I started to look at recipes with a different perspective. While I am preparing dinner for us, on the marble table upstairs in our house, or while I am cooking during one of the classes, where many hands and experiences meet around the same wooden table now marked by time, I look at recipes as possibilities, combinations of different elements, parts of a whole.
I like to think at recipes in terms of menus and occasions.
It is no longer just pici, but pici with a part of rye flour, which echo the rustic tart with cherries that will end our lunch under the olive trees. The acidity of the lemon is intertwined with that of vinegar in a refreshing summer lunch, which goes from panzanella to tagliolini al limone, calling it a meal with a fruit salad with mint and pineapple sage.
So a potato salad, which I had overlooked for years, becomes a distinguishing element of a menu, especially if you dress it with an Italian twist, with wild fennel, capers and olives. You can find the same aromas in a roasted pork loin with olive oil and wine, or in the baked eggplants that you are planing to serve as an appetiser.
I started thinking about an Italian potato salad with wild fennel as a recipe that could find its place in my cooking repertoire: it’s simple, I know, so simple that it might not even require a recipe, yet when you prepare it properly, it becomes a card that you can play in any season, a side dish or a main course, depending on how you dress it. The flavours are precisely those of the Mediterranean countryside, with salty capers, meaty olives and finely chopped wild fennel.
An Italian potato salad in my cooking repertoire
It’s always handy to have an Italian potato salad in your cooking repertoire.
Two years ago I decided to share these recipes, staples of a Tuscan repertoire, analysing the ingredients and the process with plenty of details so that, if you want, you’ll be able to include them into your collection and make Tuscan cooking your signature style.
After the crespelle alla fiorentina and the eggplant meatballs, after the ricotta and kale gnudi, after one of the desserts you loved the most, a humble Tuscan apple olive oil cake, and the summer baked eggplants with a breadcrumb topping, after the Tuscan ragù and the stuffed turkey breast, I want to share with you the recipe for my potato salad with wild fennel.
The ingredients of this Italian potato salad
Ça va sans dire, potatoes are the ingredient on which you cannot accept compromises, as we’re here talking about the marvels of an Italian potato salad. Since my father-in-law brought me a box of potatoes from Mugello, still covered in soil, I realized what a good potato means, one of those potatos that would need only a pinch of salt and a drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil, or a curl of butter, to be called a meal. When I don’t have those at hand, I look for local potatoes at the market, possibly still dirty with soil: white, red, yellow, it doesn’t make a big difference in a potato salad. Sometimes I actually like to mix them. The new baby potatoes, as I used today, are a good option, too, delicate and sweet.
I chose it to give character to this summer potato salad, picking some wild fennel along the hedgerow during my favourite walk. It is delicate, with a clean herbaceous scent of anise. I like it with fish, too, or in a pesto for gnocchi, or with pork.
When it comes to dressing a potato salad, I like to give the opportunity to a single aromatic herb to shine through. If you can not put your hands on wild fennel, try chives, or the most classic parsley, which, if picked when still tender, can surprise you with a very fresh taste. If, on the other hand, the season is too far ahead for young wild fennel, look for fennel flowers, they look like a delicate umbrella: it is just as aromatic and even more gentle.
Capers and olives.
I chose capers and olives to give that extra touch to this Italia potato salad: first the flavour of capers, packed with salinity, then the olives, shiny and meaty. For flavour purposes, you can also choose anchovy fillets, which will tend to melt when they get in contact with the hot potatoes, or a handful of sun dried tomatoes in oil, cut into strips.
Extra virgin olive oil.
When I roast potatoes, I use extra virgin olive oil, butter or goose fat indifferently, based on the perfect recipe by Jamie Oliver. In a potato puree, or with mashed potatoes, I would almost always choose butter, as on a baked potato. But for a potato salad, an Italian potato salad, I always use extra virgin olive oil, intense and fruity, which makes the potatoes in the salad bowl glisten.
The secret to a successful potato salad, besides the choice of quality ingredients?
Dress it immediately, as soon as you have peeled the potatoes, until they are still hot, and mix it well. When you stir the salad, the potatoes will be slightly smashed and bruised, and that’s the point: they will absorb the seasoning and all the aromas.
Italian potato salad with wild fennel, capers and olives
Italian potato salad with wild fennel, capers and olives
- 500 g (1.1 lb) baby potatoes
- 1 bunch wild fennel
- 2 tablespoons Taggiasche olives, or kalamata olives
- 1 tablespoon salted capers, rinsed
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Rinse the potatoes to remove any remaining soil. Put them in a saucepan and cover them with water. Cook the potatoes over medium heat until done, so that you can easily pierce them with the tip of a knife.
- In the meantime, finely chop the wild fennel and set it aside.
- When the potatoes are cooked through, drain them, pass them quickly under cold water and peel them immediately. Keep the potato skins aside, you will need them later for another recipe.
- Collect the potatoes in a bowl and dress them immediately, until they are hot, with the chopped wild fennel, capers, olives, extra virgin olive oil and apple cider vinegar. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
- Stir well, and don't worry if the potatoes get a little bruised, this will only help the seasoning.
- Set the potatoes aside on the counter for at least half an hour, allowing enough time to all the dressing ingredients to bind, then serve it warm or cold, as a side dish or a main course.
Italian potato salad as a side dish
If roast potatoes are certainly one of the most appreciated dishes during Sunday family meals and in local trattorias, a potato salad is fresh and versatile, thanks to the endless aromas and ingredients that can be associated with it. Here are a few summer ideas, two based on fish, one based on meat and one vegetarian.
- Octopus salad with olives and pine nuts. Picture a silent kitchen, at twilight, holding the outside summer heat at bay. Add a wooden cutting board, an octopus the same colours as a summer sunset at the seaside, tangy and refreshing green olives and pine nuts, smelling of sunburnt maquis.
- Stuffed squids with bread and pine nuts. Choose the smallest squids and stuff them patiently with a few simple ingredients: stale bread soaked in milk, parsley, stir-fried tentacles and a handful of pine nuts to give flavour and a different texture. The sea taste is persistent, softened by bread and milk. Pine nuts add a surprising resinous taste.
- Chicken cacciatore skewers. Cut the chicken breast into pieces and marinate for a few hours with tomato paste, chopped garlic and olive oil. When the chicken turns the colour of a summer sunset, prepare the skewers, alternating the meat with pitted black olives. You will need just a couple of minutes to grill the chicken and give it that smoky sweet taste of summer tomatoes cooked long enough to become a thick sauce.
- Marinated goat cheese. Rather than giving you a detailed recipe – very intuitive -, I’ll tell you why I used these spices: reading The Flavour Thesaurus I found out that goat cheese is very similar to lamb meat in taste, they have the same high notes, so you can apply the same flavour matches.
Italian potato salad as a main course
Recently, I’ve been thinking about menus that revolve around vegetables and cereals, rather than meat. Take this salad, for example. I’d serve it with ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped and added at the very last minute, and some fillets of mackerel in oil for a spectacular main course.
Or I could serve it for dinner, in summer, adding a handful of arugula and baby spinach, some mozzarella torn into pieces, and maybe a few anchovy fillets.
Potato skin chips
I told you not to throw away the potato skins, now I’ll explain you why. During a cooking class, a few years ago, one of my students showed me how to make potato skin chips, so as not to throw anything away when making gnocchi, mashed potatoes or, indeed, a potato salad. Since then, I started to peel potatoes always and only after having cooked them: not only is it faster and there is less waste, but I can also have the chips as an appetizer. They almost never arrive at the table, as everyone is crowded around the pan, hands eager to catch the freshly fried chips from the plate. They resist only the few seconds you need to sprinkle them with salt.
Potato skin chips
- Boiled potato skins
- Frying oil
- You will need the skins of the boiled potatoes that you put aside. Be careful: you need them cold and dry.
- Heat the oil in a pan. We're going to shallow fry them. When the oil is hot - make a test with a potato skin - fry the skins in two or three batches, so as not to overcrowd the pan. Turn them with a ladle or with frying tongs, and cook them until they are golden and crisp.
- When the potato skins are well browned and crunchy, lift them with a slotted spoon and lay them in a dish lined with a sheet of cooking paper to absorb the excess oil.
- Sprinkle with salt - better a flake salt, such as Maldon salt or fleur de sel - and eat them immediately, until they are crisp.
All the recipes of my cooking repertoire
These are all the recipes I added so far into my cooking repertoire. This is an ever growing list, an always expanding collection which represents the way I live Tuscan food and cooking. Have you already tried something?
- Crespelle alla fiorentina. It is a handy recipe to learn as you can vary the filling according to the season: asparagus, artichokes and butternut squash are some of my favourites along with spinach and Swiss chard. You can mix the vegetables with fresh milky ricotta or add some béchamel into the filling. Cheese is a welcomed ingredient: Parmigiano Reggiano, Tuscan or Roman Pecorino, ricotta salata, or any other savoury aged cheese that you would happily grate over your pasta.
- Ricotta and Tuscan kale gnudi. There are two crucial ingredients here which can help you ease the anxiety while waiting for your gnudi to float tot the top: ricotta and cavolo nero, the Tuscan kale. Use a well-drained ricotta and squeeze very well the cooked kale. Once you make this, they will be your next success in the kitchen.
- Tuscan ragù. The Tuscan ragù is cooked with red wine, poured in little by little, and with tomato purée (just tomatoes that have been peeled and blended into a sauce), even better if it is your home made tomato purée, made during the heat of summer. To give more character to the ragù and have a more rustic sauce, sometimes I prefer to replace the passata with the same weight of peeled tomatoes, roughly crushed with my hands.
Main courses and side dishes
- Beef and eggplant meatballs. According to the season, you can substitute roasted eggplants with boiled potatoes, roasted butternut squash or breadcrumbs soaked in milk. I usually choose between grated Parmigiano Reggiano, aged Pecorino or Provolone to add flavour to the meat, sometimes adding brined capers, too. This time I opted for Parmigiano, along with a pinch of dry oregano to give a mediterranean touch.
- Stuffed turkey breast. One of the recipes that my mum taught me and that I immediately associate with Sunday lunches is the stuffed turkey breast, roasted on the stovetop and not in the oven. It is a humble dish, but it has an enormous potential.
- Baked eggplants. Colours and textures of that once loved recipe surfaced along with the ingredients: eggplants of course, either the round purple ones or those thin long ones, then breadcrumbs, parsley, capers, garlic and some grated Parmigiano. There it was, my forgiving recipe, thick slices of eggplants topped with boldly flavoured breadcrumbs, roasted in the oven until golden and crisp.
- Apple olive oil cake. You can dress it up for a dinner party: serve a slice of warm apple cake with a scoop of vanilla gelato, a cloud of whipped cream or a drizzle of custard. Wrap in foil a slice of cake for a school break or an office break. Bake the olive oil apple cake on a Sunday and enjoy it for breakfast on the first days of the week with a strong coffee or a cappuccino.
- Coffee and vanilla pound cake. A versatile recipe to make a pound cake with the ingredients you have at hand, with a detailed explanation of the four macro categories of ingredients you can use, plus a recipe for a vanilla pound cake marbled with coffee, designed to wake you up in the morning. Use white farro flour, white sugar and dark cane sugar, Greek yogurt and butter.
- Ricotta crumb cake. I still have to decide if I prefer the cake warm from the oven, or after a few hours of fridge. This ricotta crumb cake is an unmissable summer cake, and I’ll let you decide when to serve it, if you are in hurry or armed by adamant patience.
Every culture has a different potato salad. How do you make it?
- Scandi Kitchen has a Nordic potato salad with sunflower oil, Dijon mustard, sugar, shallots and dill.
- Impressive and fresh, I love also the potato salad by Nordic Kitchen, with mustard, lemon juice, red onion, celery, chives and dill umbrella.
- A Greek potato salad is refreshing, with lemon juice and garlic.
- Let’s not forget a French potato salad, with a dressing made with spicy brown mustard, garlic, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, olive oil and chopped dill. There’s also Julia Child’s version.
- To finish, Felicity Cloake’s quest on how to cook the perfect potato salad for The Guardian. Spoiler: it involves Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, spring onion, capers, anchovies, chives, parsley and mint.