Quick Pickle Potato Salad
It all started with an acute lack of pickles. As in, I had not a jar of pickles to my name, not even in the deepest back recesses of the middle shelf of the refrigerator. But golf-ball sized potatoes from yesterday’s Midtown Farmers Market were demanding to be made into potato salad and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time on this earth it’s that you can’t make a decent potato salad without pickles.
What I did have, though, were cucumbers. And what are pickles but cucumbers plus vinegar plus salt—and maybe sugar—plus time? I could kill two birds with one stone here: I could start my salad dressing while at the same time transforming fresh cucumbers into quick pickled ones, another key ingredient to the salad.
I began by whisking two tablespoons of brown sugar and two teaspoons of salt into about a cup of white vinegar until the sugar and salt were dissolved. To this I added one peeled, seeded, quartered and thinly sliced cucumber and stirred well. I also added a few chopped small onions to the cucumber, thinking the vinegar might tame some of the onions’ wicked heat. I let the cucumber and onions sit and pickle while I boiled thick slices of potato for the salad.
When the potatoes were just cooked, but not at all falling apart, I drained them and added them to the bowl with the cucumber, onions and vinegar. Adding the potatoes to the vinegar while they’re hot helps to season them. After the potatoes had cooled, I added a healthy scoop of mayonnaise (Hellman’s, or you could use homemade), a quarter cup of minced cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste.
To taste, by the way, is an instruction that shows up in recipes again and again, especially in reference to salt and pepper, but that’s rarely explained. It’s a great cop-out for recipe writers, actually: if the recipe ends up sucking, you probably didn’t salt it properly (or you have bad taste). I’m sure each cook has a different definition. In the case of this potato salad, though, and actually most instances where I use the phrase, what I mean by “salt to taste” is keep adding salt until you take a taste of the dish and you immediately go back for another, and another, and you almost can’t stop. That’s what happened when I got the salt right in this potato salad — I actually yelled out an expletive, and that’s not something I usually do in the kitchen unless I’m bleeding or on fire.
My pickle shortage ended up being a blessing in disguise. Freshly pickled cucumbers — soft yet still crisp, sweet and sour — were better than anything found in a jar.