THE WASHINGTON POST – No two Puerto Rican potato salads are the same. Food blogger Reina Gascon-Lopez said her family likes to keep it fairly simple with mostly just eggs, mayo and roasted red peppers. Food writer and video host Alejandra Ramos said that her mom’s version would include carrots, onion, lime juice and sliced pimiento-stuffed green olives or capers. For my colleague Daniela Galarza, the version her mom learned from Galarza’s paternal grandmother would include stuffed olives, onion, cilantro, lemon juice, red bell pepper and both sour cream and mayo. (“I forgot! Green peas!” Daniela’s mother calls her to add.) And food blogger Marta Rivera Diaz said she likes to include sofrito for an extra dose of flavour to the recipe she learned from her mother.
Recipes for the dish vary from family to family, and different preferences sometimes arise even among members of households. The oft-included ingredient that creates the most division? Apples. “You have two very polarising camps: They either really dislike it and they hate it, or they just think it’s the most genius thing they’ve ever tasted,” Rivera Diaz said.
When peeled and diced to a similar size, the apples blend in with the potatoes and can startle the unsuspecting. “I distinctly remember the very first time I had our potato salad when my mom made it, and I was so angry at her. I was like, ‘Why are you putting apples in the potato salad? What’s wrong with you?’” Rivera Diaz said. “I just remember being so grossed out by the sweet and savoury of it all,” though she has since changed her stance.
For Ramos, it’s the texture that throws her off. “I’m always sort of poking at the cube in the bowl and testing out the texture, looking for the tender potato texture versus the crisp apple. But occasionally I miss it and it’s in my mouth and I’m like, ‘Oh no! What do I do?! What do I do?!’” Ramos said. “It became a kind of joke, because my mom knows that we don’t like the apples. When you look at our plates as we’re eating, it’s this little pile of discarded apples that have been pushed to the side.”
When a friend served me a version including apples, I was surprised, too; it was certainly a shock to my taste buds, but I enjoyed the sweet and savoury combination and the interplay of textures.
“When I make a Puerto Rican potato salad, I always stare at people who are having it for the first time to wait for them to take that bite,” Rivera Diaz said.
Ramos prefers to give people a heads-up to help eliminate the “dissonance in their heads between what they were expecting and what they’re tasting” and give them a better shot at liking the dish. “The first time my husband tried my mother’s potato salad, I warned him because I love him,” Ramos said with a laugh.
But how did Puerto Rican potato salad come to be? Potatoes and apples aren’t typically part of the island’s cuisine. “It’s one of those Puerto Rican dishes that veers away from what you typically think of as Puerto Rican food,” Ramos said. “It feels like it has very mainland American influences in it.”
While it’s hard to track down the exact origins, I think it comes down to colonisation and industrialisation. “Former secretary of agriculture for Puerto Rico Javier Rivera Aquino traced (the dependence on imported food) back to the island’s long history as a Spanish colony, when native farming traditions gave way to large plantations of sugar and coffee that were shipped back to Europe,” NPR reported. The United States (US) took control as a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898. In the 50s, the island’s workforce shifted from agriculture to manufacturing and began to import even more food. According to the most recent data I could find, about 80 per cent of food consumed is imported, about half of it from the mainland US.
The dish isn’t too dissimilar from Southern-style mayo-based potato salad or Waldorf salad. So perhaps when foods were imported from the mainland, so were some of its recipes, and residents of the unincorporated US territory fused the two and added some Puerto Rican sabor (flavour) to make it their own. (“It’s always decorated, which I think speaks to that sort of the 50s retro mid-century influence,” Ramos conjectures.) Now, it is a part of the diaspora’s food ways and its members’ connection to the island and one another.
“When you move away from home and you don’t have those same dishes, you kind of miss it. So that’s when I started adding apples to my potato salad,” Rivera Diaz said. “When my husband and I found that both of our families made it like that, we felt the connection even more so, because we knew we came from the same tribe of people.”
Some families serve it only for holidays such as Thanksgiving (Ramos) or Navidad (Gascon-Lopez), while others also make it regularly as a side for a weeknight diner or any large gathering (Rivera Diaz).
While I tend to go for Yukon gold potatoes when making salads because they keep their shape well, russets are traditional in this dish and add to the creaminess without requiring a lot of mayo. As for the apples, those that include them use a variety: Some like the tartness of Granny Smith and others use Red Delicious, perhaps for a softer texture, but a firm apple with a nice level of sweetness, such as Gala or Honeycrisp, is great in this recipe, which is adapted from Rivera Diaz’s blog. (Once peeled and cut, the apples should be added directly to the dressing to keep them from oxidising.)
The dressing consists of mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar (though another type of vinegar or lemon or lime juice could also work), red onion, cilantro, green bell pepper, roasted red peppers and olives. It’s flavoured with dry adobo seasoning, which is “synonymous with Puerto Rican flavours”, food writer Alicia Kennedy once wrote. However, you could also use sazón, another seasoning blend popular on the island, or a simple combo of salt, pepper, garlic powder and oregano.
This recipe all comes down to choice. If there’s a particular ingredient that you aren’t very fond of, such as raw red onions or sliced olives – “I don’t see why people wouldn’t like it, but some people don’t like flavour,” Rivera Diaz said – it’s your prerogative to simply omit it. However, if you have not already, I encourage you to give the apples a try. After all, potatoes are just “ground apples” (pommes de terre) according to the French, so perhaps the combination isn’t as strange as you might think. The worst thing that can happen is that you pick around them and end up with a pile on your plate at the end of the meal, like Ramos. On the flip side, maybe you’ll fall in love with the dish as I and so many others have.
PUERTO RICAN POTATO SALAD
Active time: 45 minutes
Total time: Four hours 45 minutes
Serving: Eight to 12
No two Puerto Rican potato salads are the same. The recipe varies from family to family, but the standout ingredient in many versions is cubed apples. The apples are peeled and cut the same size as the potatoes, so it’s a sweet, crunchy surprise whenever you bite into one. This version, adapted from food blogger Marta Rivera Diaz, is packed with flavour and includes cilantro, pimiento-stuffed olives and roasted red peppers. It is seasoned with a dry adobo or sazón, the all-purpose seasoning blends popular among people with ties to the region, but you can make an approximation with spices already in your pantry.
Make Ahead: The dressing can be made and refrigerated up to two days in advance.
Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to three days.
Note: If you don’t have adobo seasoning or sazón, you can replace the amount called for in the recipe with one teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt, half teaspoon garlic powder, one-quarter teaspoon dried oregano and one-quarter teaspoon ground black pepper.
Four large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into three-quarter-inch cubes
Three large eggs
Half cup mayonnaise
Half medium green bell pepper, stem, rib and seeds removed, diced
One-quarter large red onion, diced
One-quarter cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
One-quarter cup sliced Spanish pimiento-stuffed olives, plus whole olives for garnish (optional)
One-quarter cup chopped roasted red peppers (optional)
One tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Two teaspoons adobo seasoning blend with pepper or sazon seasoning blend, plus more to taste (see NOTE)
Two firm, tart apples, such as honeycrisp
Fill a large bowl with ice and water.
In a large pot, add the potatoes and eggs and add enough water to cover by at least two inches. Place over high heat, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so the water is at a simmer, and cook until you can pierce a potato with a fork with little resistance, about 12 minutes. Transfer the eggs with a slotted spoon to the ice water. Let the potatoes drain and cool in a colander while you make the dressing.
In a large bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, bell pepper, onion, cilantro, olives, roasted red pepper, vinegar and adobo until combined.
Peel and cut the apples the same size as the potatoes and toss with the dressing. Peel and chop the eggs and add them and the potatoes (you want them to still be warm but not hot) to the dressing and stir until evenly combined. Taste, and season with more adobo, if needed.
Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the olives and roasted red pepper, if using. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least four hours, before serving.
Nutrition per serving (two-third cup), based on 12 | Calories: 151; Total Fat: 8g; Saturated Fat: 1g; Cholesterol: 26mg; Sodium: 234mg; Carbohydrates: 18g; Dietary Fibre: 3g; Sugar: 4g; Protein: 2g