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The Perfect Potato Salad

potato salad

I remain ever optimistic that spring, never mind summer, is just around the corner. Warm light evenings, the smell of barbecues in the air, Pimms on the patio, all the indicators of warm weather for many. But for me, I know it’s summer when it’s time to make potato salad.

Mister North and I grew up on potato salad. Family picnics and barbecues always involved a big salad bowl of it designed to last several days out. But because our mum makes the best potato salad possible, it never lasted more than one meal with the last chunk of spud highly prized.

Since we started blogging, I’ve debated whether to share this family secret with you all, but since pretty much every person who has ever tried a batch of the potato salad made the North/South Food way has asked for the recipe, I’ve decided the time has come. The secret is a little bit of milk in with the mayonnaise. Before you raise your brows, it lightens the mayo so that it coats the potatoes better and thus makes the salad creamier without being greasy or overwhelming.

I’ve grown up making this so I never weigh anything so I’m giving you a description not a list.

The Perfect Potato Salad: intended to serve 4

  • 1 kg of salad potatoes such as Charlottes
  • 2 heaped tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 2 scallions or handful dill, chopped
  • 2 big gherkins, chopped (optional)
  • salt and pepper

You can make this with any potato really, but a firm waxy salad potato like a Charlotte is perfect. Sainsbury’s Basic Salad Potatoes at a quid a bag are simply the ones too knobbly and bobbly to make it to the Taste the Difference range. Cut your potatoes into quarters and leave the skin on. Boil for about 8 minutes or until al dente. You do not want a floury fluffy potato here so don’t overcook.

I flit between two types of potato salad, either a slightly Germanic one with lashings of chopped dill and gherkins or a more Irish version with chopped scallions. Both are delicious. I find the dill version a better basis for a meal and the scallion one a side dish.

If you are doing scallions, slice both the green and white while the potatoes are cooking. Place them in the colander you’ll use to drain the potatoes and then empty the pan of boiling water and potatoes over them. This blanches them and stops them being too oniony. Allow everything to cool for about 30 minutes.

Boil the kettle and fill a mug half full of boiling water. Place your tablespoon in it and allow it to heat up slightly. Then scoop out your mayonnaise into another mug or small bowl. Measure out half a tablespoon of milk. I use semi skimmed. You could use full fat. Mix well. You’re looking for a consistency slightly thicker than double cream, but still suitable for pouring. Add the other half tablespoon if needed (if you use the oddly textured Hellmanns, you probably will.)

Pour the mayo dressing over the still very slightly warm potatoes and the blanched scallions and mix well so it coats well. If you’re using dill instead, add it and the gherkins at this stage. Serve the salad and watch the bowl empty rapidly. My suggestion is to make a lot more than you need. There is never enough…

A taste of home?

The Christmas I discovered duck…

I have read a lot in the past few months about culinary heritage, from articles about the attempts to save English apples to the eternal debate about food and class and discussions of regionalism in British food. I find this fascinating, but also wonder how much a lot of people can relate to this wider food heritage? Is it not the case that most people’s relationship with food is much more influenced by their immediate surroundings with the wider social aspects playing a less obvious role?

I grew up in a house engaged in food. My parents cooked almost everything from scratch, partly because that’s what they grew up on and partly because it was much cheaper and in 1980s Belfast where we didn’t didn’t have any national supermarket chains or McDonalds, it was pretty much the norm. My parents did have a slightly crunchy streak, making their own yoghurt and whipping up vats of dahl, but mainly we ate a mixture of traditional British and Irish dishes and slightly unusually for the time, real pasta (not the tinned stuff), rice and other meals influenced by my parents’ interest in travel. We ate well, but weren’t strangers to a fry or chips. Fussiness was not tolerated, although I was allowed to indulge in a teenage dalliance with vegetarianism. I spent a lot of time in kitchens as a child, watching people cook, both at home and at my granny’s farmhouse where a Esse cooker provided constant warmth and a never ending stream of excellent baked goods. Yet until I was nineteen, I couldn’t cook. In fact I could barely make toast and I couldn’t care less.

I had rebelled in my late teens, craving lurid foods from packets and cereals so sweet just looking at the box caused dental erosion. I was just about to leave home and unashamedly I was feeding myself a diet that a five year old would baulk at. Something needed to happen to stop me leaving my entire food heritage behind and hailing Pot Noodles as haute cuisine. And it did. It was an odd salvation, but one that would shepherd me back toward the path my parents had put me on. I discovered Ainsley Harriott.

Laid low by serious ill health, I watched a lot of daytime TV and the jewel in the crown of afternoon scheduling in the late 90s was Ready Steady Cook. It almost always featured Britain’s most exuberant cook and slowly and awakened an interest in cooking. I learned more about the technical side of making food than any Home Economics class had shown me and slowly but surely, it piqued my interest and I moved from sofa to kitchen. I’d like to tell you Ainsley’s easy inexpensive dishes were the motivation, but I think it was just as much as an urge to get away from his endless bellowing. I began cooking simple things, mainly pasta and couscous based, while I gained confidence in prepping ingredients and understanding timings. I’m sure there were some gastronomic horrors that my poor mother ate to be supportive, but I’ve blocked those memories out.

By the time I went to university, clutching the first ever cookbook I bought, a copy of Nigella’s How to Eat, I was pretty confident in the kitchen and unlike my flatmates who relied heavily on processed meals and parcels from home, I cooked everything from scratch, including making my own yeast free bread. Broke, bored and marooned on an out of town campus at night, I re-lived a childhood cooking interest and made apple crumble almost nightly for something to do, resulting in block wide ‘crumble offs’ and custard making competitions. Moving to London and starting a job in fashion stunted my fledgling interest in food slightly, living off Ryvita and cream cheese most of the time, but when money and parties were thin on the ground, happy to partake of ‘Goulash Night’ and slightly obsessive onion ring making with my housemates. I did also construct a (now sadly lost and much missed) recipe book of Vogue recipes, food article cuttings and Lindsey Bareham‘s brilliant after work recipes from the Evening Standard.

But it wasn’t til I moved into my current flat about five years ago that I really started to challenge myself culinararily. Living on a very restricted budget led me away from the trendier world of the celebrity cooks to a certain extent and back toward the skills and loves my parents instilled in me from an early age. I still rarely buy anything ready made (unless I can’t do it myself) and I am a demon with leftovers. Somewhere my granny’s love of baking has come back to me and I still whip everything up in her mixing bowl. The confidence and independence these skills offer me is worth its weight in gold (and the money it saves me) and I find it hard to believe that I didn’t pay more attention when I was younger, although thank god, I’ve got my mum’s potato salad recipe to hand!

I’m still very much developing as a cook. I’m a little bit nervous of doughs, pastries, batters and things involving yeast. My childhood love of oddly bland things such as Marie biscuits has never left me and despite being a food lover, I could happily eat plain brown rice, Ryvita and porridge five times a week. I’m not very cheffy in my presentation and Mister North is much more adventurous with his techniques and ingredients. My favourite childhood comfort food dish is still mince and potatoes, preferably cooked by my mum. But I’m enjoying following a path that my childhood set me on where I’ll try just about anything once, even if it also involves rather a lot of baking fails along with a revived love of lentils.

What about you? Who shaped your foodie path? Have you bucked childhood trends and tastes? Do the people around you influence your food feelings or do the TV chefs have more sway these days? Are bloggers your new inspiration? And have you ever successfully re-created those things other people cooked for to show you their love?

Scandinavian Kitchen

This week’s destination for cake was a bit special in that it involved the chance to revisit some tastes of a fondly remembered childhood holiday at the fabulous Scandinavian Kitchen in Great Titchfield Street. Mister North and I visited Norway when I was about six and it has certainly left me with a lifelong soft spot for Scandinavian cuisine, particularly their luscious chocolate cakes.

So with a slight diversion to Soho to collect some fresh Yorkshire free range eggs from Mister North, I took my cake craving north of Oxford Circus as fast as my little legs could carry me. I arrived just as my dining companion ordered a plate of meatballs accompanied by three delicious looking salads. I decided cake could wait and I ordered the same thing…

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