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Summer potato salad season is upon us

With Memorial Day in our rear-view mirrors, the season of Outdoor Eating has officially begun. This is when I head to my recipe files and pull out all my favorite potato salad offerings. And the three I’m sharing with you this week are at the very top of my list. Each one brings a special twist to the potato salad genre.

But first a little potato primer. Using the right kind of potato can mean the difference between well-defined potato chunks and mush. Classic family recipe aside — which may force you to use a russet potato because “that’s the way Grandma made it” — the potato of choice is usually a lower-starch variety, typically called “new” potatoes.

Starch is a prominent part of a potato's composition. Actually, starch granules. The amount and size of starch granules in any given potato is determined by variety and growing conditions. And it’s the amount and size of those starch granules that determines how a potato behaves in your salad recipe.

When a potato is heated, the starch granules absorb water from surrounding tissue and swell. The common russet potato (also known as Idaho Russet or simply Idaho or "baking" potato), contains relatively large starch granules. So they can absorb more water from around the cells, which produces their characteristic dry, mealy texture. This is why the Russet Burbank is considered excellent for baking and mashed potato dishes, but not the best choice for potato salads, because they tend to fall apart when manipulated too much.

I Yukon Golds, which have a lower starch content than the russett, but still high enough to provide a tender texture. They also have that glorious golden yellow flesh and a buttery, sweet taste.

Lower-starch varieties such as red potatoes and some round white varieties have even smaller starch granules then the Yukon. So they don’t absorb a high amount of moisture, which means their cells don't separate and produce that "baked potato" fluffiness. Along with the Yukon Gold, these are the guys you want to use for most potato salads.

With that said, one of my favorite recipes is the one I acquired from a popular Corvallis eatery, Old World Deli, that uses russets. But if you read through it, you’ll understand how the creator of this most wonderful concoction, co-owner Veronica Cox, has made it work. It’s a humble preparation consisting of a mere eight ingredients: potato, celery, onion, hard-cooked egg, black olive, salt, pepper and mayonnaise. A classic All-American production.

Old World Deli’s Potato Salad

2 pounds medium-sized russet potatoes (about 6)

¾ cup chopped celery (¼-inch cut)

¾ cup chopped white onion

1/3 cup chopped black olives

Salt and pepper

3 hard-cooked eggs, diced

1 to 1½ cups good quality mayonnaise

Place the unpeeled potatoes in a large pot with enough water to cover. Replace lid, bring the water to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until tender. This will take approximately 15 to 22 minutes, depending on the size and shape of your potatoes.

Some potatoes cook faster than others; keep a slotted spoon handy so you can fish out the done ones and let the undone ones continue cooking. When the potatoes become cool enough to handle, remove the peel by holding the potato and scraping its surface with the sharp edge of a straight knife. The peel will slide off in large segments.

Let the potatoes cool further, before cutting. The cooling period is essential because it helps the potato firm up and hold together when cut into chunks. So don’t cut them until the potatoes stop steaming.

Once cool to the touch (but still slightly warm in the center), cut the potatoes into ½- to ¾-inch chunks and place them in a large bowl. Salt the potatoes generously before proceeding, then gently toss the chunks to distribute the salt. Add the celery, onion and olives, then salt the mixture again and gently toss. Add the eggs and gently toss again to distribute the egg throughout the mixture.

Fold in 1 cup of the mayonnaise. Add additional mayonnaise as necessary to attain a moist but not overly sauced mixture. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper. Refrigerate before serving to develop the flavors.

Sue's Memorable Potato Salad

This is my sister-in law’s recipe, which has become a family favorite. It's a bit free-wheeling, but here's how she does it.

Cook desired number of white potatoes until tender, then peel and cube into desired-size chunks (Sue's are about ½-inch in size). While the potatoes are cooking, prepare your dressing by combining mayonnaise and mustard ("the mixture will be a good lemony color, which means quite a bit of mustard"). Stir in cider vinegar and equal amounts of dill and sweet pickle juice, then add onion powder, celery salt and dillweed ("lots of dillweed") to taste. ("The object is to get the dressing really salty and really tangy — almost TOO salty and tangy, because otherwise, when you combine it with the potatoes, it will be too bland.")

Immediately after potatoes have been cooked, peeled and cubed, add about half of the dressing. ("It's important to add this much while the potatoes are hot so they will absorb the dressing.") Stir in the chopped pickles and eggs, then refrigerate. Once the salad has cooled, add additional dressing to reach desired consistency.

Diane’s German Potato Salad

Makes about 6 servings

10 slices bacon, diced

2 pounds (about 6 medium) red potatoes

1 egg, beaten

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon salt, more to taste

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, more to taste

½ cup white wine vinegar

1/3 cup water

1 medium red onion, cut into thin rings

Saute the bacon in a skillet over medium high heat until browned and crisp. Remove bacon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Pour off all but a thin layer of the bacon fat; set aside.

In a large pot with salted water to cover, cook the potatoes until just tender. Drain and cool until easy to handle. Peel and cut into ½-inch cubes.

While the potatoes are cooking, whisk together the egg, sugar, flour, mustard, salt and pepper in the skillet used to cook the bacon. Add the vinegar and water, and whisk again. Place the pan over medium heat, scraping up all the cooked-on bits of bacon and stirring constantly until the mixture heats and thickens. This will take about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.

Place the cooked and cubed potatoes in a bowl, along with the cooked bacon and the onion rings. Pour the dressing over the potatoes, mix well, season with additional salt and pepper if necessary. May be served immediately, or chilled.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.