There's an even easier way to enjoy summertime spuds than in potato salad. Simply serve the potatoes whole or halved, accompanied by a tasty topping enlivened with mustard, capers, herbs or toasted nuts. My favorite potato partners are aioli (garlic mayonnaise), seasoned sour cream with fresh herbs or variations of vinaigrette dressing. Pesto is also delicious and, for those who love fiery food, so is s'hug (Yemenite hot pepper garlic paste). For casual entertaining, you can serve a variety of toppings and dressings, as they do in Turkish potato restaurants. The specialty at these very simple eateries is called kumpir: you get a baked potato and choose from an array of sauces, fillings and toppings: cheese, black olive paste, mayonnaise, hot red pepper sauce, ketchup, pickles, cooked peas, corn, sliced carrots, mushrooms or other vegetables, or pieces of frankfurters. Although not many people associate potatoes with Turkish cuisine, tubers are popular there. This October, the National Potato Research Institute in Anatolia's central plateau, Turkey's main potato-producing region, will hold a potato harvest field day in honor of the United Nations International Year of the Potato. The year 2008 is being marked by festivities around the globe, from France to India to China to Peru. I find that potatoes taste best warm, served with cool dressings. You can cook them in advance and reheat them briefly (in the microwave) before serving them. As in potato salad, you start by cooking the potatoes in water or steaming them. If you're not preparing a large amount of potatoes, you can cook them in the microwave instead, to save time and avoid heating up the kitchen. You don't need to peel them - unless your family insists! Potatoes prepared this way can be lighter than potato salads. Here's why: when you're making potato salad, as the spuds cool, they absorb some of the dressing and at serving time often seem dry, prompting many cooks to add more dressing. If you serve the potatoes warm, each person can spoon on as much, or as little, dressing as he or she wants. My friend Sallie Y. Williams, author of The Complete Book of Sauces, presents a variety of sauces that are good with potatoes. Her caper dressing, for which the capers are blended into olive oil-Dijon mustard vinaigrette, is terrific. "Pour this over cooled boiled potatoes and watch them disappear," she writes. For a fresh, pale green dressing, she processes a little chopped fresh spinach with olive oil and wine vinegar in a blender. Her Roquefort vinaigrette with garlic reminds me that in Paris cafes I loved a green salad that was topped with potatoes, walnuts and Roquefort cheese. Mayonnaise variations are also wonderful with potatoes. For tapenade dressing, Williams mixes mayonnaise with black olives, anchovies, garlic, lemon juice and parsley. Her mayonnaise combined with fresh tarragon and sour cream makes a gentler potato partner. Salsa makes a fresh, colorful topping for potatoes. You can make an easy version by preparing your usual Israeli salad with olive oil and lemon juice, and spiking it with chopped pickles, capers, mustard and parsley. Martine Jolly, author of a potato cookbook called Merci M. Parmentier, expands the idea of vegetable toppings by enhancing vinaigrette with diced cooked red peppers, or with a mixture of cubed tomatoes, chopped hard-boiled eggs and plenty of chopped parsley. For a richer accompaniment, she recommends whipped creme fraiche seasoned with fresh dill, salt and pepper. Following are instructions for cooking the potatoes, and sauces to match with them. BASIC COOKED POTATOES Allow 900 gr. potatoes for 4 to 6 servings. Boiled Potatoes: Scrub boiling potatoes of uniform size. For faster cooking, cut them in halves or quarters, if you like. Put potatoes in large saucepan, cover with water by about 1 cm. and add salt. Bring to boil, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer about 18 minutes, or until knife pierces center of largest potato easily and potato falls from knife when lifted. Drain thoroughly. Peel if you like. Steamed Potatoes: Use new potatoes, preferably small ones. Cut potatoes in halves, or quarters if they are large. Bring at least 21â„2 cm. of water to a boil in base of steamer. Boiling water should not reach holes in top part of steamer. Set potatoes in steamer top and sprinkle with salt. Cover tightly and steam over high heat about 20 minutes or until tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Remove potatoes and drain briefly on paper towels. Microwaved Potatoes: I find potatoes cook more evenly in the microwave if I cut them in half almost all the way through. Some cooks prefer to prick them instead. For a dry-cooked effect like a baked potato, use baking potatoes and wrap in paper towels. Microwave on high until tender. Every oven is different. In my 700-watt oven, one medium potato takes about five minutes, two potatoes take seven minutes. Pierce with a fork to check. For an effect like a boiled or steamed potato, use new potatoes or boiling potatoes. Put in a baking dish or other microwave-safe bowl that can just contain them. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons water. Cover and microwave. Barbara Kafka, author of Microwave Gourmet, suggests microwaving 900 gr. of whole potatoes for 10 to 15 minutes, and adds oil to the potatoes instead of water. CREAMY HERB MUSTARD SAUCE This sauce is a combination of sour cream, mayonnaise, mustard and fresh herbs. It's great on warm potatoes or as an appetizer dip with raw vegetables. Use any type of mayonnaise and sour cream you like - regular or low-fat. To make it parve, omit the sour cream and add more mayonnaise. Makes about 11â„4 cups, about 6 to 8 servings
3â„4 cup sour cream or yogurt
1â„2 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. mustard, or to taste
1 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
1 Tbsp. minced green onion
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. thinly sliced chives (optional)
1 Tbsp. chopped tarragon leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Mix sour cream with mayonnaise in a bowl until smooth. Stir in mustard, lemon juice, green onion, parsley, chives and tarragon. Taste and adjust seasoning. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
This salsa is like s'hug with olive oil. It will definitely perk up your potatoes!
Makes about 11â„4 cups, about 8 to 10 servings
4 to 6 fairly small fresh hot green or red peppers
4 large garlic cloves, peeled
3 cups cilantro (fresh coriander) sprigs, medium-packed
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice
1â„3 cup water
Salt to taste
1â„2 tsp. ground cumin
Wear gloves when handling hot peppers. Remove seeds and ribs from peppers if desired. Cut peppers in a few pieces. Combine peppers and garlic in food processor and mince fine. Add cilantro and process until coarsely chopped. Transfer to a bowl and add remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Serve cold or at room temperature.
CAPER PARSLEY DRESSING
This is a lemon-juice version of vinaigrette combined with capers, parsley and chopped hard-boiled eggs. You can also make it with white wine vinegar.
Makes about 1â„2 cup, about 4 servings
3 Tbsp. lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
5 or 6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. drained capers, rinsed and chopped
1 hard-boiled egg or egg white, chopped
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Cayenne pepper to taste
Whisk lemon juice with salt and pepper. Whisk in oil. Stir in capers, chopped egg and parsley. Add cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.