I know Summer’s about to screech to a halt, but up here we’ve had a stint of what my Dad used to call “State Fair weather”—hot, dry and dusty. Many gardens and farmer’s markets are full of nightshades, so I thought it would be a good time to introduce you to this easy potato salad you can eat warm or cold, depending on your preference or the temperature outside.
The inspiration for this recipe comes from two directions in my family line: my Italian paternal grandmother and my son Mike. Nelly Maggi, my Dad’s mother, came to the United States after marrying my grandfather Orazio back in their native village of Alberobello, Italy (which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its unique architecture. Check it out.). My grandfather had returned there, with the support of his brothers already here in the US, to bring their mother over. But when he got there, she told him she didn’t want to leave. Instead she insisted he take a bride back with him. So he met and married my grandmother (the details of how and when are elusive in the family story), who was red-headed and blue eyed, and NOT the oldest daughter in her family. All this proved to feel quite scandalous to his brothers, and they never spoke to him again!
I only knew my grandmother for a very short time, in small pieces of visits back East; she died when I was 7. But I still remember her laugh, her bright red braids piled up high on her head, her house dresses, and the way her fingers flew as she made orichetti—”little ears”–a popular pasta shape from her region. My head was only a bit higher than the table where she worked and I would stand at the edge, mesmerized. (I would later learn that the Vikings invaded the Adriatic Coast in the 10th century, which is probably where the blue eyes and red hair in our family might well come from. )
I have only a dim memory of this salad at their house, which came from the fruits of their vegetable garden, like mine does now. But we ate it back in California each summer I was growing up , and called it affectionately “Nana’s Potato Salad.” There’s no mayonnaise in it, or deviled egg; it’s healthy and “vegan” without trying to be. It’s simply cooked chopped potatoes, fresh tomatoes, red onion, garlic or garlic powder, fresh oregano, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and, of course, olive oil, all tossed together, and usually–but not always–chilled. It’s good both ways. So if you are one of my readers who still uses a bit of olive oil here and there, you might want to try this old country treatment as is.
Skipping ahead a few generations, I discovered my son is making his own oil free fusion version of his great grandmother’s recipe. He calls it one of his Lazy Man Meals, and here is how he described it in e-mail:
“A potato salad of sorts that I made the other night: dice onion, avocado, tomato. Sprinkle a tablespoon or so of Bragg’s on top. Add: diced steamed potatoes, black beans, mushrooms, olives, pepperoncini, spinach. Not sure about exact amounts, just make sure things are proportional. Seasoning: more Bragg’s, a healthy splashing of white vinegar, lots of Cajun seasoning, fresh ground pepper.Put it in a container with a top and shake it up to evenly coat everything. Also, if you do this when the potatoes are hot, it kind of mashes them up and adds some flavor to it. I think the secret is the onion and the white vinegar. Enjoy!”
Without realizing it, Mike was invoking the spirit of his Great Grandmother’s recipe. He had substituted whole olives and pepperoncini for the olive oil and an Italian flair. He’d made it a Lazy Man one dish meal, which meant he could mix it up and eat it out of the same container. And he gave it a fusion flair with the Cajun seasoning and white vinegar. And so it came to be, that thusly sandwiched between my grandmother and my son, I pondered which version of their versions that would be right for me.
Even though I didn’t know my paternal grandparents very well, I’ve always felt their influence. For instance, if there’s an Italian variety of something, I’ll grow it. One morning several years ago when I was watering I realized this and laughed, saying out loud to myself, “I feel like an old Italian man in a sleeveless undershirt!” And then. . .well then . . I realized that I felt the presence of my grandfather, watching over me and feeling pleased with my efforts to grow a good garden, and how he loved the striped romas, the little principe borghese tomatoes, the delicata winter squash, and even the DeCicco broccoli and arugula I insisted on trying to grow every year. I had thought the reason these things usually did best might have something to do with the similarity between the dry climate here and the dry climate in Italy, but in that moment I realized it also could very well have something to do with the fact that from wherever he is now, he blesses my efforts and watches over them. When I made the decision a few years ago to travel with my son at the height of my blackberry and pear season to visit my Dad one last time, I suddenly felt certain my grandfather would watch over everything while I was gone. When I was with my Dad, in some of his best moments of lucidity, he gave me a picture of my grandfather standing in front of his garden and told me a story that went with it I had never heard before. Here is a similar shot of my grandparents in front of their vegetable garden:
So it doesn’t surprise me much that when I began to consider a version of this salad I could comfortably eat, I suddenly remembered I probably had potatoes ready to dig up out in the garden. And that I might just have enough little tiny principe borghese tomatoes, too. Of course I have oregano, always. And rosemary, and fennel, Italian-y kinds of herbs. And THEN I remembered how earlier in the season I had infused some white balsamic vinegar with nasturtiums. This would give my salad the bright peppery flavor without the black pepper, which I am sensitive to, or the salty and too hot for me pepperoncini. And thus a version of this salad made mostly from what was in my backyard garden began to take shape. It hasn’t been a bumper year for my garden, so it was magical to realize that for this dish, there was more than enough from it to make a tempting meal. And, to me, a sign that, once again, my grandparents were watching over me.
First I dug up some potatoes and picked some tomatoes. Then I picked some escarole (another Italian green my grandparents ate and probably grew and would have approved of) in place of the spinach in Mike’s version.
Then I remembered that I had already dug up some shallots, and I used those in place of the red onion.
At it’s easiest this is a one dish salad, but I wanted to marinate the tomatoes and the shallot in the infused balsamic vinegar, and give the torn escarole my Easiest Avocado Dressing in the World treatment, so I cheated a little and marinated the tomatoes and shallot separately while the potatoes cooked and I mashed a small amount of avocado into the greens.
Shake and Serve Italian Style Potato Salad
Makes a large salad for one person.
Beware: there is a distinct lack of accurate measurements. Eyeballing is required.
Any kind of potatoes, several small ones, 2-3 medium ones, 1 very large one
any kind of tomatoes (maybe about ½-2/3 as many tomatoes as there are potatoes, whatever you like
2 small shallots or one large one (or chopped red onion, no more than a small half of one)
several escarole leaves (or spinach)
1 slice of avocado
3-4 tablespoons of white wine or while balsamic vinegar (nasturtium infused is nice)
any or all of the following fresh herbs: oregano, flat leaf parsley, rosemary, fennel leaves
Mike’s add-ins, to taste:
black olives, pepperoncini, mushrooms (he’s a Lazy Man, so he doesn’t sauté them first), black beans, Bragg’s or Coconut Aminos, black pepper
Cube the potatoes and steam them until fork tender. (No need to peel, but you can if you want to. I didn’t, and Mike didn’t either. I’m pretty sure my Grandmother did, but my mother and sister sometimes do and sometimes don’t.) Chop the tomatoes and shallot or red onion. In a small bowl, toss in a tablespoon or two of vinegar and sprinkle with garlic granules. Tear or chop the escarole or spinach into a large bowl or container with a top. Chop up the avocado slice and add to the greens. Sprinkle about 1 tbs of vinegar over the greens, or a little more, if you want. Mash up the avocado and vinegar mixture into the greens. Sprinkle with garlic granules. Chop up fresh herbs of your choice. When the potatoes are done steaming, add them and the tomatoes and shallots and herbs to the greens. Put the lid on the container or a plate over the bowl and shake it all up. (This part is really fun.)
Mix with a spoon, too, if needed. You’re done. You can eat now. Or as my Italian family would have said, “Mange, mange!!” (Eat, eat!!)
Or, before you do “mange,” you can add in more stuff and shake it up again: black beans for extra protein, Bragg’s or Coconut Aminos for saltiness, olives for more calorie density and Italian-ness, pepperoncini for an extra kick, and mushrooms, just because. Up to you. Oh and for that fusion flare, some Cajun seasoning. Maybe a little extra vinegar.
In the end I decided to do something I hope the spirit of my grandmother will forgive me for. In my version, I left out the oregano and put in parsley instead. But of course if was Italian parsley, which volunteers all over my vegetable garden. So maybe that evens everything out, along with a few sprigs of bronze fennel and rosemary chopped up for good ancestral measure. I hope so.