05/11/2015 08:00 EDT | Updated 05/11/2016 05:59 EDT

Potato salad: A favourite side dish with summer barbecues and picnics

LONDON, Ont. - If the Victoria Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer, it must also be the unofficial start of potato salad season.

"I think potato salad is still as popular as ever, especially in the summer," says chef Jo Lusted. "For picnics and barbecues, potato salad is the quintessential summer favourite."

Europeans were introduced to potatoes in the 16th century by explorers who took them home from the New World, but it wasn't until the 19th century that the idea of potato salad-type recipes began to gain popularity back in the Americas, thanks to incoming European settlers.

In general, food historians suggest cold potato salads evolved from British and French recipes while warm potato salads were more likely to be German in origin.

Regional variations developed here depending on available ingredients, and although strong loyalties remain to certain traditions, the range of flavours that can be adapted to the salads are "limitless," says Lusted, also a cookbook author and TV host.

"While the traditional will always be a favourite, people are really getting into different things, different types of potatoes even, using fingerling potatoes or different coloured potatoes. Purple potato salad — how pretty is that?"

Lusted's favourite is "pretty traditional with egg and dill — the way my mom made it," although she has lightened it up by replacing her mom's Miracle Whip with an apple cider vinegar and Greek yogurt-based dressing.

"But I love a really good German potato salad with the vinegar and some green onions and herbs. I love having it with maybe a Mexican flair or some Asian flavours."

It's not known when mayonnaise became the potato salad dressing of choice for many North Americans. The sauce itself was developed in France, but the first potato salad recipes of French origin that seemed to catch on here favoured oil and vinegar dressing.

The mayo versus vinaigrette debate is one that absorbs potato salad stalwarts, as is the question of mashed versus chunked potatoes. On either topic, it's just a matter of preference.

But loyalties run deep.

Annette Owens of Cochrane, Alta., says she and her sister wouldn't think of making potato salad with anything except their mother's homemade dressing recipe. Using commercial salad dressing "would be sacrilegious in my family."

There's no telling how many potato salads their mother, Doris Newell of Mansfield, Ont., has made in her 80-something years but, suffice to say, a lot.

The recipe for the cooked dressing came from an older woman in the small community and Newell continued to use it exclusively long after most cooks had stopped making their own salad dressing.

One reason, she says, is she liked the tanginess of the recipe, which calls for equal parts milk and vinegar as its base. Her husband Russell was the taste-tester and if he thought the finished salad wasn't zippy enough, she stirred in a little more vinegar and some brown sugar to liven it up.

Another reason is that the homemade dressing has stood the test of time better than commercial dressings. There is no oil in her recipe to separate from the other ingredients and the eggs are cooked, eliminating concerns about raw eggs or egg yolks used in some salad dressing recipes.

Ideally, make the salad the day before you want it so the flavours can meld as it sits in the refrigerator overnight. As long as it's properly refrigerated, it will stay nice for four or five days, Newell says.


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