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 polarizing 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 says.
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 says. “I just remember being so grossed out by the sweet and savory 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 says. “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 savory 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 says.
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 says 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 says. "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 colonization and industrialization. “Javier Rivera Aquino, a former secretary of agriculture for Puerto Rico, 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 took control as a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898. In the 1950s, 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 percent of food consumed is imported, about half of it from the mainland United States.
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 U.S. territory fused the two and added some Puerto Rican sabor (flavor) to make it their own. (“It’s always decorated, which I think speaks to that sort of the 1950s retro mid-century influence,” Ramos conjectures.) Now, it is a part of the diaspora’s foodways 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 says. “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 oxidizing.)
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 flavored with dry adobo seasoning, which is “synonymous with Puerto Rican flavors,” 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 flavor,” Rivera Diaz says — 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.
Make Ahead: The dressing can be made and refrigerated up to 2 days in advance.
Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
NOTE: If you don’t have adobo seasoning or sazón, you can replace the amount called for in the recipe with 1 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano and 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper.
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- 4 large russet potatoes (2 to 2 1/2 pounds total), peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 medium green bell pepper (about 2 1/2 ounces), stem, rib and seeds removed and diced
- 1/4 large red onion (about 2 1/2 ounces), diced
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
- 1/4 cup sliced Spanish pimiento-stuffed olives, plus whole olives for garnish (optional)
- 1/4 cup chopped roasted red peppers, plus more for garnish (optional)
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons adobo seasoning blend with pepper or sazón seasoning blend, plus more to taste (see NOTE)
- 2 firm, tart apples, such as Honeycrisp (about 1 pound total)
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 2 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 4 hours, before serving.
Per serving (2/3 cup), based on 12
Calories: 151; Total Fat: 8 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 26 mg; Sodium: 234 mg; Carbohydrates: 18 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugar: 4 g; Protein: 2 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Adapted from Marta Rivera Diaz’s blog, senseandedibility.com.
Tested by Aaron Hutcherson and Ann Maloney; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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