The genius potato salad that converted a potato salad skeptic

Monifa Dayo's nontraditional recipe is the upgrade potato salad has always needed

Published June 9, 2022 4:05PM (EDT)

Prop stylist: Brooke Deonarine. Food stylist: Ericka Martins. (Rocky Luten / Food52)
Prop stylist: Brooke Deonarine. Food stylist: Ericka Martins. (Rocky Luten / Food52)

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Potato salad dates back to the early 19th century, when German immigrants first arrived in America. In the two-ish centuries since, the dish has made its mark as a cookout mainstay and an important symbol of family history and hierarchy.

But if I'm totally honest, I've never fully understood the enduring appeal. In my potato salad experience, at its best, the dish is banal and under-seasoned. And at its worst, it's gloopy, heavy, chalky.

Don't get me wrong — there's nothing inherently unpleasant about any of the ingredients: potatoes, of course, and mayonnaise, mustard, relish, maybe some chives or onions, paprika or hot sauce. All of these things are good, and tasty, and dynamic on their own, filled with flavor and brightness!

But somehow, together, the components aren't memorable. The dressing doesn't satisfactorily flavor the potatoes, and the should-be-punchy textures and seasonings manage to overpower and disappear into each other. No matter how much it's tweaked and tinkered with based on family preferences and newfangled ingredients, potato salad still manages to feel pedestrian and old-school. Which is to say, it's in need of a makeover to bring it from 1822 to 2022.

Enter: the groundbreaking new book, "Black Food," curated and edited by Bryant Terry. The volume is a celebration and artifact of the modern African diaspora, with recipes, yes, but also meditations on music, culture, politics, and power. In the book's introduction, Terry shares the objective of the project and his assignment to its contributors: "I asked brilliant colleagues to offer dishes that embody their approach to cooking and draw on history and memory while looking forward." And its more than 100 recipe absolutely deliver on the ask — including a very forward-thinking potato salad from chef and stylist Monifa Dayo.

The salad's genius is that it embraces the best of what potato salad already is, and fills in the missing gaps to help it fulfill its true potential — presenting us with something that is recognizable yet entirely nontraditional. Great attention to technique and a few very smart ingredient swaps bring this particular dish from fine to transcendent.

For one thing, the potatoes are treated with the care and finesse they deserve — given that they're, well, one half of the recipe's title. Boiling cubes of Yukon Golds in a pot of water so fully salted that it turns "cloudy," as Dayo instructs, allows for an already deeply flavorful base on which we'll add additional layers. Beyond seasoning, Dayo's recipe has a specific plan for the potatoes' cook, taking care to start them in cold water (to ensure a totally even rise to temp, then eventual boil) and shimmy them on a sheet pan to finish, breaking them up into uneven pieces to create craggy bits.

Immediately showering the potatoes with pickling liquid from quick-pickled shallots and olive oil, then dusting them with more salt and pepper, introduces the energetic lift of acidity early on in the seasoning. And the precision doesn't stop there. Instead of mayonnaise, Dayo shepherds us towards the emulsion's French cousin, aioli, with its fruity, garlicky bite, and mellows it with grassy, sweet whole-milk yogurt. Then capers, the pickled shallot solids, and wisps of roughly chopped cilantro and parsley bring crunch, brine, and herbal bitterness.

All of this would have been enough, but no: Soft-poached eggs are cradled on top and roughly quartered, their unctuous yolks mingling with the aioli-yogurt blend. Frilly tarragon and dill leaves are picked from their stems, waiting for their moment to act as a feather in this salad's cap.

Right before the garnish, perhaps the most important step of the whole recipe takes place: the briefest, gentlest hand-mixing of the salad's ingredients, so delicate so that streaks of aioli and discs of poached egg white will remain intact and identifiable within the mishmash. If you're tempted to go overboard — well, don't. Take it easy here; you worked so hard on the rest of your potato salad.

Recipe: The Best Potato Salad Ever from Monifa Dayo

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By Brinda Ayer

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