Fourth of July is the ultimate outdoor party. Picnics and barbecues are as prevalent as parades and patriotism. And in all likelihood, potato salad will be a welcome guest at many summer feasts.
"Of the holy icons of the Fourth, potato salad is there," says Jo Alexander, a spokeswoman for Eddie's of Roland Park. "People really like tradition."
She said the grocery stores on Roland Avenue and North Charles Street will be offering a red, white and blue potato salad as a patriotic gesture this year, as well as standard versions including "our all-time favorite, red-skin potato."
Store-bought or homemade, potato salad serves as a subtle foil to such outdoor fare as burgers, steaks and chicken. But it's hardly a second-class act. The side dish is easily jazzed up with all kinds of additions, from bacon to seafood to fennel.
"It may be the potato's relatively neutral flavor and gentle texture that makes it so adaptable," says cookbook author James Peterson in "Vegetables" (William Morrow, 1998). "Few of us realize how many versions of potato salad there are ... and how easily a potato salad can be varied and livened up with a few different ingredients."
Besides potatoes, most traditional salads include mayonnaise, celery, hard-boiled eggs and extras such as raw onions or pickles, he says. His own favorite features a sauce with homemade mayonnaise and plenty of fresh herbs.
"The mayonnaise is usually made with extra-virgin olive oil and garlic, and from time to time a little saffron or curry powder is thrown in for flavor and color," Peterson says. "Celery is essential for crunch and a fresh green flavor. Onions or shallots add the necessary pizazz."
Then there are the tubers.
Peterson prefers Yukon Gold or red and white waxy, or firm, potatoes because they don't fall apart as easily as other kinds. He also recommends layering potatoes with dressing rather than tossing the ingredients to avoid breaking the potatoes into pieces.
Cooking teacher and syndicated writer Betty Rosbottom also uses red skins, which she slices and leaves unpeeled in her Roasted New Potato and Watercress Salad. But she steers away from boiling the potatoes.
"I roast them with chopped garlic, herbs and olive oil," she writes in "American Favorites" (Houghton Mifflin, 1996). "After roasting, [I] toss them with mustard, vinegar and shallots. Just before serving, I stir peppery watercress sprigs into the salad."
Just about every cooking magazine includes a potato-salad recipe or two during the summer months. An article in July's Celebrity Dish, a new publication by TV Guide, offers these "spud-salad secrets":
Instead of russet baking potatoes, always use boiling potatoes, which contain less starch and more moisture. Choices include red-skinned varieties, Yukon Gold, Purple Peruvian and White Rose.
Look for full-flavored heirloom potatoes at farmers' markets. Be sure they're boiling varieties.
Always choose firm potatoes that have smooth, blemish-free skin, without eyes or a green tinge.
At Graul's markets, potato salad is always a big seller, says Terry Kennedy, department manager of gourmet prepared food and the deli in Timonium. The store sells five kinds of potato salads, including home style with mustard and egg, red skin with dill and sour cream, and a three-potato potato salad with red, white and sweet potatoes.
He acknowledges that the regular home-style potato salad always sells quickly.
He says customers are sometimes hesitant to try new kinds, fretting that their family or friends won't like something different.
But Kennedy takes such thinking as a challenge. "We encourage people to try the three-potato and red-potato with sour cream," he says. "My job, and the guys at the counter, is to educate folks."
For Independence Day, though, you can't miss wowing guests with Patriotic Potato Salad from "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook" (Workman, 1985) by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins with Sarah Leah Chase.
The authors' description sets the stage for a festive Fourth of July dish: "Fresh garden herbs and vegetables join together in our midsummer potato salad. Dill, parsley, scallions and carrots create a confetti effect that anticipates a celebration."
Patriotic Potato Salad
14 small new red potatoes, scrubbed clean
6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and halved
1 medium-size carrot, peeled and grated
2 medium-size scallions (green onions, white part and 2 inches green), thinly sliced in rounds
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup sour cream
3/4 cup mayonnaise (see note)
Heat a medium-size saucepan of water to boiling. Add the potatoes and cook just until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain, cool and cut in half.
Combine the eggs, potatoes, carrot and scallions in a large bowl. Add the dill, parsley, caraway, salt and pepper and gently toss to combine.
Mix the sour cream and mayonnaise and gently fold into the potato mixture.