<p>I've only lived in the South for ten years; before that I lived in Oklahoma. Even though Oklahoma technically isn't the South, my grandmother, Willie Ruth Abbott (or Mee-Mo, as my cousin Kitty dubbed her), was a true Southern cook, making fresh sausage gravy and biscuits every morning, pouring cornbread batter into hot bacon grease in her cast-iron mold. What I learned about Southern food early on in life was all due to spending time in the kitchen with Mee-Mo, crimping the edges of her fried pies. When I was growing up, we'd travel every few years to family reunions held at Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Durant, Oklahoma--a densely green and hilly area in the southeastern corner of the state. Long tables would be set up in the covered pavillion of the cemetery, loaded with every cook's most-requested dishes: fried chicken, dilly bread, peach cobbler, macaroni salad, angel biscuits, fried pies, baked beans, and several potato salads. Just writing this list makes my soul ache for those sweltering afternoons of paper plates weighted down with so much good food.
Mee-Mo had one of the most popular potato salads. Sometimes she'd get a little carried away, adding black olives or tomatoes or other oddities, but she could make a tasty dressing, which is really what potato salad is all about. I'd like to think that all "good southern girls (or boys)" can whip up a potato salad from scratch simply by birthright, but the reality is that it takes a little practice. You need to overseason the dressing a bit, because the potatoes are going to zap up some of its zing as soon as they touch it. You need to make more dressing than you think you'll need, because the potatoes will soak up a good deal of it while the salad chills. These are the tips you learn from a good-southern-girl-turned-grandmother, and we're all lucky if we've had the chance to know one.
*Note: Here in Louisiana, a popular home-cooking treat is to make potato salad to eat with your gumbo. Put some potato salad on your spoon, dunk it in your hot gumbo, and enjoy. I've tried it, and it's pretty awesome.
Good Southern Girl Potato Salad
- 4 pounds red-skinned potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
- salt and ground black pepper
- 2 stalks celery, minced
- 1 bunch green onions, sliced (both green and white parts)
- 2 T. sweet pickle relish (optional)
- 3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped (optional)
- 3/4- to 1 cup mayonnaise
- 3 T. grainy mustard (I use Creole, but Dijon or deli or plain old yellow are fine)
- 2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 T. red wine vinegar
- 1 t. fresh thyme or 1 t. chopped fresh dill
- Bring about 4 quarts of well-salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add potatoes and bring back to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook for about 9 minutes, or until potatoes are tender but not mushy. Test one by poking a sharp knife point into some of the bigger pieces: if there is no resistance, they're done.
- Drain potatoes into a colander. Place them back in the pot, where the residual heat will help dry out some of the excess water. Let cool for about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make the dressing. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise and mustard. Slowly whisk in the olive oil, then the vinegar. Season well with salt and pepper and add the fresh thyme. Taste for seasoning: it should have a good amount of zing. If not, adjust it by adding little bits more of salt, pepper, vinegar, mustard, or whatever you think it needs.
- Add potatoes and all the other ingredients to dressing, stirring gently with a rubber spatula to avoid breaking all the potatoes. Taste for seasoning again and adjust. If it seems dry, go ahead and add more mayo or oil and mix it in--it's better to do it now than after chilling.
- Chill, covered, in refrigerator for at least an hour and up to a day.