This is the time of year when those things I normally treat as accessories to a meal become the meal itself. I am thinking of the untidy heap of green beans on the side of the plate that, with a little chopped shallot, mustardy dressing and some shredded butterhead lettuce, becomes a light lunch. The grilled tomatoes that are normally an adjunct to a steak that find themselves dumped on garlic toast and playing a starring role in a bruschetta and goat's cheese garden lunch. The side order of couscous that gets a more elaborate seasoning (say a couple of slices of grilled salmon, matchsticks of cucumber and masses of mint) and ends up as my entire supper.
I cannot deny that I like the idea of these culinary underdogs getting their moment of glory, but then I am someone for whom a baked potato has always been dinner, rather than just a lump of starch nestling next to the meat. It is the same with potato salad - though its traditional job may be to sit aside some thick slices of cold ham or beef, I find it can, if well made, make a good principal dish. In fact, that is just what it has been in my house since the sun started shining.
Note the epithet 'well made'. This means starting with some decent spuds rather than those that have been sleeping in the vegetable rack. This is the occasion for splashing out on waxy-fleshed salad potatoes, such as the tapered La Ratte or Charlotte and the most tiny, most earthy of Jerseys, or perhaps just some seriously floury 'main-crop'. Organically grown potatoes taste noticeably better, too. You can't say this about all organic vegetables or fruit, but you can certainly say it about most food grown underground, such as carrots and parsnips.
Received wisdom says that waxy potatoes are the ones for salad - those with a yellow flesh and thin skins. I both agree and disagree. While a candle-fleshed potato keeps its shape after tossing in the dressing, there is nothing quite like a crumbly main-crop tattie in a rustic presentation, falling apart temptingly in the mayo.
Whatever, the more recently dug the potato, the more chance it will have a deep flavour, though, of course, much depends on the variety. Potatoes lose their flavour more quickly than you would think, and I see every reason for buying them as regularly as we buy the salad. I know this goes against the grain of convenience shopping, but good eating has never been without its inconveniences ever since man first had to chase a mammoth for his supper. I buy my potatoes, as with any other vegetable, when I need them, and cook them the day I get them home. Anyone who has eaten the potatoes from their organic bag from a farmers' market on the day of delivery will know what I mean.
A potato salad can be an elegant affair where cherubic, kidney-shaped new potatoes, carefully scrubbed and boiled with mint, come dressed with hand-beaten mayonnaise, or an altogether rougher deal with coarse slices of pungent onion, the floury spuds crumbling into oily, vivid yellow mayo. Both can be good.
To peel or not to peel? I can only say that it is an entirely personal thing, and anyone who gets into a fume about a flake of skin on their Jerseys doesn't have enough to do. On the other hand, the skin adds nothing except a bit of fibre and has an annoying habit of sticking to your knife. I find the skin a good thing only if it is very thin and meticulously scrubbed. But tell me I am not alone in finding something quietly perfect about a dish of scrupulously de-skinned new potatoes without the remotest flake of skin, dressed with a classic vinaigrette and some spanking fresh parsley.
Roast new potato salad with rosemary and mustard
Serves 4 as a side dish.
25 new potatoes
1 head of garlic
a couple of sprigs of rosemary
for the dressing
2 tbsps red-wine vinegar
2 tbsps smooth Dijon mustard
5 tbsps olive oil
Scrub the potatoes thoroughly, then put them in an ovenproof dish or roasting tin. Break the garlic into cloves, but don't peel them, then add them to the potatoes. Drizzle over a little olive oil, then scatter with flakes of sea salt and the leaves from the rosemary sprigs. Bake at 200 C/gas mark 6 for 45 to 60 minutes till they are puffed and golden, their insides fluffy.
Pour the vinegar into a small lidded jar with the mustard, olive oil, some salt and pepper and shake it hard to give a thick dressing. You can use a little whisk if you prefer. When the potatoes come from the oven, press down hard on each one with the back of spoon so that they crack open slightly, then pour over the hot mustard dressing. As you eat, press the soft garlic from its skins.
Warm duck salad with fried potatoes, peas and mint
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a snack.
2 large duck legs
1 big, juicy lemon or 2 less generous ones
500g new potatoes
a bunch of mint
100g shelled peas
a little olive oil
Put the duck, skin-side up, in a small, shallow, ovenproof dish. I use one of those French enamelled cast-iron numbers. Squeeze over the juice from half of the lemon, liberally season with salt and black pepper and put into a hot oven (200 C/gas mark 6) to roast until the skin is crisp and the meat is brown all the way through (about 50 minutes to an hour).
Scrub the potatoes so thoroughly you can barely see any skin (it will only get in the way when you fry them later), then drop them into boiling salted water, adding about half of the mint. Meanwhile, bring another pan of water to the boil, salt it lightly and add the peas. Boil till tender and sweet, then drain them.
Once the duck has roasted for half an hour, tip the fat off into a shallow pan (the sort that can go on the hob) and return the duck to the oven for a further half hour.
When the potatoes are tender to the point of a knife, drain them thoroughly and cut them into thick slices. They will crumble a bit, but no matter. Warm the drained duck fat over a moderate heat and add the sliced potatoes and any crumbs of potato. They will slowly crisp. Dislodge them from the pan every now and again with a palette knife.
Remove the duck from the oven, lift it from the dish with tongs on to a chopping board, and cut the meat from the bones, discarding any obviously excessive lumps of fat. Cut up the flesh a little, but try to leave it in fat, juicy pieces. Tip it into a salad bowl. Drain the peas and add them, too. Pull the remaining mint leaves from the stalks and chop them, then add them to the duck and and peas.
When the potatoes are golden and crusty, lift them out (tongs or a draining spoon are best for this) and add them to the duck and mint. Pour most of the fat from the pan into a heat-proof pot and let it cool - you can use it to fry potatoes or to start cooking onions for a casserole. Put the pan back on the heat and squeeze in the remaining lemon juice. Stand back from the heat as you do this (mine jumped out and burned me), then scrape at the pan to loosen any golden crusty bits of potato, then quickly swish it into the salad bowl. Turn the pepper and salt mills over it once or twice, and add a splash - no more - of olive oil, then pile on to plates.
New potato, herring, rocket and crème frache salad
A sweet-sharp salad with a creamy dressing. Avoid the temptation to over-mix the salad when you are dressing it - the beetroot is inclined to send everything a very unfetching shade of marshmallow pink. Serves 4 as a light main course.
300g waxy 'salad' potatoes
4 small, cooked beetroot
6 fillets of pickled herring
4 medium-sized gherkins
1 small sweet onion, peeled,
or 4 trimmed spring onions
200g rocket leaves and fine stems
a small bunch of dill
1 tbsp red-wine vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp smooth Dijon mustard
100g crème frache
100g live yogurt
Scrub the potatoes and bring them to the boil in deep salted water. Let them simmer for 15 minutes or so, until they are tender to the point of a knife.
Peel the beetroot, then cut them into thick wedges and put them in a mixing bowl. Remove the little wooden sticks that inevitably come with soused herrings and cut each fillet into six chunks, then add to the beetroot, but do not mix.
Thickly slice the gherkins, then add them to the beetroot and herring. Peel the onion and slice it very finely, or chop the spring onion, and add to the bowl. Rinse the rocket leaves and check them over, removing any thick stalks or wilted leaves. Keep them separate from the rest of the ingredients. Chop the dill and add it to the beetroot and herring.
Drain the potatoes, and peel off their skins as soon as they are cool enough to hold. Don't let them get cold - you want to dress them while they are warm. Cut each potato in half if they are very small, into quarters if not, and add them to the mixing bowl.
With a fork, mix the vinegar and olive oil in a small bowl or jar, and season with salt and black pepper and the mustard, then beat in the crème frache and the yogurt. Gently fold the dressing into the rest of the ingredients in the bowl, but stirring only lightly to avoid the beetroot sending everything pink. Divide the rocket between four plates, and pile the potato salad between them.