Being from a small town in the Midwest named Sheboygan has its pluses and minuses. As a gothy punkette in my teens, I would have told you it was all minuses. I would have snarled when I said it, too. Sheboygan is an industrial town on Lake Michigan halfway between the cosmopolitan metropolises of Green Bay and Milwaukee. It was once know for the “4 C’s”–churches, chairs, children, and cheese. So not cool.
I moved away 22 years ago to somewhere cooler, but as the years go by, I miss certain things about that earnest little Midwest town, especially the food. Sheboygan was founded and peopled by German immigrants and they brought their recipes along with them. Thus, German food like bratwurst, kruellers, and homemade kraut are in my blood, though my family isn’t German.
I’ll talk about the proper protocol for doing up a brat fry another day, but in this post I want to share with you the bacon-laced, tangy-sweet, lovely dish known as “German potato salad.” It’s a simple peasant-ish dish of boiled sliced potatoes dressed with a warm vinegar and liquid bacon fat dressing with mustard and caraway seeds. It’s the sort of food one might load up on before going out to milk several hundred head of Guernsey cows. It’s also what one must have if one is eating bratwurst. And as far as attending a tailgate party to watch football (especially the Green Bay Packers)? Well, I’ve never been to a tailgate that didn’t have a big bowl of German potato salad plunked down in the center of the table. Ever.
The key to success here is to slice waxy (Yukon or red salad) potatoes evenly, so they will cook evenly. I use a plastic mandolin slicer set to about 1/4-inch and use the plastic guard it came with; bits of finger won’t help this recipe. I boil the spud slices in salty water until they are just-tender when pierced, you want them to hold their shape in the salad. Let’s say 4 minutes.
I add bacon and a dressing made from bacon fat, vinegar, and good grainy mustard. You really have to spend a little more than perhaps you’re used to on the bacon or this salad will come out like cafeteria fare. I use apple wood smoked bacon from Nueske’s, a family owned pork outfit from Wittenberg, Wisconsin. As for the mustard, I like Edmond Fallot‘s (the Burgundian family has been making it since 1840), but any good grainy will do.
At first when you toss it all together, it will look too wet. Wait about an hour, toss once in awhile, and you’ll find that the spuds will begin to drink up the dressing, and therein the magic lies. Don’t chill the dish. Refrigerating potatoes changes their texture and makes them starchy, and the bacon fat in the dressing will solidify…it’s not quite the mouth feel you’d welcome. If you must refrigerate the salad, warm it up a little before serving it.
Follow this recipe and tips, and you’ll have a bowl of bold-but-honest flavors. A “kill-hunger” dish that’s humble but generous. Just like my hometown itself.
German Potato Salad
8 ounces apple wood-smoked bacon, such as Nueske’s
6 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 cup warm chicken stock
2 1/2 tablespoons grainy mustard
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons caraway seeds, or 1 1/2 teaspoons ground caraway
3 pounds small waxy potatoes (Yukon or red new potatoes)
1 tablespoon sea salt, plus more for seasoning
1/2 cup finely chopped sweet onion (Walla Walla, Vidalia)
1/3 cup finely minced chives or green onion
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place the bacon on a rimmed baking sheet, bake until it is crisp and browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the drippings. Place bacon on paper towels, set aside. Place the reserved drippings, vinegar, brown sugar, mustard, caraway seeds, and stock in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and keep warm over low heat.
Place 4 quarts of cold water in a large pot. Peel the potatoes and slice them thinly and evenly into 1/4-inch thick slices. Add the potatoes to the water, bring to a boil, add 1 tablespoon of salt and cook until tender when pierced with a fork, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and place in a large serving bowl. Toss with the dressing, sweet onion and let the mixture stand for at least 1 hour. Crumble the bacon and add it to the salad right before serving, and then season to taste with salt and pepper.