Pop Quizzes & Potato Salads

Two weeks into my voluntary indentured servitude at the restaurant, Chef handed me a stack of A4 papers stapled on the left corner… a take home exam. It asked for detailed descriptions on how to make basic sauces & classics such as duck confit & rice pilaf. Then there were sections for mini dissertations on the key points of big pot blanching and the right way to cook & cool root vegetables. The final two pages housed a list of ingredients & French cooking terms for memorization (think—aiguillette, cuisson, cubebe) and the names of prominent chefs & their flagship restaurants. It was a given that the corresponding quiz for the final two pages would be given at the moment one least expected it.

My innocuous super power (everyone has one) is the ability to memorize just about anything. Thus I kinda’ kicked butt on the second part of the exam. A week later, convinced it was a fluke, Chef gave me the test a second time. I missed one. (I still have nightmares in which I am hunched over one of the stainless steel countertops staring blankly at the word SOUBISE).

Needless to say, in all the places where memorization played no part I stunk it up. Embarrassing, but I learned a lot. Not the least of which was to master the fundamentals and not be afraid to ask or research anything I didn’t know rather than absentmindedly going through the motions.

Below is a simple recipe that utilizes two of these fundamentals—cooking potatoes and making mayonnaise. Prior to working in the restaurant I always used store bought mayo. Now I make my own, often “fancying” it up with garlic, herbs or other condiments. And occasionally I’ll use the Japanese mayonnaise Kewpie because contrary to what other blogs may say there is no acceptable homemade version.

The process of whipping up a mayonnaise is simpler than what you’re probably conjuring up in your head, and it’s worth the effort.

As for the potatoes, the technique below yields potatoes with uniform texture that hold their shape when you toss them with the other ingredients. I guarantee the next time you serve a potato salad, guests won’t be wondering if the main component is last nights’ leftover mashed potatoes.

My husband blames my Canadian blood for my unhealthy obsession with mayonnaise. Maybe he’s right. Love it or hate it, mastering emulsification (blending two ingredients—such as oil & vinegar—not normally found together) will aid you greatly when you advance to the realm of “fancier” sauces. And hell, at the very least you’ll be prepared should someone ever decide to give you a culinary aptitude test.

Mayonnaise Ingredients:
1 egg yolk
¾ cup neutral oil (such as canola or grapeseed)
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. lemon juice
¼ tsp. sugar
Salt & pepper to taste

Potato Salad Ingredients:
2 lbs. yellow potatoes
1 medium shallot, minced
2 tsp. minced tarragon leaves
Salt and pepper

Japanese Potato Salad Ingredients:
2 lbs. yellow potatoes
1 Japanese or Persian cucumber, peeled & thinly sliced
½ Fuji apple, peeled and thinly sliced
2 Tbs. Kewpie mayonnaise
Salt and white pepper

First the mayonnaise…
• Twist and form a ring out of a dishtowel. Place the towel on the counter and a large mixing bowl over it. The towel will securely hold the bowl allowing you to whisk the mayonnaise with one hand while drizzling in the oil with the other.

• Drop the egg yolk into the bowl. Add a pinch of salt, whisk. Drizzle the oil in slowly, whisking quickly. Chef liked to point out that all the action is in the wrist. Your elbow shouldn’t be moving.

• Once you have the beginnings of a sturdy emulsion, add the vinegar & lemon juice. Continue whisking, adding oil as you go along. I like to add a ¼ tsp. of sugar because I think it rounds out the flavor, you can add it or leave it out.

• If you want a firmer mayonnaise keep adding oil until you reach the consistency that you want. The more oil you add the thicker your mayonnaise will be.

• Taste and season accordingly.

On to the potatoes…
• If you’re making the French inspired potato salad, peel the potatoes & cut them into wedges (I usually get eight out of one potato). Place the potatoes in a small pot. Cover with cold water. Salt generously.

• If you’re making the Japanese version, peel and cut the potatoes into quarters and then slice across, into ½ inch thick triangles. Place potatoes in a small pot. Cover with cold water. Salt generously.

• Bring the potatoes to a boil over high heat. Once they come to an aggressive boil turn the heat down to medium. Continue cooking until you can insert a skewer or fork easily into the flesh.

• Remove from the heat. Place the potatoes under gently running cold water. Let them cool this way for a few minutes.

• Drain and dry on paper towels.

For the French inspired potato salad…
• In a large bowl combine the potato wedges, the minced shallot, mayonnaise (exact amount depends on your preference) and minced tarragon. Taste and season with salt and a few turns of the pepper mill.

For the Japanese potato salad…
• In a large bowl combine the potato slices, Kewpie mayonnaise, cucumber and apple slices. Season with salt and white pepper.

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