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.

potatoes and other finds from Midtown Farmers Market on our kitchen table

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.

Potato salad in a yellow-orange bowl from above

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.


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6 comments on “Quick Pickle Potato Salad”

  1. Brian 26 June, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    I’ve been guilty of the “to taste” measurement on more than just salt and pepper. Sometimes I’ll extend it to garnishes like herbs and such, but you’re right: it’s a great cop-out! Your definition of “salt to taste” is also a really good one.

  2. Tom 27 June, 2011 at 6:06 am

    Yeah Brian, I shudder to think how many instances of “salt to taste” or other vague measurements like “a handful” or “some” would turn up in a search of this site’s archives. But I think we use words like that because that’s how we cook; I don’t often have the measuring cups out and I’ll often decide on an amount of something because that’s what I have, or that’s what I want to use up. Anyway, it’s hard to believe the difference between 1/4 cup of chopped cilantro and 1/3 cup of chopped cilantro is perceptible to most people.

    I haven’t always cooked that way, though. When I started out, I definitely always had my measuring cups on the counter and “salt to taste” always just meant throw in a random amount of salt and go with it. I think a lot of people start out there. So maybe it would be useful to include “salt to taste” in the ingredients list but be more descriptive in the procedure. Instead of “adjust seasoning” (something I’ve written a number of times, as if you could dial it up or dial it down) it should be “Add salt by the 1/8 teaspoon, stirring thoroughly between additions and tasting until you can specifically taste the cilantro.”

  3. Amy 27 June, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Looks delicious, Tom, and makes me want to make some even though I have pickles in the fridge!

  4. Deb 28 June, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Brian….salt matters, and also the type of salt you use. I’ve switched over to HimalaSalt pink salt from Sustainable Sourcing (kosher, organic, non-GMO, gluten-free) for dietary reasons—but it’s worth it for anyone…the flavor is SO MUCH BETTER than the other stuff on store shelves. Here’s their website in case you’re interested: They have peppercorns, too.

  5. Trout Caviar 28 June, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    All that cilantro sounds yucky, but everything else sounds, and looks, great. My Russian friend Tata makes a quick pickle in the freezer. She slices a nice kosher dill-size cuke the long way, salts it liberally, puts it in a zip bag with sliced garlic, dill…and maybe that’s all. I don’t think she uses vinegar. Anyway, she puts that in the freezer for some very specific and odd amount of time, 17 or 23 minutes (I have this written somewhere, I’ll have to look it up). That’s it. And I agree on the efficaciousness if not the outright necessity of pickles in spud salad. I also like lots of herbs in there, just not cilantro….

    I’m right with you on the salt question. I have an entry in the ingredients section of the cookbook that addresses this, starts off something like “You might not think I like salt very much from a quick scan of these recipes, but I do…”. But I almost never add it in quantities of even 1/8-teaspoon. It’s always a pinch here, pinch there, throughout the preparation. And at the end, yes, if it seems something’s missing, and the dish doesn’t taste noticeably salty, add a bit. Many a dud dish has been saved with a few pinches of salt.

    Dandy post, Tom.


  6. Diane 3 July, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    So Tom, do you have a good risotto recipe that could include scapes?