This is not a recipe. This is a post about love, memories and food. My mum’s best friend Gay; Mum to three lovely sons who I grew up with; was an incredible cook. Marrying into an Italian family meant she was exposed to the rich and varied traditions of Italian cooking handed down through generations – and she fully embraced it.
Despite being a proud Irish woman, Gay became the queen of Italian cooking. One of my cherished memories is going to stay with her when I was young; she taught me how to make a traditional red sauce and I showed her how to bake a cake. We then devoured the fruits of our labour in front of Friday night TV where she proceeded to tick me off for chatting all the way through Coronation Street.
Over the years I enjoyed Gay’s lasagne, carbonara, Napoli sauce and much much more. However, without a doubt, there is one dish which epitomises Gay’s talents as a cook and her place in our family life – and that is her potato salad.
Potato salad, you say? Yes you read correctly. But before you think i’ve gone completely bonkers (‘is it even Italian?!’ I can hear you asking) this is no ordinary potato salad. It is a sumptuous mix of tomatoes, celery and garlic, cooked down for hours to produce a deep and rich sauce. It is a world away from the mayo based British version.
Anyone who had the pleasure of eating it will testify that this dish took centre stage at every buffet, every party, every barbecue we had over the years. Gay got so sick of cooking it she used to joke that we only invited her round so she’d bring this dish!
She particularly hated having to peel all the potatoes. Once my Mum bribed her to bring a triple quantity of potato salad to a party by agreeing to peel all the potatoes for her. In our world, there was no celebration without Gay and there was no party without her potato salad.
Very sadly, we lost Gay to cancer three years ago today. Every day we miss her personality, her courage and her love. We miss the huge gap she’s left in our lives and we miss the simple pleasures of coming together through food and family.
Before Gay died she finally agreed to give me the recipe her the infamous potato salad (after years and years of begging) and I made it for her 53rd birthday party. She was known for being rather dubious about people’s cooking and I waited with baited breath as she tried it. ‘Good effort, but it needs more celery salt’ she said. So, be warned. Don’t be shy with the celery salt.
This post is dedicated to Gay. and whenever I make this I am reminded of her. It is a privilege to share her special recipe with you all.
4 cloves garlic
1 medium onion
Whole bunch of celery, including leaves
3 tins of tomatoes
1 chicken stock cube
2 teaspoons celery salt (possibly more, to taste)
Chop the onions and garlic finely.
Heat up a large slug of olive oil in a hard based sauce pan (such as a le creuset) and gently soften the onions for about 5 minutes, taking care not to let them brown.
Chop up the celery finely making sure you keep the leaves in. Add the celery to the onions along with the garlic and soften for a further 5 minutes.
Crumble in a stock cube and stir in the celery salt. Add the chopped tomatoes and swill one can with water and add this in. Give the sauce a really good stir and bring to the boil.
Leave to simmer for a good two hours at least, possibly three. Don’t even think about taking it off the stove until you see the yellow oil slick come to the surface. This shows it’s reached a good level of reduction, thickness and depth of flavour.
Give the sauce a taste, decide whether it needs more celery salt and season with pepper and regular salt if it needs it.
Meanwhile, peel and chop the potatoes into small-ish chunks and boil in a pan of salted water for about 15 minutes, until tender.
Drain the potatoes and leave to steam-dry in a colander, to get rid of excess water.
Once the tomato sauce is cool, stir in the cooked potatoes.
Taste and check for seasoning, and serve with a group of your much loved friends and family.
- To make it vegan and veggie, use a vegetable stock cube
- Makes enough to feed a good crowd of your loved ones