I love to put French fries on a salad. They add sustenance, crunch, and warmth. I know that’s a bizarre choice, at least on paper, but I never had time to question it. This is just how salads come in Pittsburgh, man. You regularly see them on menus as listed as a steak salad (two words that don’t belong next to each other) or a chicken salad. Each one implies protein, French fries, and shredded cheese on a bed of lettuce. In fact, I think I had the French fries on a salad chicken salad before I actually had chicken salad, if that makes sense.
The alchemy of a Pittsburgh salad is fluid. The cheese is usually cheddar, but sometimes mozzarella. I’ve also seen bars and restaurants that omit cheese altogether. Fries change from kitchen to kitchen, and range from fresh cut to frozen. Steak or chicken is a constant, but in my hometown of New Castle, Pennsylvania, where Syrians, Greeks, and Lebanese immigrants shaped the food culture, one can order fried kibbeh on their Pittsburgh salad. It is perhaps the world’s most niche dish, and I love that it exists.
As long as the salad has fried potatoes on it, then it qualifies as a Pittsburgh salad. Problem is, you don’t see them anywhere outside of Western Pennsylvania. And so I developed a modern recipe to reignite my love for this particular dish. I sought to make a Pittsburgh salad for the times. A classy, trendy, Alison Roman-esque recipe. And I’m proud of it.
I use smashed potatoes instead of French fries, which are easy to prep and crisp up nicely in a pan as they absorb the oil. Crispy shallots caramelize in their frying oil and transform into a delectable, savory onion candy that you’ll find yourself snacking on for days. Rounding out this peculiar dish is a pungent chimichurri ranch dressing. Just a brightly acidic, herbaceous, red wine vinegar ranch to spice things up. Steak is optional, but the potatoes, obviously, are not.
And if you want to watch me make the classic French fries version, you can watch that here, too:
- 10 small fingerling potatoes
- 6 medium shallots (about 10 ounces)
- 2 1/2 cups vegetable oil
- 1 head of green leaf lettuce
- 1 English cucumber
- steak (optional—but I pan cooked a ribeye)
For the Chimichurri Ranch:
- 1 bunch fresh parsley
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro
- 1/4 cup fresh oregano
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 Serrano pepper (or jalapeño)
- 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup buttermilk (optional)
Bring a salted pot of water to boil and drop in the potatoes. Cook until you can easily pierce them with a knife, about 20 minutes. Be careful not to overcook. Let the potatoes cool and set aside. You can also do this a few days ahead of time.
Peel the shallots and slice them thinly lengthwise. You can use a mandoline, but a knife works just fine. Cut them about the thickness of a dime.
Put 2 1/4 cup of oil in a large sauce pan and add the sliced shallots. Turn the heat on medium-low. Cook for 30-45 minutes. The shallots won’t start looking golden brown until about the 30-minute mark. Feel free to turn up the heat slightly around that time. Once they start to develop color, stir them frequently with a spatula. As soon as all of the shallots look evenly golden brown, turn the heat off.
Set a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and drain the shallots. Place the shallots on a plate lined with paper towels. Pat the tops lightly to remove oil. Sprinkle with salt. Set aside and dispose of oil. You can do these a day ahead of time—just wrap them tightly with plastic wrap.
Cut the stems from the parsley, cilantro, and oregano while the plastic seal is still attached to each bunch. Discard of the stems and seal, but if a few stems end up getting chopped it’s all good. Chop the herbs into a coarse dice; they do not need to be finely minced. Add to a bowl.
Mince the garlic and add to the herbs. Do the same with the Serrano pepper and add to the bowl as well. At this stage, add a pinch of salt to the herb mixture. Add the red wine vinegar and olive oil. Stir to incorporate.
Next, add the mayonnaise and buttermilk. The buttermilk adds flavor, but will also thin the ranch out a bit. If you like yours thick, omit it. Mix thoroughly. Jar and set aside. This ranch is best when it sits in the fridge overnight.
Place your potatoes on a cutting board, and using the flat end of a knife, smash the potatoes so that they are leveled and squished, but not torn to shreds. They should still maintain solid form. Do that with all 10 potatoes.
Place 1/4 cup vegetable oil into a pan on medium heat. Once the pan is hot, place each potato into the pan. Work in batches if the pan feels overcrowded. Salt and pepper once each potato hits the pan. Cook for 3 minutes on each side, or until they are golden brown and crispy.
Rinse green leaf lettuce and pat it dry with a couple of paper towels. Then, chop it lengthwise into about 1-inch sections, then chop it again down the middle lengthwise—I’m not a fan of eating a salad with lettuce the size of a tablecloth. Now, chop the cucumber into thin coins (about the same size as the shallots). Arrange the lettuce in a bowl, and fan about seven cucumbers along the rim of the bowl.
Next, place the crispy smashed potatoes on top of the salad. Liberally sprinkle fried shallots. (If you made steak, now is the time to cut it into strips and place it onto the salad). Serve with chimichurri ranch on the side.