No, it doesn’t need hard-boiled eggs.
Should potato salad have hard-boiled eggs in it? When Riz Rollins — beloved DJ at Seattle’s KEXP, avid home cook and beautiful soul — posed that question on Facebook, people expressed very strong beliefs. “Oh, yes, eggs! Eggs, I tell you!” exhorted one side. “There’s a reason egg salad is different,” argued the other. (“Because they are icky,” one anti-egg partisan elaborated.)
Riz was agnostic on this contentious matter. “This was on July Fourth,” Riz related recently, preparing a batch of potato salad. (He rolled out the word “July” marvelously, “Ju-LIE.”) His husband, Rob Green, a nurse at Harborview, had to work that day, and Riz decided that the two of them would not bear witness to any patriotic displays. Instead, he would make potato salad, among other things, for a living-room-carpet picnic. (Hot tip: When he doesn’t fry his own chicken, he likes the thighs from City Market on Capitol Hill.)
For a recipe, he called his mom. “Most people think that their mama’s potato salad is the best,” he said. His mama’s was so good, “Church ladies and my teachers alike would pay her to make it.” Eventually, she stopped because it was too much work. Undeterred, Riz got a list of ingredients from her, “No proportions whatsoever … At the end, she goes, ‘Oh, you can add eggs, or not.’ And that’s all she said.”
He thought of more stuff that would likely be good: Chinese celery, red onion, serrano pepper. “The object,” Riz explained, “is to make it better than my mama and beat her at her own game!” Eggs were on the list, but after a weed cookie and a mob scene at Lam’s, the Asian market near where he lives, they were forgotten. That’s when he consulted “the Oracle,” as he calls Facebook; the overwhelming response, combined with the increasingly unappealing idea of going back to the store, led him to the path of no eggs. His potato salad came out so well, he sees no need to mess with it. (He’s also opposed to “rubbery egg whites,” and, as he put it, “I ain’t gonna be scooping out yolks and [expletive], ’cause I ain’t that girl.”)
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It’s true: Riz’s potato salad seems to want for nothing. It has, joyfully, much more crunch than most (Chinese celery, bell peppers, onions), which plays off the tender potato-pieces (three kinds!) and super-creamy dressing (his mom sends him Duke’s mayonnaise from Atlanta, but he also likes Kewpie). It also has, excitingly, a slight but bright spicy heat (serrano) that says hel-LO without any obliteration of the nuances of appreciation. It’s also beautiful, a confetti party of color, unlike your mom’s (or at least my mom’s) potato salad.
The only salt in his recipe goes into the water in which to boil the potatoes. (As far as sweetness goes, “Some recipes call for sugar,” he says. “I think that’s insane.”) His grandma peeled her potatoes precooking; his mom peeled after cooking; he leaves the jackets on. Riz says his grandma would call this (not to mention the use of Dijon mustard) “saditty,” slang for high-falutin’. If he ever opened a restaurant, he’d call it Saditty. (“She’d criticize that, too!” he laughs.)
Chinese celery is longer, thinner, and a deeper, brighter green than regular old celery, with a flourish of leafiness at the top and more flavor — more peppery, maybe flirting with bitter. (Uwajimaya carries it as well as Lam’s, and once you know what it looks like, you could probably find it at other Asian markets.) Riz uses the leaves in place of cilantro (“gets soapy”) or Italian parsley (“feels a little precious to me”). He calls dill an “enemy” of potato salad; if you’re including it, he says, “You just [expletived] that up.” When it comes to serrano (and other) peppers, the good people of Alvarez Organic Farms at the Columbia City Farmers Market instructed him that the wrinkly ones “with anomalies” on their skin are the hottest. He minced one and tasted it. “This sumbitch is hot!” he said, laughing. “I never sweat — look at me!” He laughed some more. “So there’s only gonna be one serrano pepper!”
There’s tasting, and there’s timing. The songs Riz likes are generally longer ones, five to seven minutes, and he uses one track heading into another as his intuitive kitchen timer for, say, when to check the doneness of potatoes. We listened to the honeyed, heart-lifting and -wrenching jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant; he’d read about her in The New Yorker, and strongly recommends seeing her at Jazz Alley from Aug. 31 through Sept. 3. “I haven’t been this excited about a singer in a long time,” he said. You may also want to make a note of the date Oct. 8, when Riz himself will be singing at KEXP’s Gathering Space as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival.
The process of cooking is, according to Riz, “inherently organic and spiritual.” He’s generally opposed to food processors, which tend to get things overchopped; your own two hands are the best way to find the right textures. Even the measurements here, in his own recipe, are rough ones, for Riz is not a measuring-cup kind of cook. “You’ve got to get your ass in the kitchen, and taste, and perfect … that’s where the love is,” he says.
Could you go the egg route? “There’s no definitive potato salad,” he says.
“The key to making the best potato salad … is chasing the potato-salad spirit. You’re not gonna make it perfect the first time, and you’re not gonna make it perfect from a recipe.” Cooking, Riz holds, is like dancing: “You gotta trust yourself … and if you do, the longer you live, the better you get.”
Riz Rollins’ Potato Salad
Serves 6 to 8 people as a side
Even though you can make it the same day, like Riz did on the Fourth of July, he says that for optimal flavor, “It really ought to be chilled six to eight hours at least … Overnight’s best.”
½ cup kosher salt
3 each of medium-sized russet, Yukon Gold and red potatoes
2 cups white onion, fairly finely chopped (about 1 medium onion)
2 cups red onion, fairly finely chopped (about 1 medium onion)
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 or 2 small serrano peppers (to taste), minced
1 stalk of Chinese celery, stalk chopped thin, leaves chopped coarsely, about 1 cup of each
2 cups mayonnaise
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
¼ cup Dijon mustard
1/3 cup pickle relish
2 tablespoons drained capers
Paprika, sweet or smoked (“You make the call”)
1. Put the salt in a pot of water large enough to cover the potatoes and bring it to a boil. Add the potatoes and reduce heat to a simmer. After 15 minutes, test one of the russets (which are the firmest) with a fork; it should go in easily when the potatoes are done (“You want that give,” Riz says). Don’t poke them a bunch; if not ready, test again every five minutes. When done, remove from heat, drain and let cool for an hour or so.
2. Cut one of each kind of potato in half lengthwise, then into lengthwise quarters, then along the lengths into roughly bite-sized pieces. Place the first three cutup potatoes in a layer in a big bowl, then layer about a third of the onions, peppers and Chinese celery on top. (How much is ‘about a third’? “It’s a visual thing,” Riz says. Each layer of his looked like colorful confetti, but don’t use all the onions, peppers or Chinese celery if it seems like too much. Anything left over can go in hash browns later, or soup.) Repeat with the remaining potatoes, onions, peppers and Chinese celery, making more layers in the bowl (this helps with not having to mix as much). Using your (clean) hands, gently mix the different layers to combine, taking care not to knock the potatoes around too much or overmix.
3. To make the dressing, put the remaining ingredients except the paprika in a medium bowl and stir to combine. Taste and adjust if need be. (“If it doesn’t taste good now, it ain’t gonna taste good in there,” Riz says. His dressing tasted like something you want to dip the rest of your life into.)
4. Pour half of the dressing over the potatoes, etc., and mix gently with a wooden spoon, just to combine. See how wet it is, taste a bite, and add more until it seems just right. (If you have leftover, you can use it as dip.)
5. “You finish it — and this is an ode to my mom — with a dusting of paprika on top,” says Riz. The dusting is liberal. Chill six hours to overnight for optimal greatness.