Lemon Tarragon Potato Salad
Every spring, there comes a moment, usually near or on the first really warm day, when my potato cravings reorient themselves. During the colder days, almost dessert-like concoctions of roasted and then mashed sweet potatoes flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon, and butter are like cozy turtleneck sweaters you can burrow into. More elegant preparations of thinly sliced russets layered with cream and Gruyere are the cashmere cardigans that dress up a simple roast, and creamy purees of Yukon Golds blended with parsnip or celery root are the… hm — silk long underwear? — that make savory braises and stews that much more comforting.
But just as we’re relieved to put aside our warmer layers and wiggle our toes in the grass, I’m always excited when the thought of waxy, creamy potatoes bathed in a light, tangy, herbal dressing pops suddenly into my head.
I make many variations of this — it’s good with peeled or unpeeled potatoes, chives, shallot or red onion in place of the scallion, chervil, dill, parsley or basil instead of tarragon, and additions of chopped hard boiled eggs, blanched peas or asparagus or little slices of cornichon. You can even add mayonnaise or sour cream or a mixture of the two if you want your potato salad to be creamy. There are two critical things to get right though — one is making sure the potatoes are cooked to precisely the right texture, and the other is adding a note of acidity to balance out the starch and sweetness of the potatoes. Here, I’m using mild rice vinegar and lemon juice, along with some grated lemon zest for extra sunshine.
Potatoes can vary widely in size, shape, and texture, and as a result cooking times can be all over the map. The size and shape variables can be mitigated by either carefully sorting through the bin and choosing potatoes that are as close in size and shape as possible, or by cutting the potatoes in halves, quarters, eighths, etc depending on their size so that all the pieces are approximately the same size, or into slices of the same width. I don’t like to leave the potatoes whole, however, because I find that the exterior will usually be waterlogged by the time the inside is cooked through, and because the cut surfaces seem to absorb the flavors of the dressing more effectively. The next step in achieving potato perfection is to carefully babysit your potatoes as they cook, judiciously poking and tasting, and draining them the second the crunch disappears. At this point, a fork will encounter a small amount of resistance, and the potatoes should hold their shape well.
2 lbs buttercream, fingerling, or other waxy potatoes cut into either 1/4 inch slices or 3/4 inch-ish chunks
2 scallions, finely chopped
3 tbsp tarragon, finely chopped
2 tbsp rice vinegar
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp salt plus salt for cooking water
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Put potates in a medium pot and add cold water to cover plus 1 1/2 inches. Add a hefty pinch of salt to the water. Bring to a boil, and continue to boil “rather hard” as Julia says, until one of the largest pieces of potato breaks apart with a fork and loses its crunch when you bite into the center. Immediately drain and transfer to a bowl. Sprinkle with rice vinegar and 1/2 tsp kosher salt. Allow to cool for 15-20 minutes. Add scallions, tarragon, lemon juice and zest and stir to combine. Drizzle with olive oil and stir again. Best served slightly warm or at room temperature.