26 May 2012

Pesto-Potato Salad, With Footnotes and Comments

Peel or Scrub Well

If food poisoning were like the game of Clue, my answer would have been – Mayonnaise, in the sun, with the potato salad. My mom likes to correct me and say, it was Miracle Whip. While at least one can laugh at this, til this day, I won’t eat anything with mayonnaise, but I didn’t hold a grudge against potatoes (or the maker of the potato salad).

Potatoes are affordable, easy to work with and they’re pretty satisfying: all good reasons not to quit potato salad due to one bad experience, decades ago. Unfortunately, my nemesis, mayonnaise solves some problem in potato salad – adding a much needed flavor and texture to boiled potatoes. To compensate for the lack of mayo, I’ve played combinations like curry, vinegars or even the classic ingredients of sour cream, bacon & chives, but the best substitution is pesto.

Pesto and potatoes get even better when you add another vegetable to mix. Roasted cauliflower is a good addition but artichokes work best. I know I should endorse local artichokes, now just coming into season, but canned artichokes work better in two ways:  First, opening a can and draining is easier than defoliating an artichoke – there is a time for steamed delicious fresh artichoke, but not when you need to put something together for a picnic on the weekend. Secondly, canned artichokes are salty and sharp adding a nice contrast to the neutral flavor of potatoes.

Artichoke-Potato Salad

2 pounds gold or red potatoes, cut into 2 inch cubes

1 or 2 8oz cans of artichokes, drained and chopped

½ cup pesto*

2-4 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Salt & Pepper

Optional; the juice of a half lemon

Boil the potatoes in salted water until you can insert a knife into the center of a potato and pull it out with ease. Drain and combine ingredients while potatoes are hot. Lemon adds a little extra acidity, which is sometimes needed.

*Pesto recipes are generally unhelpful. Example – “2 cups of basil leaves” is a pretty standard issue for pesto recipes  and while usually exact measurements are more helpful than vague ones, in this instance – I’ve never known anyone other than the people who write recipes who actually  measure basil leaves. Pesto, like potato salad, isn’t about exactness; a cook has to know when they have reached that balance of salty, sweet, acidic, savory, that comes with time and experience, not level measures.

Other issues with pesto recipes – is adherence to ingredients, it’s far more flexible than you’d be led to believe. For instance, instead of Parmesan, you can use Romano, Asiago, or domestic Parmesan, you don’t need to use a top shelf cheese in a dish where the subtly that comes from 18 months of aging is going to be lost next to the flavor of raw garlic. Oh and I use walnuts instead of pine nuts, I like the taste and the cost better. When you have fresh basil and garlic, good to very good oil and cheese, you’re going to be hard pressed to make something that’s bad. Taste, make adjustments and and realize this isn’t as exacting as chemistry; it’s mixing. Use this as not as a recipe but as a guideline.

Basil – handfuls, picked from at least 6 stems

Optional but good -Parsley leaves from 2 stems

4 cloves of garlic

½ cup-ish grated cheese

6 walnut halves, preferably toasted in a pan on low for 10 minutes.

½ cup olive oil

Place basil and optional parsley in food processor, pulse 6 times for 1 second. Add everything EXCEPT olive oil, pulse until you have a smooth paste. Stir olive oil in by hand. A food processor is a horrible thing to do even a low grade olive oil, the good to very good stuff, it’s kind of a shame.