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Creamy summer salad has endless variations

Spring has finally sprung, and Memorial Day is nearly upon us — and in my family, at least, Memorial Day has always been the start of al fresco season, the time of year for picnics and cookouts.

Often, the holiday weekend will feature the first picnic of the year. Into my parents’ big cooler will go lunch meat and cheese, sodas and bottles of water and, of course, some sort of salad, either macaroni or potato.

It seems like the variations of these salads are endless, with every family having its own spin on these creamy side dishes.

First, there’s the basic choice: Macaroni or potato?

If you’re going with macaroni, any shape will do; my mom usually uses elbows, while others use small shells or even rotini (spirals) or radiatore (the chunky, squiggly ones that look a bit like tiny radiators, hence the name). Make sure the pasta is cooked just al dente, because nobody likes mushy pasta.

If it’s potato salad you’re after, you have plenty of options as well. My mom uses russet potatoes, but plenty of people use the firmer, waxy red potatoes, and I’ve even seen versions using sweet potatoes. Whichever kind you choose, make sure they’re just cooked through, peel them and cut them into chunks (you can skip the peeling with red potatoes) and cool them completely before assembling your salad.

Next comes the dressing. I’ve noticed that most people tend to use whichever creamy sandwich spread they grew up with: If you had mayonnaise in the house, you used that, but Miracle Whip households use that instead. Either is fine. Miracle Whip does tend to stand well on its own, though, while many versions of mayonnaise-based dressing are combined with some other element, most commonly mustard.

My husband introduced me to another variation, which I’ve not had around here but he says was popular downstate when he was growing up: mayonnaise combined with pickle relish. Feel free to experiment and find your own favorite option; I’ve even had potato salad that was spiked with ranch dressing, an interesting choice. Fresh herbs like dill, parsley or tarragon can also perk up your recipe.

Now comes the part where all bets are off: the add-ins. What else do you want in there besides dressed pasta or potatoes? Some people keep it pretty simple, maybe just a little bit of finely diced onion or some chopped celery for texture. My mom tends to use chopped radishes and cucumbers in her salads, though her macaroni salad often includes a can of drained, flaked tuna and some chopped hard-boiled egg as well. But the options are nearly endless: My aunt puts green olives in her macaroni salad. Like green pepper? Throw some of that in. Big fan of broccoli? Sure, throw some in. Or try a baked-potato salad, with crumbled cooked bacon, shredded cheddar cheese and chives.

But whatever you decide to try, there’s one hard-and-fast rule: If you’re taking a macaroni or potato salad to a picnic, pack it in an air-and-water-tight container and put it in a cooler surrounded by plenty of ice. Creamy dressings left in the hot sun are a sure recipe for food poisoning, and nobody wants that.

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