February 11, 2016

Blog the Thirthy-fifth: One potato, two potato, three potato ...

... Four potato salads.

You know how when you have one kid who is good at everything, and another who is good at only one thing, you have to make a really big deal about that one thing, and act as if he’s the family maven when it comes to that thing? That’s how it is with Italians and potatoes. It would be untoward for us to claim potatoes too. Brotherliness requires ceding to the putative peoples of meat and potatoes that putativity.

But if the truth may be told—and why else do you read this blog if not for that? and why do I remain putatively anonymous if not for that?—my father loved to say, “I love potatoes but your mother never makes them for me,” whenever she made them, which was regularly, so that his point was not “never” but “never for me,” as if to say, granted she cooks them all the time, if not for you too she would not make them for me alone. Whether that is a distinction without a difference, I leave to you to decide. In any case, Italians in fact eat lots of potatoes, even if not every night, and they like to—it’s not as if some British-induced famine forced them to eat them. Of course, one of the ways they make potatoes is with pasta, but it’s not the only way and not the usual way, and so that Irish crack about pasta e patate counts as an ethnic slur, and all you libs should note that down.

But you have a much bigger problem to deal with here than Irish wise-cracks about pasta e patate. The Italian way of making potato salad calls into question the very meaning of the English word “salad”. Historically speaking, English and Italian are, if not first cousins, at least second cousins by remarriage. That heavy tonguing of Anglo-Saxon by Normandized Latin was followed by a couple centuries of literary Italophilia, and nearly a score of academic Latinophilia. So you might well think as ordinary a word as “salad” would more or less translate. But I fear that it does not.

Italians call many vegetable preparations insalata that English-speakers would not call “salad”. I mentioned in my post on “broccoli lemony” (an English alias for insalata di broccoli) an episode when my colleague’s drunk wife (won’t mention the ethnicity) offered my dinner guests wry exclamations on the conveniences of my serving my steamed broccoli “cold” (i.e., at room temperature). Her rightly embarrassed husband rose to the defense of his host’s cold broccoli with, "It’s like a salad." Notwithstanding his apologetic, his wife remained wry. Notwithstanding her wryness, she got me wondering: how did her husband’s comparison aim to excuse my broccoli before the Gentiles? What exactly do Gentiles mean by “salad”? 

(Gentiles make me wonder a lot.)

Are salads always cold in English? What if someone served you warm potatoes dressed with a vinaigrette? Still a salad? Are salads always a mix? What if my potato salad had only potatoes in it, with no mixers such as celery or onions, would you refuse to call it a salad? Do garlic cloves not intended to be eaten count as a mixer? Does a salad, be it cold or warm, have to have a dressing? Does a dressing have to be mixed? What if I make a so called Nicoise salad, and artfully arrange little piles of flaked tuna and diced tomatoes and chopped string beans and olives and whatnot, and then drizzle over these little time consuming piles drizzles of the very finest olive oil and little squirts here and there of organic lemons, why would that untossed plate of piles anointed by drizzles and squirts be a salad? Or would it be?

I ask you, gentle Anglophone, if it’s not a mix of ingredients, nor a mixed dressing, nor a fixed temperature that makes for a “salad” in your tongue, then what exactly does? Is just any tossing together “salad”? I’ve mentioned before that the etymological original of both the English word “salad” and the Italian word insalata is the Latin word salata, meaning “salted.” In Latin, when you salt greens, they’re insalata. (That’s what I love about Latin—it’s so logical.) Italian nomenclature is derivative: if you dress anything in Italy with olive oil and vinegar or lemon, then you’re surely not not going to salt it, so the Italian word insalata has become associated more with the variable acid than the invariable salt. Accordingly, anytime my people boil or steam anything and then dress it with not only olive oil and salt but also some vinegar or other (or else lemon squirts), they call it an insalata, be it warm or cool, tossed or not. Be it noted that such insalate of cooked vegetables are side dishes to the main dish, and never proffered to the prejudice of the salad of raw greens that invariably follows. A vinaigrette on a lukewarm cooked vegetable and on raw, cool, refreshing greens is as different as a skirt on a Scotsman and a girl.

Italians make a big deal about every little difference when it comes to food, so I’m going to give you four ways to make Italian potato ‘salad,’ so to speak, which Italians would no doubt consider four different salads. In this respect, Italians resemble their Irish detractors, who, as far as I can tell, have many variations on what is really only one recipe for potatoes, namely mixing them with milkfat: be they boiled, baked, roasted, or sautéed, potatoes are mixed with butter, milk, cream, or cheese, before, during, or after cooking. If you feel frisky, you sprinkle bacon bits or cubed ham on them. If you instead fry them, you call them French fries, which is how you like them best.

Italian potato “salad”, in contrast, varies itself by admixture with differing elements. More often than not, you simply have boiled potatoes; but for a difference and heft, you add boiled string beans and maybe onions too (be those onions raw and red, or white and boiled). For color and contrast, you mix your boiled potatoes with boiled beets; for yet another variation, you serve your beets and potatoes on a bed of boiled beet greens.

Of course, I’ve already blogged on how my people brown parboiled potatoes with garlic ‘n oil; or with green chard and garlic ‘n oil; or else with red chard, onions and tomatoes; or else we braise potatoes with artichokes and garlic, or with Savoy cabbage, onion, & tomato; or else we roast potatoes with onions, or with green peppers and onions, or with chicken parts and onions; or else we fry them with red peppers, or with red peppers and eggs, cheese, ‘n parsley. Then of course there’s pasta e patate, which can balloon into minestrone, and let’s not forget gnocchi. But it is perhaps unbrotherly of me thus to belabor my point about Italians and potatoes.

My father, a Sicilian, and so “fish-people,” always said that the only fit side to fish was insalata di patate. “Nothing else tastes right with fish.” But I cringe to translate “potato salad,” as he would surely turn in his grave at the thought of mayonnaise in and of itself [“Eggs in a jar for months, maybe years—disgusting.”], never mind with fish. Even bracketing my father’s revulsion, it would be hard to argue persuasively that mayonnaise brings out the taste of potatoes. Gentile potato salads generally treat potatoes as material substance, a starchy fundament for flavoring, an attitude perhaps understandable for those whose oppressors made it their daily subsistence. But Italians like the taste of potato in and of itself, and the simplest Italian preparation seeks to frame and feature that flavor with the reliably transfigurative translucency of olive oil, vinegar, salt, oregano, and a hint of garlic.

Potato Salad Simply

I trust that by this Blog the Thirty-fifth you well know, Gentle Reader, that a simple thing is never simple to explain. First of all, I must explain the “old Guinea trick” (that’s what an old Irish Dominican Friar once dubbed it when he saw me do it—Gentiles say the darndest things, don’t they?) of boiling your potatoes whole in their skins until fork-tender to the center. Then you wait for the potatoes to cool off enough to handle, in order to peel them by hand. I’ll admit that I find it far more convenient to peel and cut up potatoes before boiling, in modo Celtico, but my people think that you thereby sacrifice both deliciousness and nutritiousness to the boiling water.

We could of course have Science Guy do one of his little controlled experiments. But if he finds no material evidence of a difference, and we taste one, why not just conclude there’s no material explanation, rather than that we taste no difference? And if he straps us to a chair, and blindfolds us, and plugs our ears and nose, to show us we can’t taste any difference that way, why is that a reason to doubt we taste a difference at the dinner table? I heard on morning television once that deep-fried potatoes “have been shown” to have no nutritive value—they are pure empty calories. That’s perhaps a difference that itself needs explaining (empty calories I can burn, despite their “emptiness”?), but in any case, doesn’t the fact that the British did not succeed in starving the Irish to death by feeding them only boiled potatoes argue that boiling potatoes does not so empty them of nutrition that you couldn’t sustain a race of people on the traces?

In any case, the Italian way of boiling potatoes whole does have the consequential consequence that the potatoes are never piping hot, but rather lukewarm or cooled to room. Since vinegar gets unpleasantly fumy when heated, piping hot potatoes dressed with vinegar will be unpleasant. At the other extreme, my father and Lidia Bastianich are insistent that the texture of potatoes chilled in the refrigerator is ruined beyond edibility. So the range of an Italian potato salad falls well short of hot and cold both, and it has to been eaten on the day it’s made. So say my people.

As for texture, the usual gourmet recommendation is to use waxy thin-skinned potatoes for boiling, rather than flaky potatoes better for baking. But my family likes boiled Russets for salad at least as well as waxy, not only despite but because of their breaking down a bit. It may not look nice, not until you taste them and like them that way, at which point their look will be to you the look of what tastes good, which is nice. I’ve noticed that Gentiles, perhaps from an understandable boredom with their food, develop puerile fixations on such minute matters as precisely how thick potato ought to be sliced, or how smoothly mashed, or how crispy fried. I find it hard to relate, so boil or cut up your potatoes as you like, for all I care. (Personally, I like biting into soft half-inch demi-lune wedges.)

In any case, once the potatoes are boiled, cut up, and ready for dressing, smash a chubby garlic clove against the bottom of your platter or bowl, and rub it all over with garlic milk. You can toss these pieces of garlic with the potatoes for extra flavor, but take care to remove them before serving, because they are too easily mistaken for bits of potato, and eating raw garlic is regarded among my people more as a fetish to be discouraged than a foible to be indulged.

Add your potatoes to your garlic enhanced platter. Drizzle light olive oil evenly all over, to cover all the potatoes. First sprinkle evenly all over with a shower of salt, and then here and there with fresh grindings of black pepper & discrete dashes of dried oregano. Then sprinkle evenly but lightly all over with vinegar, be it red or white wine vinegar, or even white or dark balsamic vinegar, if you like, or some mix. For mildness of mutually mitigating acids, you can add squirts of lemon juice to your sprinklings of wine vinegar; for an even milder effect, you could use sweet lemon alone, such as Meyer lemons. Your choice of acids should depend on what your potato salad is winging, whether the delicate flavor of roasted fish, for example, or the more assertive flavor of roasted meat. Whatever your choice of acids, top off with an even drizzling all over of extra virgin olive oil. This is what I call a layered dressing, with two olive oil layers sandwiching a layer of acid and seasoning.

Now slide a spatula under the potatoes to gently flip them over and fold them in to one another, both to mix the dressing and dress the potatoes with it. Be gentle, be patient, be loving, but thorough. If you attend, you will smell the melding of scents and savors as you go. At the end, taste and correct. If the potatoes don’t taste succulent with oil, they need more. If they taste too vinegary, add a little more lemon; if too lemony, add a little more vinegar—the opposites mitigate. If the potatoes taste bland, they no doubt need more salt. If they are succulently oily, pleasantly tart, and potatoey, yet still seem to lack a something, I know what, it’s probably oregano. But easy does it with the oregano.

The potato salad may look pale and plain, but if you’re a Gentile, since when does that bother you? I, for one, would not add chopped parsley for color.

Potatoes ‘n String Beans,
with an Option for Onions

But you can add green beans for color, as well as heft.

You could of course just make an insalata of green beans on their own, by steaming, cooling, and dressing them in the layered way I just described. You could also steam the string beans and add them hot to a garlic anointed platter, to be quickly tossed with extra virgin olive oil, squirts of lemon juice, and salt, and brought to table still steaming, but that would not be insalata. Why not?

Well, it’s hot, which is why there’s only lemon juice and no vinegar, which is why it’s not insalata. It’s complicated to explain. I’ll go with this: vinegar is an essential and hence defining matter for insalata; insofar consequently as vinegar is not delicious hot (because fumy), it becomes an essential property of salads (even if not an essential difference) to be not hot. Now you may object that lemon juice sometimes substitutes for vinegar in salads, and it tastes good hot. Granted, but it does not follow from that fact that lemon juice added to a hot vegetable renders it a salad, any more than a fool’s laughing at what he does not understand makes his laughter rational, even granted that only the rational can laugh foolishly.

Convinced by that account or not, you have even bigger metaphysical conundra to face: Is not a salad of potatoes and green beans just a salad of potatoes and a salad of green beans combined? Not so, in fact—unless you don’t credit emergent properties or dynamisms. Somehow the two elements together combine to make a third thing not simply reducible to the two together, something more than the sum of its parts. Science Guy is of course snorting wryly and rolling his eyes. But if he dismisses as illusion this impression we have of a third from two, then he may claim to be Master of Matter, but not Master of the Universe, for he is not Master of Maya., which is not nothing.  Gustatory compounding proves to be matter beyond his materialism. This fool of fools laughs away what he does understand, the immediate perceptions of his own sense experience.

Be he as he may, I submit that a salad of potatoes and string beans is a duo worthy of a dual not seen in the West since the demise of that ancient Greek inflection. To complicate the conundrum, you could also add onions to the duo, either raw red onion or boiled onion, but, interestingly, it is felt as a condiment and not as a third element that makes for a second thing. As when hydrogen joins with oxygen to make water, but sodium added as a third to the other two only makes the water salty, and not a third thing, so it is with onions added to string beans and potatoes. How do I know this? Because I taste it.

When I mix boiled potatoes and steamed string beans, I find boiling pre-cut potato wedges in Irish fashion irresistible: I put the potatoes in the boiling water of the bottom part of a double-boiler, and the string beans, trimmed and halved, in the steamer on top, and they cook at about the same rate, in under 10 minutes. I always salt the boiling water below to keep the string beans steaming above green, with no harm done thereby to the potatoes below. Once they’re both ready, I put the boiled potatoes and steamed string beans together in the same broad colander, to be salted, peppered, and oreganoed while still steaming. Once their steam abates, I transfer them to a garlic anointed platter, to be dressed with a first layer of light olive oil; a middle layer of vinegar and/or lemon; and a top layer of extra virgin olive oil. Then I gently flip and fold to mix and marry, and taste and correct.

For a yet more complex salad mix—next to barbequed meat, for example—I add onion. A raw red onion will add sprightliness, and a boiled onion sweetness. To take the edge off raw red onion, my people slice it thinly and soak it a while in salted water (a “Guinea trick,” I suppose), lest its pungency distract and detract. If I decide to add a boiled onion, then I’ll no doubt boil it whole in the same pot together with the potatoes whole, likewise until fork-tender to the center. When they have cooled enough, I’ll peel both potatoes and onions by hand, and slice them to taste—which for me means onions half as thick as potato wedges.

Pink Potato Salad

When I tell Gentiles about mixing potatoes and beets, the Gentile women often ask, “But don’t the beets make the potatoes red?” What kind of question is that, I ask you. And why is it only the women that ask me that question? I don’t know, and I have found that when I don’t know, often a good response is a counter question, “Yeah. So what?” But that silent stare those Gentile women return is unsettling. It’s not the quiet of closure. So I came up with this brilliant response, “Yes, yes, it’s pink potato salad!” And they love that. Girls will be girls.

Now in the case of potatoes and beets, we don’t get a gustatory compound emerging, but rather a polarity. It’s a dynamic duo. The pleasure it offers is the copulation of opposites: the potato is rougher, the beet smooth; the potato bland, the beet bloody; the potato meaty, the beet earthy. Their union is less than a compound but more than a mixture, like blood. (Science Guy will no doubt say that blood is a mixture because he can centrifuge it; but ask him to mix some of his own, and see what he says.)

As with string beans, you can have a salad of beets on their own as well. Their deep flavor likes more vinegar than other vegetables—often equal to the olive oil in amount. Their earthy flavor likewise likes all extra virgin olive oil. Accordingly, if I mix beets with potatoes, I often first dress them separately, dressing the beets assertively and the potatoes lightly, and then mix the two together, which also lets me control how pink I make the potatoes.

If I do the beets on their own, it can be convenient to steam them in the oven by wrapping them, newly washed, in aluminum foil, tightly, and putting them on a drip pan in my toaster oven at 350-400 degrees with the timer set for 30-60-90 minutes, depending on whether they’re small, large, or huge. They usually start to ooze a bit of beet blood when they’re ready, but you do need to probe them with a fork as they bake, because you don’t want them to cook past al dente—tender firm.

More often than not I boil beets instead, and often together with potatoes. It’s easier to probe them for tenderness in a pot of boiling water, and when they’re tender, I like to fish them out of the pot and plunge them in a bracing bath of cold water. It seems somehow to firm them up.

Either way, like potatoes, beets have to cool before you can peel them by hand. But beets have a wider temperature range than potatoes. They taste good while still quite warm, but also chilled a bit in the refrigerator. I like them warmer when they’re a side to a main dish, and chilled a bit when I serve them on their own after the main dish. When I want to peel them still hot (or need to, for lack of time), then I first slice off the ends with a knife, and use a fork to spear the whole beet from one end and to rotate it as I use the back of the knife to scrape off all its skin. Be careful of its crimson juice, which stains stains hard to launder out.

Slice the peeled beets either in rounds to layer on a platter (perhaps in alternation with potato rounds), or else as demi-lunes or wedges to toss. Salt and pepper them generously on both sides, and sprinkle with pinches of dried oregano; then drizzle generously with equal amounts of extra virgin olive oil and wine vinegar with lemon juice. Flip and fold to mix and marry, as usual. Taste and correct, as usual.

I never buy dusty denuded beets piled up like potatoes. I only ever buy bright beets still sporting beautiful green tops. Those green tops boiled make for as beautiful a bed on the serving platter. All sorts of people like beet greens for their mildness, even people who don’t like greens. I of course discard any leaves marred by age or misfortune, and I also discard the beautiful red stems, because I don’t like them, but you shouldn’t, because my mother says not to. (By the way, they’ll need longer boiling than the leaves.) The leaves of course need thorough rinsing in a bowl of water (even soaking, if there’s time for it), with a couple of changes of water, though they’re not nearly as gritty as most other greens. I bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil, and boil the greens for a matter of minutes—as soon as they seem tender, I remove them to a colander to drain. I may use that same water to then boil the beets and/or potatoes.

When time comes to platter the beets, I rub the platter with a crushed garlic clove, as usual, and lay out the greens, which I sprinkle with salt, drizzle with light olive oil, and squirt lightly with lemon juice. I dress and toss the beets in a bowl, with lots of salt and pepper, and equal amounts of extra virgin olive oil and wine vinegar, so that I can then attractively arrange the dressed beets upon their bed of greens.  Lovely.

I’ll use boiled beet greens as a bed for a beet and potato mix as well. In that case, I’ll lay out and dress the greens on the platter, as above; then dress and toss the beets in a bowl with extra virgin olive oil and vinegar, as above; and then add the potatoes into the bowl on top of the dressed beets, dressing the potatoes with light olive oil and lemon juice, before mixing them with the beets to desired pinkness. At last, I pour out the beets and potatoes along their green bed. Lovelier yet.

By the way, for a hefty salad, worthy a vegetarian entrée as well, that looks as great as it tastes, I mix the potatoes and beets with string beans, which addition of green beans does, somehow, catalyze a gustatory compounding of the pair of polar opposites (do we ever discover how Nature compounds and catalyzes, or only when she does?), and a third thing emerges, which counts as our fourth salad. Done.


Potato 'Salad' (so to speak)

* Either boil potatoes whole, all'italiana, until fork-tender to the center, then let cool, peel by hand, and cut up into demilunes, rounds, or slices, as large as you like;
or else, in modo barbaro, peel and cut up the potatoes raw, as you like, and boil to tender, and drain.
* Rub platter or bowl with the milk of a crushed garlic clove. Discard clove halves and add potatoes.
* Layer dressing as follows: First drizzle generously all over with light olive oil. Then salt evenly all over with an even showering of salt; grind black pepper lightly all over; and shoot a pinch or two of dried oregano here and there. Now sprinkle temperantly all over with wine vinegar and/or lemon squirts. At last, top off with a generous drizzling all over of extra virgin olive oil.
* Now slide a spatula under the potatoes to flip them over and fold them into one another, gently, gently, but patiently, thoroughly, to mix the dressing and dress the potatoes.
* Taste and correct: if not succulent with oil, add more; if too vinegary, add a little more lemon; if too lemony, add a little more vinegar; if bland, more salt and/or oregano--but easy does it with the oregano.
* When glistening, redolent, and tasty, eat, warm or cool, but not hot or cold.


with an option for Greens

* If you have fresh beet greens, then bring a big pot of well-salted water to a rolling boil, and boil the greens for a few minutes, just until tender. Fish them out and remove to a colander to drip dry.
* Unless you're opting for Tricolor Salad. In that case, trim and halve string beans, and boil them until fork tender, and remove them to a colander to drip dry.
* Boil the beets and potatoes together whole, until fork-tender to the center. Then cool enough to peel by hand, and cut up into demilunes, rounds, or slices, as large as you like.
* Dress the beets first. Rub a bowl with the milk of a crushed garlic clove, add the cut up beets, and dress them:
with a generous drizzle all over over of extra virgin olive oil; a good showering of salt, grindings of black pepper, and pinches of oregano; and a generous sprinkling all over of wine vinegar.
* Now slide a spatula under the beets to flip them over and fold them into one another, over and over, thoroughly, to mix the dressing and dress the beets.
* Now slide the potatoes on top of the dressed beets, and dress the potatoes more lightly:
generously drizzle light olive oil all over them; season evenly all over with a shower of salt, grindings of pepper, and a pinch of oregano; sprinkle temperantly all over with squirts of lemon juice; top off with another drizzling of olive oil.
* Now use a spatula to very gently flip, fold, mix, and marry the potatoes and beets. When the potatoes are as pink as you like, you're done dressing. Time to platter . . .
* If you have beet greens, first rub a serving platter with a halved garlic clove, and then lay the greens out. Season them evenly all over with light olive oil, squirts of lemon juice, and a light shower of salt. Then pour out the beets and potatoes along the platter attractively. Unless of course . . .
* . . . you're opting for Tricolor Salad.
In that case, dress the beets, potatoes, and string beans separately, and then mixing them together to mix, marry, and consummate. Then platter as pleases.


Potatoes 'n Green Beans,
with an option for Onions

* Boil potato wedges (I like half-inch demi-lunes), in salted water in the bottom pot of a doubler-boiler, while steaming the string beans, trimmed and halved, in the top steamer. Cook the potatoes and beans to tender firm, and drain, each in due time, together in the same strainer.
While the potatoes and beans are still steaming in the strainer, salt them evernly all over with an even showering of salt; grind black pepper lightly all over; and shoot a pinch or two of dried oregano at them. Allow them to cool down, whether to luke-warm or room-cool,
unless of course . . .
* . . . you're opting for boiled onions, whether white or yellow. In that case, boil your potatoes whole together with a whole onion or two, to fork-tender. Let cool, to peel by hand. Then slice your potatoes up into demi-lunes, and your onions perhaps half as thick as your potatoes,
unless of course . . .
* . . . you prefer raw red onion. In that case, boil the potatoes and green beans in any way, shape, or size you please, and meanwhile soak thin slices of red onion in salted water, to take off some of their pungency. Drain and and dry when ready to mix in.
* Rub platter or bowl with the milk of a crushed garlic clove. Discard clove halves. Add potatoes 'n green beans together with any elected onions.
* Layer dressing as follows: First drizzle generously all over with light olive oil. Then salt evenly all over with an even showering of salt; grind black pepper lightly all over; and shoot a pinch or two of dried oregano here and there. Now sprinkle temperantly all over with wine vinegar and/or lemon squirts. At last, top off with a generous drizzling all over of extra virgin olive oil.
* Now slide a spatula under and over, to flip and fold, mix and marry, gently but thoroughly.
* Taste and correct: if not succulent with oil, add more; if too vinegary, add a little more lemon; if too lemony, add a little more vinegar; if bland, more salt and/or oregano--but easy does it with the oregano.
* Eat glistening, redolent, and tasty, whether warm or cool, but not hot or cold.