I’m kind of a goober, really. Even though I exult at the first unfurlings of spring green leaves, and feel deeply the fleeting beauty of the red leaves of fall, my body seems to feel it should always be summer. This is particularly strange because a) I don’t always love the heat of summer — I’ve become one of those Pacific Northwest weenies who stifle when the heat is above 83° — and b) I grew up in Southern California, where even in childhood I wondered when a definitive change of season would finally occur. There, it was a pleasant 65° to a sweltering 108°, with no real shift in light or time. Just sunny skies and smog, warm to horrendously hot. I love living in Washington, where the season drips in slowly, then the first liquid light of spring awakens every plant and person it splashes on. I can no longer imagine living in a place where it is perpetually summer.
Still, there’s this deeply primal part of me that breathes when the strawberries finally come to the farmers’ market and all the trees — every alder lining the drive from Lu’s afternoon school to the cherry tree in our backyard — is fully leaved again. The radishes from the garden have a peppery crunch. The peonies with their layers like petticoats about to be shed are showing off. Our trampoline gets daily use, just after dinner. “Ah,” my body says. “Winter — that awful drone of a time when the earth refuses to offer up smells — it’s finally gone and a memory. Maybe it will never come back again!”
(For the record, Danny loves winter. He’s always disappointed when we have another mild time here, one without a three-day snow storm that knocks down power lines and leaves us in the dark. He grew up in Colorado. I grew up in Southern California. It’s pretty easy to do that math.)
I’m almost 49. I do know that winter returns every year. But for now, it’s summer. It’s time to start talking about potato salad.
Danny and I have been spending an inordinate amount of time talking about potato salad lately. Why? Because we are always talking about potatoes. Potatoes really are a gift to the world. When I was first diagnosed with celiac, I knew I’d be fine when I remembered potatoes are gluten-free. Danny’s an Ahern, descended purely from Irish folk on both sides of his family. If we go a day without eating potatoes, he starts going through withdrawal symptoms. Someday, we’re going to write a cookbook filled only with potato recipes. But for now, we talk about how we want to make potatoes that day. Roasted in duck fat? Grated and made into potato pancakes for breakfast with fried eggs and sausages? Hasselback potatoes? (Recently, we watched a documentary about Francis Mallman, part of a series of documentaries called Chef’s Table, and we were mesmerized. Watching the slow-motion closeups of the potato dishes he made to celebrate the cuisine of the Andes left us both staring, wild-eyed, at the tv.) There’s always time for a plate of potatoes in our house.
Potato salad is summer to me. Roasting can go away for awhile now. Instead, I love chunks of cold potato, tender to the tooth, with slivers of hard-boiled eggs and bits of pickles, fresh chives, and a homemade mayonnaise-mustard sauce. Since I met Danny, I have not been able to eat deli potato salad. His way — small Yukon potatoes quartered and cooked, seasoned with sea salt and perhaps with smoked paprika — has left me satisfied every time. But lately, we’ve been thinking about warm potato salad.
There’s something soothing about warm potatoes, softly shrugging at the edges of the steam, wrapped in a warm vinaigrette with a bite. I like a really acidic vinaigrette. I’m no weenie that way. Danny likes something a bit more subtle, more heat than acid. So one day, for dinner, he threw together a warm bacon-sriracha vinaigrette. (He made a separate dressing for the kids, since Lucy would have scrunched up her mouth and said, “Too spicy!” She’s 6.) The heat spread slowly through my mouth. The soft potatoes yielded to the crunch of the stiff bits of cooked, cooled bacon. There were second helpings that night.
The next time Danny made this potato salad with warm bacon-sriracha vinaigrette, he parboiled the potatoes in thick slices, then cooled them. After, he slathered the slices in olive oil and cooked them on the grill until they were nearly blackened in places. When they were still warm but only a-little-too-hot on his fingers, he chopped them up and tossed them with the dressing. Good friends ate dinner with us on the back porch and they were happy, amazed. However, most home cooks — that’s me — we like a simpler way. So we’ve offered you both here.
When it’s really summer — especially that one week of August when everyone near Seattle wilts and wishes for air conditioning because it’s in the 90s — I’ll want cold potato salad for a picnic under the plum tree outside our kitchen window. But right now, when the air is newly warm, with a hint of cool in the evening, I’ll take this warm potato salad with a bacon-sriracha vinaigrette. I can imagine it in any season, really. Heck, it might even make winter more palatable this year.
potato salad with warm bacon-sriracha vinaigrette
10 thick slices bacon
1 shallot, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
olive oil (optional)
1 tablespoon sriracha sauce (use another tablespoon if you like more heat)
2 pounds red bliss potatoes, quartered
1/4 cup finely sliced green onions (optional)
Cook the bacon. Put the bacon slices on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Put the baking sheet in the oven. Turn the oven on to 425°. Set the timer for 22 minutes. The bacon should be sizzling and starting to crisp. If not, go a few more moments. (Each oven may vary.) Remove the bacon onto a paper-towel-lined plate.
Make the vinaigrette. Set a large skillet on medium heat. Pour in enough bacon grease to cover the bottom of the skillet (about 1 teaspoon). Add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until the shallot is softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Pour in the red wine vinegar and stir in the mustard. Whisk it all together vigorously until it is emulsified. Pour the remaining bacon grease into a measuring cup. You are aiming for 1/2 cup of fat here. If you don’t have enough bacon grease, add enough olive oil to make up 1/2 cup. Pour the fat into the hot pan. Add the sriracha and whisk it together.
Boil the potatoes. While the bacon is cooking, put the potatoes into a large pot. Fill the pot with cold water. Add enough salt to make the water taste like the ocean. Bring the potatoes to a boil on high heat. Turn down the heat to medium high. Cook the potatoes until they are tender — when you can insert a sharp paring knife into the center of the potato piece and the potato slides off the knife — about 10 minutes. Drain the potatoes and put them in a large bowl.
Dress the potato salad. Slowly drizzle the warm bacon vinaigrette over the warm potatoes. Don’t use all of it — just enough to lightly coat the potatoes. Toss to combine. Taste the potato salad. Season with salt and pepper, if you want.
Chop the cooked bacon into small pieces. Toss it into the salad. Add the green onions, if you are using them. You might want to add a bit more vinaigrette, as warm potatoes can be thirsty. Also, it’s bacon-siracha vinaigrette. Don’t skimp.
Feel like making it Danny’s way? If you want to spend a little more time in the kitchen, here’s what Danny did. Use large Yukon potatoes. Slice them into thick slices, like little steaks, instead of chopping them. Boil them until they are just barely tender, about 5 minutes. Drain the potatoes and let them cool to room temperature. Fire up the grill. When it’s roaring hot, slather both sides of the slices of potato with olive oil. Grill the potato slices until they have lovely grill marks on both sides. Remove them from the grill. When they are cool enough to touch, chop them up and dress them with the vinaigrette.