Baked beans, potato salad and coleslaw come up frequently when people vote on their favorite summer barbecue side dishes.
I personally don't know anyone who puts baked beans at the top of the list, but I know plenty who say it's just not a summer cookout without potato salad. (Coleslaw is a whole other topic with passionate debate about creamy vs. vinegary varieties.)
So this year, for the Fourth I'm offering up four fun takes on potato salad: one that draws inspiration from Cobb salad; a Greek-inspired side with tomatoes, cucumbers and black olives; a peppy peppered version and a pesto-laced baked potato salad that comes from "Old-School Comfort Food," the new cookbook by chef Alex Guarnaschelli, perhaps my favorite judge on Food Network's "Chopped."
As a bonus, I'm including The Best Traditional Potato Salad as touted by the folks at the Idaho Potato Commission. They should know; they've tasted a lot of potato salad over the years.
While Russets are the best common variety for salads, you can mix things up with Yellow Finns, Yukon Golds and red potatoes. Add a little color and texture by leaving the skins on all or some of the potatoes.
For the best results, the potatoes must cook evenly and that means they should be cut into even (or pretty darn close to even) pieces. An easy way to do this is to slice potatoes lengthwise to create planks (kind of like cutting a log into 2-by-2s). Now lay the stack of potato planks flat and cut crosswise and the planks fall into bite-sized chunks.
Place the pieces in a pot and cover with cool, salted water. Bring water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until they're fork-tender -- 8 to 15 minutes depending on the size of the chunks. Drain and chill completely before mixing with other ingredients.
If these recipes don't grab you, look in your pantry or spice cabinet for inspiration. Try cider vinegar, lemon juice, horseradish, paprika, hot pepper sauce, any type of mustard, chives, parsley or other fresh or dried herbs. Stir in diced vegetables or pieces of cooked chicken, salmon or salami. Do what tastes good to you, but start with small amounts -- it's easier to add more than to take out.