Potato Salad

The German version is surprisingly light and intensely flavored

I recently went to Lübeck, the northern-German city on the Baltic known as the home of Thomas Mann and marzipan, and, with less enthusiasm, as a home of herring. I was fulfilling a longtime desire to see herring, one of the world's most underappreciated fish, being caught and salted in a city whose fortunes were built on it nearly a thousand years ago. I was also after a definitive version of potato salad—"one of the great triumphs of traditional German cuisine," as Horst Scharfenberg says in The Cuisines of Germany, and a particular specialty of the restaurant-owning couple I visited, who, like most of their compatriots, seldom serve herring without potatoes.

I arrived in time to go out with the last herring expedition before local fishermen headed to colder waters for the summer. And I absorbed very useful salad-making tips from a woman descended from a line of professional women cooks. The surprisingly light and intensely flavored German potato salad—tangy from vinegar and subtly oniony, with the note of sweetness common to all the region's salads—comes as a revelation to people used to bland, mayonnaise-slathered salads that weigh down plates at barbecues. (It's a far safer picnic and buffet dish, too, given that warm mayonnaise is an ideal bacteria-growing environment.)

The seemingly inbred ability to make good potato salad may result from the German appreciation of many kinds of potatoes and how best to use them at different times of the year—appreciation and knowledge anyone can gain by visiting farmers' markets now and in the next few months. Most of the heirloom potatoes that appear at farmers' markets are waxy, or low-starch, potatoes, quite different from big, thick-jacketed baking potatoes. Waxy potatoes are good for salads because they hold their shape when boiled, their high moisture content means a creamy texture, and they usually have better flavor than their mealy cousins. The newly popular fingerling potatoes, named for their shape (there are many varieties), are almost all low-starch potatoes, good for steaming, boiling, and roasting, and ideal for salad.

Truly new potatoes, which usually appear at farm stands from mid-August through September, are delicate of flavor and fragile of skin. They haven't even formed their final skin, in fact, and the flaky, evanescent flaps rub off as you touch them (the test of a new potato); they should be rinsed gently rather than scrubbed. It's best to season new potatoes very lightly, to appreciate their fugitive flavor and just-getting-firm texture. The writer Barbara Kafka steams new potatoes over medium heat in a generous amount of butter in a heavy, closely covered pot (she uses enameled cast iron). She frequently shakes the pot to prevent the potatoes from sticking, and does not lift the lid to check for doneness until the potatoes have cooked for a full half hour, so as to keep in the steam. A pot of these very lightly carmelized and intensely fragrant potatoes, just off the stove and uncovered at the table, can bring anyone back to the virtues of butter.

By late September to the beginning of November potatoes of all kinds have become their true selves, and are ready for salads and stronger seasonings. Most potato growers "cure" potatoes in dark, cool areas for several weeks before shipping them, so that they will withstand storage until the next season. Any potatoes from a local farmers' market will be superior to the long-stored ones from a supermarket, and the more dirt the better: industrial washing usually means potatoes from afar. If a farm in your area is selling heirloom varieties, look for Ozette, the best-tasting of the dozen or more fingerlings I've tried over the years; Ratte—also called Reine—are lovely too. Happily, a golden color usually means more than just a cosmetic suggestion of a buttery, rich flavor. (Color association also holds true with blue potatoes, this time negatively; people are generally averse to blue foods, associating them with mold or anomaly, and I've never found a blue or purple potato that tasted anything other than watery, bland, or musty.) Yukon Gold, not a fingerling but a medium-starch, general-purpose potato, is widely available year-round and is also a fine choice for salads. The small, round white- or red-skinned potatoes often mislabeled "new" are low-starch and will keep their shape nicely after boiling—although how much flavor they have depends on variety, distance from the farm, and length of time in the bushel basket.

"What's new and in season goes together," Lothar Tubbesing explained to me in the kitchen of the beautiful Baroque mansion in Lübeck where he and his wife, Heike, live and work. Heike was putting a pot of water on the stove—not for the potatoes, which she had already boiled and sliced, but for the dressing. The couple tries to serve only local seasonal produce at their restaurant, Lachswehr, on a site that has been occupied by an inn or a restaurant since 1188. The very tall, lean Lothar takes great pride in Lachswehr's history—and, indeed, in Lübeck's. Two of Germany's sprightliest odes to May were written in the garden behind Lachswehr, one of them set to music by Mozart, Lothar told me, breaking into song. When he showed me around the beautifully preserved medieval and Renaissance town center, which looks like the setting for a Vermeer, he seemed more like the mayor than a restaurateur. I wasn't surprised to learn that he and his wife would be catering a big birthday party for the real mayor the following day.

At Lachswehr I could see for myself the glories of spring out the kitchen window and on the counter in front of me, which was stacked with white asparagus from a nearby farm. White asparagus, lovingly shielded from the sun, is a local passion. This would be boiled, dressed with an orange hollandaise sauce, and served with steamed new potatoes. I tasted both vegetables, and could only conclude that white asparagus, even fresh out of the ground rather than out of a jar from a fancy-food shop, is an acquired passion. Although it was free of the salty, sour taste of the jarred kind and had all the texture of green asparagus, it still had very little of the sweet, slightly pungent flavor I hope for from fresh asparagus. As for the new potatoes, they were yet more delicate than the ones I remembered from New England summers. I saw why the Tubbesings much prefer for salad the heartier flavor of the cellar-cured potatoes that Heike had boiled and sliced, a golden-fleshed, ovoid local variety called forelle ("trout"). Both husband and wife plucked slices from the bowl as we talked and Heike cooked, and I took their cue.

White asparagus and new potatoes would accompany "green" (fresh) herring of the kind that Lothar and I had watched being hauled up in nets at five o'clock the morning before, in the port of Travemünde, ten miles from Lübeck and once a world capital of herring fishery. Heike, as lean as her husband, grew up in Travemünde and learned local cuisine from her grandmother, who in her youth had worked in London as the cook for a German diplomat, and never cooked for fewer than ten. Naturally, herring, both fresh and salted, was a family staple, and whatever form it took, potatoes went with it. Today the main industry in Travemünde is tourism: the town is one of Germany's most popular seaside resorts. Few professional fishermen remain, but one who does agreed to take us out to the herring grounds.

I was enchanted by the titanium glint of the herring in the nets; each section that the fisherman's teenage assistant unfurled into the small boat, with its irregular pattern of silver speckles gleaming against the dark Baltic Sea, looked like a celestial chart. The fishermen were less enchanted, Lothar explained. They wanted to see not occasional glints but solid silver.

Heike prepares green herring as everyone does—whole, lightly dredged in flour, and fried in a shallow pool of vegetable oil. I tasted green herring at a spring festival in the middle of Lübeck and enjoyed the deep, mackerel-like flavor, but I remain convinced that herring comes into its glory when salted—as it was for centuries in the picturesque brick warehouses along the canal—and put into various sweet-and-sour sauces.

Inexplicably to me, it is difficult to persuade Americans of the succulent, not-that-salty greatness of salted herring. Russ & Daughters, one of New York City's only remaining "appetizing stores," specializes in herring and will ship any of its many kinds, in or out of sauce; the phone number is 800-787-7229. The friendly man who answered the phone was happy to give me a short herring course, and when I asked his advice on what to order, he said, "The way I had it twenty minutes ago—pickled herring in sour-cream sauce with beets and apples. And a nice glass of beer."

Dress potatoes while they're still warm, I've always been told, if you want them to absorb maximal flavor. The rule is sacred to many Germans, who view potato salad practically as a national symbol. I was surprised, then, that Heike had already cooled and sliced her potatoes. She had done this, she said, to allow for uniform slices, which are nearly impossible to achieve with even the waxiest potato before it has cooled. A warm dressing will compensate for cool potatoes, she said, and I later confirmed her advice by dressing both warm and cooled potatoes and tasting them after several hours. Heat will also dissolve salt and sugar and begin to emulsify the oil in the dressing, providing a smoother consistency. (Classic boiled dressing includes egg, which fully emulsifies vinegar and water to make a "salad cream.")

I learned some tricks for successful boiling from One Potato, Two Potato, a handsome new book by the able editors and writers Roy Finamore and Molly Stevens. Start with cold water, generously salted, and simmer potatoes partly covered for longer than you might think—a full thirty to thirty-five minutes even for small whole potatoes. Test with a skewer, which will disfigure potatoes far less than the usual fork or paring knife; the skewer should pass with ease through the entire potato. Spoon the potatoes onto a baking rack set over the sink, to avoid both the usual breakage when you dump them into a colander and the oversteaming of those on the bottom if you leave them there to cool. Let them cool thoroughly on the rack or on a tea towel. Then you can slice them with confidence to the thickness you like, and toss them in dressing with much less crumbling.

I adapted Heike's recipe to suit about three pounds of potatoes (I used roughly a dozen medium Yukon Gold), which will yield about five cups of slices. Wash and boil the potatoes. While they cool, prepare the dressing by bringing to a simmer one and a half cups of water, a quarter cup of white-wine vinegar, and three tablespoons of mild-flavored olive or vegetable oil; stir in one tablespoon of sugar, two teaspoons of kosher salt or one and a half teaspoons of finely ground sea salt, and half a teaspoon of white pepper, preferably freshly ground. Let the mixture boil for a minute or so, to begin to emulsify the oil, and then add half a cup of minced white onion. Return the mixture to a simmer and then remove from the heat—the onion should not cook through, but the brief heating will lessen its bite. Toss the hot dressing with the potato slices. Cover and let stand for at least six hours and preferably overnight. If the weather is cool, leave the bowl out, and if not, refrigerate it and bring the salad to room temperature before serving. Toss it with two tablespoons of chopped parsley at the last minute.

I'd asked Heike to show me the sort of potato salad she could make in her sleep, the kind every German cook knows. Like all such recipes, this one is open to infinite variations. The commonest are substituting chicken or meat broth for the water in the dressing, adding mustard, diced cooked bacon, or chopped pickles to the dressing after it comes off the stove, and tossing snipped chives or chopped fresh dill into the finished salad. Any one of these can provoke a debate of the sort I innocently instigated when I took a preliminary batch of my salad for the judgment of Hildegarde Lebow and Margot Lebach, twin grandmothers who grew up in Sobernheim, in central Germany, and now live in Andover and North Andover, Massachusetts. The two women had watched their mother prepare salads nearly identical to the one I saw being made in Lübeck, but their opinions now diverge sharply on such matters as whether or not to heat the vinegar and whether it should be red or white; the wisdom of adding mustard when two of its chief flavor components, vinegar and salt, are already present in abundance; and white versus black pepper (most Germans prefer white vinegar and white pepper). They did, however, take time out from a family gathering to tell me how to correct the seasoning in my salad, and the quantities above reflect their joint advice.

Each of the twins is justly renowned for her potato salad, and each asked (insisted, actually) that I taste hers from the buffet they had prepared. Margot scrutinized my face as I chewed; Hildegarde waited avidly at my other elbow for me to take a forkful from her side of my plate. Margot knew already how she could definitively trump her sister: "Next time," she cried, "I make herring!"