Once upon a time, I was a college student, with few cooking skills and even fewer recipes of my own. I liked cookbooks and used the few that I had frequently. But I soon realized that the best recipes are the ones that someone else treasures. One of my favorite such recipes was handed down by my college roommate Marcia’s mom. Doris was a great cook and an incredibly warm person. I adored her and was honored when she gave me her potato salad recipe.
When I need a picnic or barbecue side dish, I don’t look for a glitzy, multi-ingredient, chic food recipe; I pull out a yellowed sheet of paper on which I carefully transcribed the directions for Doris Mitnick’s potato salad back in the Pleistocene, before we had computers and cell phones.
This version of potato salad is simple and inexpensive, but incredibly addictive. It’s best made the evening before you plan to serve it because there are 2 stages when the ingredients have to be refrigerated, preferably for a total of 8-12 hours. The original recipe was for 5 pounds of potatoes, enough to feed quite a crowd. I’ve cut it down to 2 pounds, which still feeds 5-6 people as a side dish. The ingredients are so limited that I didn't provide a cost breakdown.
Like many wonderful home cooks, Doris didn't give precise amounts for some ingredients or precise directions for certain steps. I’ve added some of those details, but don’t fret too much over the ingredient amounts or timing provided. If you keep watch over the potatoes as they cook and consider your own preferences on the amounts of onion and mayonnaise, the result will be just fine.
The last step in the directions that Doris gave me were “have Joel taste.” I’ve had to modify that step; Marcia’s brother Joel is unavailable to taste my batches of potato salad. I found a competent substitute, my husband Kevin, and you’ll just have to find your own taster, among friends or family members. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
Doris Mitnick’s potato salad (with notes and a few adaptations) 5-6 servings Total cost - About $3.50 ($.60 per serving)
- 2 pounds “new” potatoes – younger, smaller potatoes with thinner skins. I use red potatoes. Definitely do not use large russet or baking potatoes, but larger, red potatoes also work. If potatoes are larger than about 2 inches across, cut them in half or quarters.
- 3 tablespoons or more of finely diced onion - I prefer sweet or Vidalia onion, but the original used a regular, yellow onion.
- 1 ½ teaspoons oil (Doris didn’t specify the type of oil – I prefer olive oil.)
- 1 ½ teaspoons wine vinegar - I use plain red wine vinegar. Doris just said "vinegar". I think cider or sherry vinegar would be fine too. I wouldn't use balsamic vinegar because of its deep color.
- 3 tablespoons or more of mayonnaise - enough to hold potatoes and onion together
- salt and pepper to taste
- Cutting board
- Measuring spoon
- Medium size knife for cutting onion
- Small knife for peeling potato skins
- Spatula for mixing
- Airtight container for refrigerating potato salad overnight
- Put the unpeeled potatoes into a large pot of cold water, bring to a rolling boil. Continue boiling until a fork goes through potatoes, but they are not yet soft. Generally this takes about 5-10 minutes after the they have come to a boil. Keep checking the potatoes for doneness every couple of minutes, so that you do not overcook them.
- Take the potatoes out of the boiling water and cool them for a few hours in the refrigerator. I run cold water over them in a colander or sieve, then add a bunch of ice cubes with a bowl underneath the colander (to catch the melting ice cube water) before I put the potatoes in the refrigerator. If you use cold water and ice, they should be ready to peel in about 2 hours. Otherwise, it may take 3-4 hours.
- Once the potatoes are cold, you an easily peel them with a small, sharp knife. Cut them into small pieces and chop the onions as finely as you can. If you used my method with ice cubes, dry the potatoes a bit with a paper or dish towel before you cut them.
- Chop the onion as finely as you can.
- Mix the diced potatoes, chopped onion, mayonnaise. Add salt and pepper, oil and vinegar.
- Put in an airtight container and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
- After the refrigeration time has allowed the flavors to meld, have your taster test, and if necessary, add more oil, vinegar, salt and/or pepper.
Food safety reminder - This dish has mayonnaise in it, so it should not be kept out of the refrigerator longer than 2 hours. If you’re taking the potato salad to an outdoor event, make sure to keep it in a cooler with plenty of ice or ice packs. After all, better safe than sorry.
Happy Labor Day. Enjoy good times with friends and family.