Build a better potato salad

Take basic elements of summer staple and experiment

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Potato salad belongs to summer. It's forever been a sturdy supporting player for burgers and hot dogs, steaks and seafood.

It deserves to have a starring role.

That's right. It's time to move beyond the potato salad recipe you've been cranking out for a dozen (or more) years. It's time to build a better potato salad.

Where to begin? Cookbooks have tons of ideas. So does Meredith Myers. She's with the U.S. Potato Board, an industry-supported group based in Colorado.

Her first thought? Who will be eating this salad -- adventurous foodies or cranky relatives who'll complain until Christmas if you tweak granny's recipe?

"Is it a backyard barbecue or are you taking it to big group? Are you trying to please a bunch of kids and adults? What kind of palates are you trying to please?" she asks.

"The glory of potato salad is that you can do just about anything with it."

The key: Think about the basic elements and preparation techniques, then use them to build a better potato salad.

Rethink the spuds

Reds and russets have been the go-to spud for years, but markets now boast petites, fingerlings, yellows, purples, blues.

"Different varieties of potatoes have different cooking and taste properties. A russet cooks up with a starchier texture," says Myers. "If you boil it too long, it will fall apart.

"Reds or yellows and a lot of fingerlings have a firmer, waxier texture that holds its shape a little better after it's been boiled," she adds. "One's not better than another (but) if you're boiling a potato for a salad and you want it to maintain its firm texture, then you want a waxier potato."

Blues and purples have "a medium starch level -- not as starchy as a russet and not as waxy as a red. They're moist, have a firm flesh, a kind of earthy flavor."

To skin or not to skin: "I say skin. It adds texture, flavor and color."

Mix 'em or match 'em: "Go ahead and use different varieties of potatoes in the same potato salad," says Myers, "but you don't want to cook them in the same pan. Russets will cook differently than potatoes with less starch."

Cook them up

Start by cutting potatoes into roughly equal-size pieces before cooking; this helps them finish cooking at the same time.

On the stove top: "Put cut-up russets in a pot of cold water, turn heat to medium high or high and cook quickly (so keep them on a boil) until fork tender. With waxier potatoes, put them in cold water, turn heat to medium high, bring them to a boil a little slower and cook to fork tender."

On the grill: Myers: "For a wonderful smoky flavor," put potato halves in a microwave-safe bowl; microwave, covered, until just tender. Cool slightly; coat lightly with olive oil. Grill 5 to 7 minutes, turning occasionally.

Mix up the mix-ins

Sub a vinaigrette or yogurt dressing for the usual mayo-base and consider these ideas from Myers:

Mediterranean: Seeded cucumber cubes (instead of celery), kalamata olives, feta chunks, fire-roasted tomatoes.

Mexican: Diced bell pepper, cooked corn kernels, diced red onion, fresh cilantro.

Farmers market: Snips of fresh herbs or tomatoes with fresh spinach and a lemon vinaigrette.

Dress 'em hot? Or dress 'em cold?

Whether you add a dressing to warm potatoes depends on how strong you want flavors. "If you allow potatoes to cool, then add ingredients, the potato salad is going to have a purer potato flavor," Myers says. "If you want the potatoes to take on the flavor of the other ingredients, toss added ingredients while warm."

Smoked potato salad with Vidalia onions, horseradish and mustard

Adapted from “American Flavor,” a cookbook by New York chef Andrew Carmellini, who suggests yellow-fleshed potatoes (such as Yukon Gold). We used halved fingerlings, with excellent results.

For the salad

2 pounds halved fingerling potatoes

4 bacon slices

1 cup diced Vidalia onion

½ cup each red wine vinegar and beef broth

¼ cup olive oil

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

¼ teaspoon dry mustard

pinch cayenne pepper

⅛ teaspoon ground celery seed

¼ teaspoon each salt and pepper

1 cup chopped celery

½ cup chopped green onions

1 bunch watercress

For the sauce

1 cup yogurt

1 tablespoon prepared white horseradish

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

¼ teaspoon each salt and pepper

Potatoes: Par-cook and grill halved fingerling potatoes.

Dice bacon slices; cook in a skillet until just crisped. Add Vidalia onion. Caramelize onions. Remove from heat. Add red wine vinegar and beef broth, olive oil, Dijon mustard, dry mustard, cayenne pepper, ground celery seed and salt and pepper. Place cooked potatoes in a shallow baking dish. Pour bacon-onion mixture on top. Chill uncovered in refrigerator 2 hours.

Sauce: Mix yogurt with prepared white horseradish, red wine vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper; chill until serving.

Gently stir chopped celery and green onions into potato salad. Adjust seasoning. Place in serving bowl. Top with some horseradish sauce. Sprinkle with 1 bunch watercress leaves. Serve extra horseradish sauce on the side.