Department of Salad: Official Bulletin #7

This freaky-deaky awful weeky won't get better until you make some salad.

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CHEF SALAD: Yukari Sakamoto

LIKE A LOT OF AMERICANS (including Thomas Jefferson, who served French fries at the White House), I love potatoes in practically any form. They’re one of our top food crops, which we’ve grown for over 300 years, and today we employ them as a descriptor for a certain kind of basic American eater: the meat and potatoes man. We’re extremely comfortable with them. Don’t mess with our potatoes!

After talking about Japanese salads with the delightful journalist, sommelier, and market guide Yukari Sakamoto, I decided I would eat Japanese potato salad every day for the rest of my life, even though I was not comfortable with it: it definitely messes with my idea of potato salad. 

I was skeptical about this dish (even though I’d gotten in touch with Sakamoto because of the pretty photo she’d posted on Instagram). It’s a salad made from mashed potatoes! cold mashed potato salad with mayonnaise! Just thinking about it made me feel slightly off kilter. But I also couldn’t stop thinking about it once I saw the photo.

Sakamoto wasn’t offended by my doubts, or my pushy idea that potato salad belonged to one country or culture.  She has a calm, rational manner that I admire but could never duplicate. 

“I remember as a child having spinach quickly blanched, squeezed, served with soy sauce and sesame oil and maybe some sesame seeds. Then I went to a friend’s house and had creamed spinach, and I thought: Oh, this is why people hate spinach. And a light went off in my head: we don’t all eat the same way.” 

She was born in Japan but grew up in Minnesota, and her family would drive nine hours to Chicago a couple of times a year to get Japanese groceries at what is now Mitsuwa Marketplace. “I had the immigrant lunchbox,” she said. “Rice balls wrapped in seaweed.” Which naturally led to “the conversation” with her “very white friend” Ellen: ‘What’s that?” “Seaweed and rice.” “It looks gross.” “Then don’t look.” 

After living in Tokyo when she was 22, then working in the travel industry for years, Sakamoto ended up studying at the French Culinary Institute in NYC and at the American Sommelier Association; she graduated a month after the September 11th attacks. 

“I thought, you know what? All that matters are your friends and family.” So she moved back to Japan, first working as the sommelier at the Park Hyatt Tokyo (the one in “Lost in Translation”), then in the wine department at the famous Takashimaya department store, and finally going out on her own, with a company that demystifies markets in Japan (including seafood markets and depachika epicurean food floors at department stores). It all went into her book, Food Sake Tokyo, an epicurean guide to her adopted city, where she now has a 10 year old son with her chef and fishmonger husband. 

But back to the topic at hand: I knew that Japanese potato salad was a common enough dish in the United States, but I’d never eaten it, nor have I visited Japan. Plus: Why would I eat potato salad at a Japanese restaurant? I’m a typical middle-class American: give me all the damn sushi!

And, like the typical rude American, I wondered aloud if it was a tourist dish there. 

“Oh, no.  Japanese potato salad is definitely a classic comfort dish here,” she told me. “Yes, the potatoes are mashed, but you also have crunchy cucumbers, carrots for color, ham—it’s in keeping with the Japanese mindset of eating the rainbow, making food colorful, going for different textures.

‘When you go to an izakaya, which is like a pub, it’s always on the menu. And each izakaya does their own version—topping it with ikura (salmon roe), or corned beef, or chopped smoked pickles. At Takashimaya, within the same department store you’d have 4-5 shops selling different kinds. You can put macaroni in it!  And we’ll put potato salad on bread, or on toast. For me that’s too many carbs, but it’s very comforting food. We make it at home a lot and keep it in the fridge and pull it out for meals.”

After I made the recipe that Sakamoto sent me, I felt like I’d probably do the same thing: it’s the kind of dish you want to turn into a staple. It’s hard for me to describe the effect it had on me. And I get itchy when people try to describe how things taste in a beautiful, lyrical way or when they anthropomorphize food. This salad did not hug me. But it did have all the alluring qualities that Sakamato listed when she described the Japanese manner of cooking: it was colorful, texturally wonderful, had the perfect balance of bright tang to umami. And it was absolutely freaking delicious. You could make a meal around it, with some fruit or even a plain green salad. 

Here is a photo of Sakamoto enjoying some potesara (as potato salad is nicknamed in Japan), with chopsticks, as is customary, in what she refers to as her “sake and small bites ritual.” See that adorable one-cup dish of it?

I, on the other hand, sat down on the couch and ate about half of what was in the mixing bowl while saying: Oh, man. I ate the rest of it this morning. It’s all gone. That’s my ritual.

Speaking of green salad, I realized I knew very little about the idea of a classic Japanese salad tradition. I tried to imagine something like a Japanese chef or a Cobb, or even a leafy garden salad. But I couldn’t, aside from the little iceberg salad that arrives at your table in Japanese restaurants, which I just love, with that crazy sesame carrot dressing. 

“At home, we have small salads with a lot of meals, even breakfast,” Sakamoto informed me. “And it’s healthy: we add pickles, sprouts, like daikon sprouts, turnips, lots of root vegetables. Besides the vegetables we share with the U.S., we also use a lot of sea vegetables, nori, wakame. And the vegetables are treated differently here: rather than all raw, it will be a mix. Kabocha squash and sweet potatoes will be roasted, tomatoes might be pickled. Plus, we don’t have croutons, but you’ll see fried lotus or fried burdock root for crunch.  

“And for dressings,” she said, showing me her row of beautiful condiment bottles, which I photographed as we Zoomed, “we use miso, which is fermented and good for you, along with rice vinegars, yuzu, ume (or plum; that’s very tart and a great salad dressing), and ponzu.  And then, of course, that sesame-based dressing with carrots, onion, and garlic.” 

(I was thrilled when Sakamoto sent me some dressing recipes to share with you, below, including the last one, which is the entire reason I love that little restaurant iceberg number so much; so does Sakamoto.)

Japan is definitely starting to see a green salad movement, too, according to Sakamoto, who sent me links to one of the biggest salad purveying chains, RF1, a terrific sort of salad delicatessen, found in department stores and the train stations there. 

“The most popular one they sell is the 30-Ingredient Salad. It’s advertised as half your daily vegetables. It’s such a great idea. In fact, I once said to a friend: ‘this would be a good business to start in America.’  And she said:  ‘It would never work. Someone would need it to be gluten free. Somebody else would want no pickles.’

“The problem with Americans is they always have to specify,” added Sakamoto. “Here, you just go with it.”

I found this last statement somewhat rude. Problem with Americans? But it’s also entirely true, so I just went with it. I learned so many new things from Sakamoto. 

RECIPE: Yukari Sakamoto’s Japanese Potato Salad (Potesara) ポテサラ

  • 1 pound russet or Yukon Gold potatoes (I used russet; they were perfect)

  • 1 large carrot, peeled, ends trimmed, cut into long thin slices

  • 1 medium to large English cucumber, unpeeled, cut in half lengthwise, seeds scooped out with a spoon, cut into thin slices

  • 8 ounces cooked ham slices, cut into ¼ inch strips (or less; I plan to cut it in half next time)

  • ½ cup mayonnaise (I used homemade)

  • ¼ cup rice vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon flaky sea or kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper (I used about half of this)

  1. Peel and rinse the potatoes and cut them into quarters. In a saucepan, bring to a boil in water to cover by an inch. Turn the heat down to medium, and continue to cook, partially covered, until they are fall-apart tender when pierced with a fork, 10-12 minutes.

  2. Fish the potatoes out of the water (you’re going to use it) and run them through a ricer or mash them with a potato masher in a large bowl. If you’re using a masher, fluff them with a fork when they are completely mashed. Don’t whip them. 

  3. Add the sliced carrots to the water and bring them to a boil. Cook for about 2 minutes, until tender. Drain them in a colander and run cold water over them. Shake to remove excess water and add them to the potatoes.

  4. Stir in the cucumber, ham, mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Serve at room temperature or chilled.  

    NOTE: variations include adding such toppings as pickles, hard-boiled egg, onion, apple. (I added thinly sliced red onion to mine), salmon roe, corned beef. Lose your mind.

    ANOTHER NOTE: The Japanese love mayo (like me!). So much so that one limited-edition mayo is produced expressly for potato salad and another claims that the eggs they use are only three days old. So I would recommend using my homemade version. The recipe is in issue #2.

*RECIPES: A Few of Yakuri Sakamoto’s Favorite Japanese Salad Dressings

For each recipe, simply add ingredients to a jar with a lid and shake shake shake.

Wafu (Japanese-style) dressing
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil

  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar

  • 1/2 tablespoon sugar

  • 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce

Pietro Dressing

Pietro is an Italian restaurant chain specializing in pasta dishes. The salad dressing is popular and is sold at many supermarkets throughout Japan.

  • 1/2 small onion, grated

  • 1/2 carrot, grated

  • 3 black olives, chopped

  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce 

  • 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons salad oil

  • 1/3 cup vinegar (I use rice vinegar, but other vinegars would work)

  • pepper and salt to taste

Yakiniku (barbecue) salad dressing
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

  • 1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon powdered chicken stock concentrate (not actual chicken stock)

  • 1/2 teaspoon grated garlic

  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds (if you have both black and white, one teaspoon each)

TEST KITCHEN

IT’S POTATO SALAD WEEK, so have some more damn potato salad recipes! The first two are a couple of standards in my kitchen, which are very very simple and use no mayo at all. I’ve been making both of these for a very long time. And since this first one asks you to roast some peppers, I’ve given you a third salad that also uses roasted peppers and beans, from a recipe booklet I wrote for Steve Sando, of that fabulous heirloom bean palace, Rancho Gordo. It’s delicious. All of these are. Aren’t we lucky? 

*RECIPE: Lemony Roasted Pepper and Potato Salad

Serves 4-6

This first one, once again, is inspired by that casual minx Laurie Colwin, from her book “Home Cooking.” To Colwin, a recipe often seemed to be nothing more than a dreamy outline—which you, her reader, must use to figure out exact measurements and methods on your own. It’s nothing more than potatoes, roasted peppers, lemon juice, and olive oil. Colwin fried her peppers, but part of the reason I love the recipe my way is that when I roast a batch, it smells like heaven in my house and then I have roasted peppers to add to other things, like a grilled cheese sandwich or another salad entirely. I use a lot more lemon than she did (she instructs you to “sprinkle”) and I add chives. 

  • 2 pounds small Yukon gold potatoes (not the tiny ones; you can use larger ones, but they’ll take longer to cook)

  • 2 large red bell peppers (You might want to go ahead and double this; you can keep the other half, unchopped, in the fridge to put on toasted cheese sandwiches or use in a salad, like the bean one below)

  • 1/2 cup good olive oil

  • 3-4 cloves garlic, smashed with knife blade

  • juice of two large lemons

  • 1/3 cup chopped chives

  • salt, pepper

  1. Roast the peppers: slice in half lengthwise, remove seeds and stem. Place cut-side down on a tin-foil-lined cookie sheet. Place cookie sheet directly under broiler and cook until pepper skins have completely blackened and your kitchen smells totally awesome, about 8-10 minutes. You may have to move them around with tongs. Remove peppers from oven and place in a large zip-loc bag, sealed. Or simply wrap them tightly in the foil. Don't worry: the bag won’t melt. Let them sit in the sealed bag until cooled. Remove skins (very easy now).

  2. Cut the peeled peppers into medium-large dice. Place them in a large jar or plastic container with a lid, adding the olive oil and the smashed garlic. Shake or stir to combine. Let sit for at least one hour; the longer the better.

  3. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes whole, skin on, in a large pot of boiling water, until fork tender. Drain and let cool. When cool enough to handle, remove skin and slice into 1/3-inch slices. If potatoes are large, you can cut in half before slicing. Set aside in a large bowl. 

  4. After discarding the garlic cloves, combine peppers and about half their oil with the potatoes. Stir to combine. Drizzle in about half the lemon juice, add pepper and salt to taste. You can stop here, or you can add more (or the rest) of the peppery olive oil and more of the lemon juice to taste. I use it all, because I like lemon even more than I like peppers. Adjust salt and pepper. 

  5. Sprinkle with the chives. Serve at room temperature.

*RECIPE: Warm Potato Salad with Hot Scallion Dressing

I got this bowl at Target; it melted in the dishwasher.

Serves 4-6

  • 2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes (not the tiny ones); you can also use the large ones; they’ll just take longer to cook. 

  • ¾ cup good olive oil

  • 3 scallions, with some of the green, thinly sliced (you can also use a small shallot)

  • ¼ cup sherry vinegar (or red wine vinegar, which I did in this photo, which is why it is red)

  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

  • Freshly ground pepper

  • 1/4 cup chopped chives (this is really up to you; it’s just pretty)

  1. Cook potatoes whole, skin on, in a large pot of boiling water, until fork tender. Drain and let cool. When cool enough to handle, remove skin and slice into 1/3-inch slices. Do this quickly, because you want the potatoes to be warm when you dress them. (If potatoes are large, you can cut in half before slicing). Set aside. 

  2. While the potatoes are cooling slightly, make the dressing. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, add scallions and a bit of the salt and cook until the scallions are translucent, 3-4 minutes. Whisk in the vinegar, turn off the heat, season with pepper. Adjust seasoning.

  3. While the potatoes are still warm, place them in a bowl, top with some of the dressing, sprinkle with the chives. Toss gently, taste, and add more dressing if necessary. You will only use about half of it, total. The truth is, this is uglier but more delicious the second day, after the dressing has soaked in. Just throw some more fresh chives on there.

*RECIPE: Rancho Gordo Cranberry Bean Platter with Roasted Red Pepper and Prosciutto 

Serves 4

You can serve this simply in a bowl topped with shavings of good Parmesan along with croutons spread with Romesco Sauce,* or on a platter smeared with the Romesco sauce, which is gorgeous. 

  • 3 cups simply cooked Rancho Gordo Cranberry beans, room temperature

  • 2 Roasted Red Peppers

  • 2 to 3 tablespoons Sherry Garlic Vinaigrette*

  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • About 1⁄2 cup Romesco Sauce*

  • Shaved parmesan cheese

  • About 8 ounces thin prosciutto slices, cut in half and folded attractively 

  1. Roast the peppers: slice in half lengthwise, remove seeds and stem. Place cut-side down on a tin-foil-lined cookie sheet. Place cookie sheet directly under broiler and cook until pepper skins have completely blackened and your kitchen smells totally awesome, about 8-10 minutes. You may have to move them around with tongs. Remove peppers from oven and place in a large zip-loc bag, sealed. Or simply wrap them tightly in the foil. Don't worry: the bag won't melt. Let them sit in the sealed bag until cooled. Remove skins (very easy now).

  2. Place the peppers in a large jar or plastic container with a lid, sprinkle with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, and throw in a clove of smashed garlic. Shake or stir to combine. Let sit for at least one hour; the longer the better. When ready to use, remove from oil and cut into strips or large dice.

  3. Place the beans and as many of the chopped peppers as you like (I use them all) along with Sherry Garlic Vinaigrette* to taste in a bowl and toss together. Taste for salt and pepper, then allow the mixture to sit at room temperature for an hour or two. 

  4. To assemble the platter, spoon the Romesco sauce on the platter and spread it out attractively; spoon the bean mixture on top (also attractively; we are not animals). Place the folded slices of prosciutto fetchingly among the beans. Top with Parmesan that you have shaved in nice long, wide strips using a potato peeler. Season with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and serve. (I made this with Romesco on the platter and without, instead using the Romesco on French bread croutons. Both are nice.) 

    *RECIPE: My Garlic Sherry Vinaigrette

  • 1 large clove garlic

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • ½ cup olive oil

  • 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  1. In a mortar, mash the garlic together with the salt with a pestle, until a paste is formed. Whisk in olive oil and sherry vinegar. Season with freshly ground black pepper.

*RECIPE: My Romesco Sauce

This is good on so many types of beans, in combination with many other ingredients.

  • 1 large or 2 small roasted red peppers (you can also use jarred peppers)

  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste

  • 1 garlic clove

  • 1⁄2 cup toasted slivered almonds (I toast mine in a Teflon pan on the stovetop)

  • 1⁄4 cup chopped parsley

  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika

  • 1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  • 1⁄4 cup olive oil

  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients except salt, pepper, and olive oil in a food processor (or use a bullet blender) and process until slightly chunky, but not super smooth. Add olive oil and process again until just mixed. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

That’s it. That’s the newsletter.

NEXT WEEK: In the CHEF SALAD spot, we’ll have Chadwick Boyd, sharing a salad that is extremely close to my heart. And some stuff I left out of this week’s newsletter because I drank too much coffee and started crying.