chopped) pickles; mustard alongside or in place of the vinegar—as long as the potatoes are properly done (firm but not crunchy in the center), any combination will do.

As much as I appreciate tradition, however, I also love trying new things. And in that spirit, and in an effort to find an alternative for the mayo-adverse, I went looking for something new to serve for the holiday weekend.

Conventional wisdom says that German immigrants brought potato salad to America, which is probably true. “German potato salad” in this country is usually a warm dish with bacon and mustard and no mayonnaise, but that variation has its roots in southern Germany. In the north, they use mayo, and there lies the likely provenance of the classic American version.

Every potato-eating country has its own take. The French built theirs on the same foundation as the southern German—a Dijon vinaigrette—but leave out the bacon. And in Russia, the Olivier salad is another egg-and-mayo rendition, but with peas, carrots and sometimes meat (chicken, beef, even bologna) added.

Of all the variations, the recipe that ended up most intriguing me was for Schwäbischer kartoffelsalat, or Swabian potato salad. Swabia is a region in southern Germany, and the area’s simple rendition includes the ingenious addition of meat broth to the potato-boiling water. I settled on a recipe in my trusty Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook for “Austrian-style” potato salad (western Austria borders Swabia).

The warm salad was a little soupy and had way too much onion, but the mildly tangy dressing was a wonderful velvety complement to the rich potatoes. Before trotting it out for the Memorial Day feast, I made a few alterations—reduced the onions by half (you could even switch to green onions for a milder flavor), increased the potatoes and cooking liquids by 50 percent, and tripled the cornichons.

Austro-Swabian potato bowl

(adapted from the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook)

3 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into half-inch chunks

1 1/2 cups chicken or beef broth

1 1/2 cups water

salt and pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup red onion, finely chopped (or sub with green onion)

18 cornichons, chopped (6 tablespoons)

3 tablespoons fresh chives, minced (or sub with fresh herbs—parsley, tarragon, etc.)

Put potatoes, broth, water, sugar, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar in a pot, bring to boil, reduce to medium-low, put lid on and cook until knife goes through potato with no resistance. Remove lid, boil on high for three minutes. Drain potatoes, reserving 1/2 cup cooking liquid.

Add liquid, rest of vinegar, oil and mustard to a bowl and whisk. Add 1 cup cooked potatoes to the bowl and mash. Add rest of potatoes and other ingredients to the bowl and toss. Add pepper and additional salt to taste. Serve warm.

To sneak it by the traditionalists, I suggest calling it something other than potato salad—maybe kartoffelsalat or just “potato bowl.”