Every family has traditions that revolve around food. I could write a whole book about the wonderful Yucatecan meals my abuela made for me as a kid. A proud immigrant from Mexico, she also loved the traditions of her new home, creating show-stopper summer barbecues for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, as well as a heavenly turkey dinner every Thanksgiving.
While my abuela took the lead in the kitchen, she couldn't have gotten things over the finish line without my grandpa, who was her constant sous-chef in the kitchen. When we grilled out in the summer, grandpa would always take the lead on the potato salad. It's a food I can't eat without thinking of him, because no one makes it as good as he does. And I love sharing this family tradition with others.
When I interview chefs and culinary personalities on Salon Talks, I always ask them the same question: "What are you trying to nourish or feed when you cook?" Michael Symon's answer rings particularly true this holiday weekend.
"Food brings people together more than most things, and it's the one thing where people have — certainly, they have opinions on it like they have on everything else," Chef Symon told me last year. "But it always brings joy to people, and it always, I think, reconnects you with your culture and your family. And maybe makes old friends and new friends understand the way that you grew up and were raised. It tells a story without speaking."
My grandpa's potato salad is why I'm cooking this Memorial Day. His dad was awarded a purple heart for his heroism in the Battle of Château-Thierry in World War I, and he himself was later stationed in Verdon. I'm not a hero like these veterans, but I proudly carry forward their memories in every bowl of potato salad that comes from my kitchen. Making this dish connects me to my family, and when I share it and the story behind it with others, they understand me better.
The recipe below is an adaption of our family potato salad. As we find ourselves grounded at home this year, we can't expect every detail to be the same as always. Instead of longing for the past, we should embrace the present. Grocery shopping is an event right now, and in addition to the reduced trips, it's hard to even find everything on our shopping lists.
For that reason, I wanted to embrace the moment by creating a version of my grandpa's potato salad that uses less ingredients (and is also a little bit lighter while we're stuck near the couch). This version leans on sour cream, cutting the heaviness of mayonnaise. While I boil my potatoes, you can also bake or roast them, because the sour cream will make your taste buds think of a beautiful, baked potato.
I love using mustard to flavor dishes at home, so I have several varieties on hand. You may only have one type, and there may not be as big of a selection at the store this year. I used dijon mustard, but you can swap it out with whatever mustard you have on hand. If you want to add a kick of flavor, you can use horseradish or spicy brown mustard. Start with two tablespoons instead of three and adjust for flavor.
The vegetables that aren't potatoes are all optional. You can swap out sweet pickles for relish or dill pickles, depending on what you have on hand or where your tastebuds fall on the sweet to tangy scale. There are few things I love more than onions, so I also added green onions to my potato salad this year. They provide a bright contrast to the sweet pickles, and they're not as sharp as regular onions.
However you mix-and-match this recipe, leave time for the potato salad to sit in the fridge once you're done mixing so the flavors can set. It's best if you leave it in overnight, but don't stress yourself out if you're in a time crunch. The most important thing is that you enjoy this simple but flavorful potato salad, and you take some time to think about why you made it.
Recipe: Five-ingredient potato salad
- 2.5 pounds potatoes
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1/3 cup mayonnaise
- 3 tablespoons mustard
- 1 cup hard-boiled eggs (diced)
- Optional: 1/2 cup bread and butter pickles (diced)
- Optional: 1/2 cup scallions (thinly-sliced)
1. Bring 6 to 8 cups of salted water to a boil. Add potatoes, and return pot to rolling boil for 20 minutes.
2. Empty contents of pot over colander. Return potatoes to pot, and fill with cold water and ice to chill.
3. Peel potatoes once cooled. Dice the peeled potatoes, shifting contents to a large mixing bowl.
4. In mixing bowl, stir eggs and any additional vegetables into potatoes.
5. Add sour cream, mayonnaise and mustard. Stir to combine.
6. Refrigerate overnight or at least 30 minutes before serving. Adjust salt to taste.
For more about potato salad, be sure to read "Crimes against potato salad: How not to get uninvited from the cookout" by Salon's Melanie McFarland.