When it comes to recipe development, one of the most difficult challenges is developing “new twists” on old favorites. Classics and traditional family dishes come freighted with expectations – mom’s pork chops, Uncle Joe’s macaroni and gravy. When you run up against these dishes, you’re fighting not just taste but memory and relationships.
Take potato salad, for example. Everyone has an idea what potato salad should be, and that idea usually is grounded in the summer picnics of childhood. For me, it’s boiled russet potatoes, diced up with onions, hard boiled egg, and celery, bound together with mayonnaise and a little dry mustard. The mayo was always Hellman’s, and the russets were invariably a little overcooked and started to crumble into the dressing if you stirred the salad too much. I didn’t love mayo as a kid, but I liked potatoes and could eat that salad every day in the summer. And we practically did – at picnics in Lake Park, cooking out pork chops and chicken legs on the patio, standing up at the kitchen counter when it was too hot to eat anything else.
But this was Milwaukee, and so there was another kind of potato salad as well. As a kid, I always considered it the “weird potato salad,” meant for adult palates. It was sweet and vinegar-sour, and the potato discs were greased with bacon fat and chunks of crisp fried bacon. Sometimes it contained flecks of pickle; other times, celery seed. We never ate it at home – we were squarely in the mayo camp – but over the years I found plenty of warm German potato salad nestled next to bratwurst or fried perch (on Fridays), or handed out in little paper cups with miniature spoons at the state fair.
Let’s say that, in the twenty-first century, you were going to try for the ultimate potato salad. What would that be? I put it out to the readers on Facebook:
“Tell me about your dream potato salad. Do you like mayonnaise or vinegar? Celery, eggs? Bacon, yes or no? Do you want something new and different, or something that takes you right back to picnics when you were a kid?”
As it turned out, most people wanted something that took them home. Mayonnaise, celery, vinegar, possibly some kind of pickle or eggs; Mom’s potato salad. After about a dozen comments, though, things got interesting. Someone mentioned smoked mustard. Then I said I had espelette mustard. Then someone else – knowing that I’ve been working with ibérico de bellota pork products – tossed out the words “ibérico bacon.” Game on!
Here’s what I decided. This new and improved potato salad would fuse both mayonnaise and bacon fat. I had some panceta, or smoked ibérico bacon, from Iberico USA, some of which I’d used the night before to make an oyster stew. The two remaining slices were just enough for this dish. Now, as I don’t believe in wasting ibérico fat – it tastes too good and it’s too hard to come by – I also decided to use the bacon fat from these two slices to make mayonnaise. Baconnaise. This is the deal with bacon fat-based mayonnaise, or baconnaise. You can’t use all bacon fat or it’s like trying to guzzle lard. I mean that literally; bacon fat solidifies to the consistency of custard under refrigeration, so you need to base your mayonnaise primarily on an unsaturated fat that won’t harden up. As delicious as warm bacon fat might be, there’s nothing grosser than the sensation of cold, greasy lard on your palate.
Here it is: the best potato salad you’ll ever eat. The baconnaise brings a subtle bacon taste to the salad, the bacon cubes add crispness, the pickle and capers lend a sour/salt quality, and the tarragon adds just a little sweetness. If you’re uncomfortable making your own mayonnaise, use a good-quality prepared mayonnaise like Hellman’s (see below). If you aren’t up to sending away for ibérico bacon, feel free to use any good quality bacon, thickly sliced. If cornichons aren’t available in your local market, use a small savory pickle. And one last thing: serve this salad cool but not cold, about 30 minutes out of the refrigerator at room temp, to bring out the flavor of the bacon and herbs.
THE FINEST POTATO SALAD IN THE WORLD
Serves about six to eight as part of a meal; may be doubled if necessary
1 lb (about one really large) Idaho® russet potato
4 tsp nonpareil capers
about 6 cornichons, drained of brine, or two 2″ long dill pickles
2 1/4″ thick slices of smoked bacon, frozen for about 30 minutes
1 shallot, minced
2 large eggs
1 tbsp Dijon mustard (I used Maille green peppercorn Dijon; any Dijon will do)
2 tbsp white wine vinegar (I used Champagne vinegar)
1/2 c sunflower oil or another neutral oil, like grapeseed or canola, or 1/2 c prepared mayonnaise
The reserved bacon fat from cooking the bacon, above
3 tbsp sour cream
about 8 chives, sliced into small thin rings
about 10 leaves tarragon, minced
Salt and pepper
Place the whole, unpeeled Idaho® potato in a saucepot and cover with water. Bring to a simmer, uncovered, over medium heat and then reduce to a simmer.
Meanwhile, place one of the eggs in a small saucepot and cover with water. Bring just to the boil and cover; turn off the heat. Allow the egg to sit, covered, in the hot water for 15 minutes. If you like, you also can cook the egg in the same water as the potato, as it simmers.
Remove the cooked egg from the water and rinse in cool water before shelling. Slice in half and carefully remove the yolk; set aside. Slice the egg white as thinly as possible.
Mince the shallot and the capers; dice the cornichons as finely as you can. Combine the three and add the sliced egg white.
Remove the bacon slices from the freezer and dice about 1/4″ or smaller. (The freezing simply solidifies the fat to make the bacon easier to dice). Place a small (8″) skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon cubes. Adjust heat if necessary to prevent burning. Stir on occasion, browning the bacon until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and add to the shallot, caper, and cornichon. Leave the fat in the pan; you will use it to fortify the mayonnaise.
Combine the remaining raw egg and the white wine vinegar; add 1 tsp water and the mustard. Whisk well to emulsify. Dripping one drop at a time at first, and then a thin stream, add the oil very slowly, whisking continuously. If the mixture breaks, add a little (say 1 tsp) water and continue whisking.
**Note: If you don’t want to make mayonnaise, use about 2/3 c prepared mayonnaise; omit the sunflower oil, but whisk 1 tbsp Dijon mustard and 1 tbsp white wine vinegar into the mayonnaise before proceeding to the next step.**
Once the mayonnaise comes together, whisk in about 2-3 tbsp of the reserved bacon fat. Taste after 2 tbsp to make sure it’s not too bacon-fatty. As strange as that might sound – who doesn’t love more bacon? – the bacon flavor will intensify once you add it to the cooked bacon. You want to taste the potato and everything else in balance, so don’t go bacon crazy.
Remove the potato from the simmering water when it is just tender, about 35-45 minutes depending on the size of the potato. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes and then peel.
Dice the potato about 1/2″ – the easiest way is to cut first into 1/2″ thick slices, and then to dice each slice. Add the potato to the bacon mixture, and add about 2 tbsp of chives and all the minced tarragon.
Add the sour cream and about 1/2 c of the baconnaise to start. Combine well. If you like a more mayonnaise-y salad, feel free to add a little more baconnaise. Season with salt if necessary (unlikely) and pepper to taste. Store the remaining baconnaise, which is great on sandwiches.
Finish by pushing the egg yolks through a sieve over the top of the potato salad and garnishing with the remaining chives. Enjoy this finest potato salad ever with something simple, like grilled chicken, or a nice Wisconsin brat. Note for summer consumption: keep this well-refrigerated or on ice, and chill leftovers within an hour of removing from the cold (if it’s 80F or less outside you probably can get away with chilling within two hours).
*Note: This episode was brought to you by the letters I, P, and C (that’s the Idaho Potato Commission, who provided compensation for this recipe).
Special thanks to the people at Wagshal’s/Iberico USA for providing the panceta!