I'm not a fan of potato salad that tastes like a bunch of spuds smothered in mayo. I want more. At the very least, I want to taste the potatoes. Trouble is, potatoes are pretty bland if not properly seasoned. They also need to be seasoned at the right moment during the cooking process. Here's how to make that happen.
To start, be sure that the water in which you boil the potatoes is well salted. The potatoes will absorb the salt as they cook. When they're done, you won't taste the salt, but the potatoes will start to come alive. And by the way, be sure to use white (boiling) potatoes for potato salad; they do a better job of holding their shape. Baking potatoes, such as russets, will fall apart.
Pull the potatoes out of the water as soon as they're tender. This will keep them from overcooking and falling apart. And toss them right away, while they're still hot, with a mixture of vinegar and more salt. Good little sponges that they are, the potatoes will absorb much of the mixture within 15 minutes, and be even more deeply flavoured than before. The vinegar, like the salt, helps to enhance their natural flavours.
You can prepare the basil mayo while the potatoes are marinating. Normally, I recommend treating all fresh herbs very gently. If you use a very sharp knife and chop the herbs briefly, you can prevent them from turning into a bruised, wet mess. But for this recipe, I want you to pack the fresh basil into a blender with the mayo and pulverize it. All of the basil flavour and juices will go right into the mayo, making it taste like the essence of summer.
One last note: When you toss the potatoes with the dressing, the potatoes may absorb all of the dressing at once, and you may need to add a little water to keep the sauce creamy. I had different results with different potatoes; some absorbed all the dressing, some did not.
Finally, if you and your guests don't somehow consume the whole batch the first time you serve it, this potato salad makes for great leftovers. Just add a little more water, if necessary, to be sure it is moist. And don't hesitate to double or triple this recipe for a crowd.
POTATO SALAD WITH BASIL MAYONNAISE
Start to finish: 50 minutes (30 minutes active)
1 1/2 pounds medium white potatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick, preferably using a mandoline
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus extra for salting the potato cooking water
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Ground black pepper
1/2 cup minced shallots
In a medium saucepan, combine the potatoes with enough cold salted water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook just until tender, 5 to 7 minutes.
Meanwhile in a large bowl, whisk together the vinegar and the 1 1/2 teaspoons salt until the salt is dissolved. When the potatoes are done, drain them well and immediately add them to the vinegar mixture. Toss the potatoes well with the vinegar mixture, then let cool to room temperature, stirring often, about 30 minutes.
In a blender combine the basil, mayonnaise, lemon zest and a hefty pinch of pepper. Puree until smooth. Once the potatoes have cooled, add the mayonnaise mixture to the potatoes along with the shallots and toss well. If the potato salad seems dry, stir in some cold water and toss again.
Nutrition information per serving: 320 calories; 190 calories from fat (59 per cent of total calories); 21 g fat (3.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 930 mg sodium; 31 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 4 g protein.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."