The big boy’s graduation party is today. He’s celebrating with a friend he met the summer before kindergarten.

These two boys were instantly simpatico. They saw things in a way other kids didn’t. (A ball wasn’t just something to throw; it was a planet orbiting the earth.) They ate up knowledge like potato chips, amazing museum docents with their adult-like knowledge of dinosaurs (my son) and astronomy (his friend).

Other kids could be mean. Both my son and his friend suffered the grade- and middle-school indignities reserved for those who march to slightly off-key drummers. But they persevered, never editing their uniqueness. Each found a soft spot and a safe crowd in high school.

So today we’re celebrating. The friend is offering up his house; I’m cooking.

It’s the usual backyard barbecue fare: Burgers, hot dogs, green salad and chips. Cupcakes, fruit skewers, chocolate chip cookies.

And potato salad.

I spent years hating potato salad. It was either sweetly cloying or bitterly acidic. The potatoes were often mushy — more mashed than chunked. The requisite pickles didn’t offer any kind of crunch; mustard and egg made the whole thing a congealed, yellow mass.

I played with potato salad for years. I tried oil-and-vinegar versions (where the dressing pooled on plates and ran into everything else). I tried exotic, international versions (dill pickle juice, anyone?). None satisfied.

Then I found a recipe in “Gourmet” magazine that finally stuck. The salad itself was pretty basic: Potatoes, celery, chives. But the dressing made the dish: Good mayonnaise cut with just the right amount of white wine vinegar and whirred up with lots of herbs, salt and pepper. Added judiciously to cooled potatoes, it coated the spuds without overpowering their flavor or texture (or pooling around other items on the plate).

I’ve adapted this recipe over the years. I now add copious amounts of celery, bell pepper, scallions and parsley to my potatoes. I leave the peels on the potatoes. I play with the types of vinegar I use (a red wine version gives the salad a slightly rosy glow) and the herbs I add (purple basil and tarragon are favorites). I add a small clove of garlic to give the dressing extra depth.

I’m off to make my potato salad now. It’s familiar yet unique.

Like my big boy and his friend.

potato salad

Perfect Party Potato Salad

The beauty of this salad is that you can add and subtract all you like. Try fennel instead of celery or use a mix of the two. Tuck in raw radishes. Use any herbs you want. The only caveats:

1. Use good mayonnaise, like Hellman’s or Duke’s. Do not use Miracle Whip! It’s too sweet.

2. Use yellow, red or purple potatoes (not russets!) and leave the peels on. Cut the potatoes into uniform chunks before cooking.

3. Make sure the potatoes are lukewarm or room temperature before adding the other ingredients and dressing. Otherwise, you’ll mash those babies as you stir your salad.

potatoes tossed

  • 5 pounds yellow or red potatoes
  • 2 generous cups chopped celery
  • potato herbs2 red peppers, diced
  • 1 cup sliced scallions, green and light green parts only
  • 1 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
  • 5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 3/4 cup assorted herbs (I primarily use basil and tarragon, but I like to add some rosemary and dill to the mix, too)
  • 1 small garlic clove, peeled
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper

potatoesWash the potatoes, then cut them in half vertically. Cut each half vertically again, then cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces.

Place the potato chunks in a large pot and cover with cold, salted water.

Place the pot over high heat. Bring the potatoes to a boil, then cook them until they’re just fork tender. (Don’t overcook, or they’ll turn to mush!)

Drain the potatoes and place them in a bowl to cool.

While the potatoes are cooling, combine the mayonnaise, vinegar, herbs, garlic, salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Process until creamy. Taste for seasoning. I like my dressing to be vinegary enough to just tickle the back of my throat. If that’s too harsh for you, add a bit more mayo.

Once the potatoes have stopped steaming and are lukewarm or cooler, add the celery, peppers, scallions and parsley:

potatoes tossed

Pour about half the dressing over the vegetables and toss gently with a metal spoon. Continue adding dressing and stirring until you have the amount of coating you desire.

Cover the salad tightly with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator until very cold. Taste before serving and adjust the seasonings as necessary … you will probably need to add a bit more salt.

This feeds 20 to 25 people (and easily cuts for a smaller crowd).