Potato salad. Two such innocent little words, so full of hope and promise on their own, but when put together, I don't know, they always seem to summon a vision of something gelatinous, yellow-tinged, rotting slowly in a glass vitrine somewhere. Potato salad makes me think of dingy midtown delis. Flies flying lazily over congealed mayonnaise. Potatoes, folding waxily under the pressure of a plastic fork, too-sweet mayonnaise glued stubbornly to the side of a styrofoam plate. In short, my friends, potato salad has never been my thing.
A few weeks ago, I was poring through my cookbooks to come up with ideas for a dinner party. Nothing fancy, just good food. There would be that carrot salad, a pile of asparagus in vinaigrette and chicken marinated in herbs. But I needed one more dish to round out the meal and, with a copy of Ottolenghi's cookbook open on my lap, kindly sent to me by the publisher and immediately stained with cooking juices by me, I found just what I was looking for: a dish called, innocently, "Crushed New Potatoes with Horseradish and Sorrel".
That was it, I thought. Who doesn't love a crushed potato? And horseradish is the bee's knees. I had almost everything I needed already in my kitchen. All I needed to do was boil potatoes, crush them with a fork and dress them with a yogurt-horseradish dress...Wait a minute! Potatoes. Dressing. Salad!?
Banishing all thoughts of rotting, fly-speckled, mayonnaise-bound potato salads to a faraway place (where I put thoughts of car accidents, Germany not winning the World Cup and dill), I boiled those potatoes, I whisked that dressing, I sliced those scallions and I snipped that cress. What resulted was what I will from now on call My Summer Potatoes. A gorgeously balanced, fresh-tasting, warm-and-cool potato salad that had an entire dinner table, six people, mind you, asking for the recipe. It was fantastic. The potatoes are sweet and tender, their fluff turning into the lightest mash. The horseradish adds bite and intensity, an unexpected sophistication. The scallions are very important - balanced by the cool, smooth yogurt, their fragrance feels essential.
I made a few changes from the original recipe - Ottolenghi calls for crushed cloves of garlic, but I have this thing about raw garlic, in that I hate it and don't want it near the food I eat, so I added a few more scallions in its stead. I left out the sorrel, because the scallions and watercress sprouts called for seemed to be the perfect amount of greenery and crunch. And instead of Greek yogurt, I used plain old yogurt - the moisture and silkiness of which the salad really needs. (Readers in the US, you should use Liberté if you can find it. You want something smooth and creamy and full of flavor.)
You can bring this salad to picnics, without fear that it will poison someone with salmonella. You can make this for dinner parties and sit back and garner compliments. You can make it after work, boiling potatoes in your underwear (I know how summer gets). It will be wonderful, over and over, and you will forget that potato salad once made your skin crawl. Potato salad!, you will think. Such lovely words, so full of hope and promise.
The cookbook is full of recipes like this - thoughtful variations on foods we already love, punched up with interesting flavor combinations from the Arab world and the Mediterranean pantry. Sumac, za'atar, sour cream, oregano, chilies and fresh lemons pepper the recipes. The soup chapter is already earmarked and worn, the salads are jewel-like, and I've cooked my first Palestinian recipe (chicken baked in a gorgeous slick of red-tinged marinade) from its pages. I kept the book by my bedside for a few weeks but had to stop - it kept making me hungry before bedtime.
And as my father always likes to say, if you find one shining recipe in a cookbook, one that you'll make over and over again, that will become part of your pantheon, part of your dinner table landscape for years to come, well, it's worth the price of the cookbook. This book has that in spades.
Potato Salad with Yogurt and Horseradish
1 kilo (2.2 pounds) new potatoes
300 grams (10 ounces, plus more to taste) plain yogurt (not Greek)
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon, or more, of prepared ground horseradish
4 scallions, thinly sliced (white and pale green parts)
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A small box of garden cress
1. Wash the potatoes, but don't peel them. Put them in a pan with salted water to cover, cover, bring to a boil and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, until tender. Drain well, transfer to a large serving bowl and, while they are still hot, crush them roughly with a fork.
2. In a small bowl, mix the yogurt, olive oil, horseradish, scallions, salt and pepper to taste. Pour this dressing over the hot potatoes and mix well. Adjust the seasoning, adding more horseradish or more salt. You want the dressing to be assertive - the potatoes will mellow it out. Just before serving, snip in the garden cress and mix once more.