Cross-cultural compromise – on potato salad (with recipe!)


Mayonnaise for American-style potato salad

Lemon for Turkish-style potato salad

We stood, facing each other, with what can only be described as a glowering look.  Me – hand on my hip, mayonnaise in the other hand resting next to the bottom of my apron.  M. – hand on his hip, a lemon in his outstretched hand.  Usually, I am the first to explore something new vis-a-vis culinary creations. As we stood, locked in the detente that only a stubborn set of in-love human beings can achieve, the seconds ticked by.  Even our dog got in on the act, sitting in between us, looking back and forth at us with doleful, confused eyes.  His head moved as if there was a tennis match going on, even though neither M. nor I were moving an inch.  What, you may ask, led to this tense moment?  A request to bring potato salad to a party combined with our New Year’s resolution to do more cooking together.  Of course, we thought, we will just make the salad together.

Getting the ingredients from the market was bad enough – M. voted for waxy Idaho style-potatoes and I voted for the small red potatoes more familiar to me.  I compromised.  In my mind, we had all the rest of the stuff we needed at home.  In M.’s mind, we had all the rest of the stuff we needed at home.  We swung the heavy bag out of the store and walked up the street.  I should have known I was in for it when all of the shadow puppet troupe was lined up on the kitchen windowsills, heads in hands as if relaxing in the Sultan’s sitting room on low recliners.  They rarely all amass for regular goings on.  I just nodded my greetings to them, and placed a pot of water on to boil by starting with heating up a bay leaf (a.k.a. defne) in the bottom of the pot.  My grandmother always started this way, just heating the leaf ever-so-slightly in the pot to release some oils that would then make their way, very subtly, into the potatoes via the water that would soon boil there.

Defne (a.k.a. bay leaf or laurel leaf)

“What are you doing?”  M. cried, rushing into the kitchen.  “What is that smell – you are burning defne? We have to cook the salad, not burn some defne.  Is this your house purification ritual again?  I prefer to do that with lemons, not defne.”  Feeling put out, the hand immediately went to my hip “what’s it to you, a little defne, it is for the potato salad.” M. just looked at me quizzically and went to wash the potatoes before chopping them.  “Grandma Verna did it like this.  You know, something about the defne oil going into the potatoes?”  I said, feeling a bit insecure and a lot grumpy.  “OK, that’s your way, ok.” M. proceeded to chop the potatoes perfectly AND to clean up the resultant mess.  I am always thrilled to note this as one of the stupid things people ask me is whether I have trouble getting him to do work around the house.  In fact, it is probably more vice versa!  Reading my mind as only shadow puppets can do, Kenne and Khadijah clicked disapproving sounds, whispering to each other “she’s making a mistake, she should let that be her domain, not his.  This relationship is all out of whack.  A man, cleaning?”

As the perfectly-chopped potatoes bubbled away, their starchy steam fogging the windows behind the shadow puppets on the windowsill, we commenced preparing the salad.  I fished the mayonnaise out of the fridge and turned around to see M. choose a lemon from the cheery ceramic bowl on the counter.  As we met each other’s eye, the detente commenced.  “What do you need a lemon for?” I queried.  “Well, what are you doing with mayonnaise – you aren’t going to make that terrible, gooky stuff like in the market, are you? I really hate that” he said, with a bit less decorum than one might wish for.  As if poised towards a planful jinx, we both said “I am making it my Grandmother’s way.”  At this point, the detente was full-on.  The shadow puppets all leaned forward on their elbows – waiting for the next moments of the potato salad drama to play out.

All my life, I have made potato salad one way, my Grandma Verna’s way.  This way involves mayonnaise, garlic powder, celery, white onions, tarragon, pepper, salt and paprika.  All his life, M. has made potato salad his Babane‘s (Grandmother on the father’s side) way.  This way involves lemon juice, red onions, parsley, salt, pepper and pul biber (a.k.a. aleppo pepper, or red pepper flakes minus the seeds).  After much negociation and protest, a quick consideration of two different potato salads and a non-partisan taste test, I gave in.  I don’t know why I had a hard time letting go of my Grandmother’s approach that day – maybe just an off day – but I decided that having M. take the lead on our required potato salad was novel.  Even though he is a fabulous cook, I do most of the cooking around here.

The resulting salad was truly amazing – a mind blower for me – more akin to German-style potato salad than the salad I am used to – the one that you have to fight against in order to avoid the glop factor.  With smoked salt highlighting the lemon juice-infused potatoes, the fresh brightness of parsley and the soft crunch of purple onions all fused together with some high quality olive oil, it was the hit of the party, and I stood corrected – and proud of the man who could cook so well.  Even Kenne and Khadijah relented a little bit upon splitting a tiny, puppet-sized portion of the unctuous stuff.

Now, as the years have flown by, the potato salad we love has evolved into what can only be referred to as a cross-cultural dish, and here is how it goes.

Turkish-American Compromise Potato Salad

Step 1:  Heat the defne in the bottom of the pot for boiling the potatoes – don’t burn it though.  Just heat it enough, no blackening need.

Step 2: Chop and boil the potatoes (we have moved to red bliss potatoes over the years).  It takes less time than you might imagine, so be sure to test them along the way, you don’t want mashed potatoes.

Smoked paprika, celery salt, freshly cracked black pepper, smoked salt, pul biber (Aleppo pepper) red wine vinegar and lemon juice waiting to be made into a slurry

Step 3: Choose a low, wide bowl, so that when you mix the dressing with the hot potatoes, they can cool enough and it is easy to mix.  In the bowl, put more red vinegar than you might imagine (1/2 cup? I don’t know, I eyeball it) and the juice of three lemons after zesting one of them and putting it in the bowl.  Add smoked salt and cracked pepper, smoked paprika (I use a whole jar of the standard spice jar size), celery salt, pul biber and even some cayenne if you like, and using a fork, make it into a slurry of the red, fiery sort.

Add more celery salt, to taste - an underused and interesting flavor in my mind

Step 4:  Check your potatoes to make sure they are not overcooking and taste the slurry to see if you have enough celery salt.

Step 5:  Chop up one large purple onion, squeeze lots of garlic with a garlic press (we prefer that to chopping garlic, as you get more garlic juice and we are major garlic lovers), wash and chop a head of flat-leafed maydanoz (parsley) and finely chop a chunk of the heart of celery.  Throw it all in the big bowl and mix with the red, fiery slurry.Chopped celery, maydanoz (parsley), purple onion and pressed garlic with lemon zest and pul biber

Step 6:Drain the potatoes when they are just right and mix them with what is in the bowl.  Let it sit for about 20 minutes so it can absorb the flavors. If you feel it is not wet enough, squeeze another lemon over the mix and/or add some more red wine vinegar (I have also used white balsamic vinegar, to great effect, try this brand).

Mix it all up before you add the hot, steamy potatoes

Step 7: Drizzle a nice extra virgin olive oil over the salad and mix it up.  It is important to do this last, so that the acidic flavors can make their way into the potatoes first.  Then enjoy!

Drizzle some super delicious extra virgin olive oil that tastes good on its own all over the salad and mix it up - after the salad has been marinating for a while

So there you go – you will note that over the years, the defne ritual made it into our recipe along with the celery I am used to along with the paprika and cayenne – and as with everything else in our home – we spice with abandon so there is a lot more than my Grandma Verna would approve of, but we love it!  Try it out, and make your own recipe renovations.  Health to your hands!