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Making something delicious from a spud is as easy as it gets

Sunday, March 16, 2003

I've seen many changes in how people cook and eat, but I simply couldn't believe my eyes. Here in the produce department was a single potato wrapped in clear airtight plastic, all ready for the microwave. The 8-ounce potato cost 79 cents. Ten pounds of No.1 Idaho brand baking potatoes were $3.99.

On a later trip to the supermarket, I discovered a single baking potato wrapped in golden aluminum foil, but the buyer had to go to all the work of piercing the oven-ready potato and removing its label before it could be popped into the oven. It had a warning, too: "To Microwave Remove Foil." Also 79 cents.

Dinner for one or two
Better twice-baked than half-baked, I say.

Twice-baked potatoes -- delicious when made with the russet potato (that's an Idaho, or maybe Michigan, Pennsylvania or from your own back yard) -- have been around for eons. Since everything old is new again, here's the skinny on twice-baked:

Take a tater, pierce it several times, and bake it in a preheated 425-degree oven. If you want a softer-skinned potato, rub with a little olive oil (or butter, if you choose). It bakes best on the middle oven rack and should be ready to stuff in 50 to 60 minutes. It's done when it yields to a gentle squeeze. (We can always use a gentle squeeze, but for this one use an oven mitt.)

While your potato is still hot (that oven mitt again), cut the potato in half lengthwise. (One half for you, one for your sweetie -- or lunch tomorrow.) Scoop out the flesh into a bowl. Leave a shell about 1/4 inch thick inside the skin. Mash the potato.

Add a tablespoon or two of light sour cream -- I'd never go as far as using nonfat, as my sour cream has to have some cream in it. Salt and pepper the mashed potato to taste, and add milk until the filling is the desired consistency.

If you want a nutritional boost, add 1/2 cup or so of vegetables; steamed broccoli would be good. If your mood concerning fat is more devil-may-care, add 1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese or a tablespoon of Parmesan.

Raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Gently fill the potato shells, mounding it up, mountain-like. Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until hot. A pretty garnish is an "X" of chives.

Without the added cheese or vegetable, half a Twice-Baked Potato has 159 calories with 1 gram fat, 4 grams protein and 33 grams carbohydrate.

Adapted from Idaho Potato Commission recipe.

-- Suzanne Martinson


My amazement over this easy-cooking "trend" demonstrated once again how behind the times I am. When they came out with those bags of little carrots, I said, "Who would buy those? How hard is to peel a carrot?" Then salad greens showed up all bagged and ready to dump into a bowl. "Who would waste their money on them?" I scoffed. "How long does it take to wash and tear a head of lettuce? Who is this crazy?" Who? Me is who.

And I own both a salad spinner and a super-duper carrot peeler. Once, I even bought some of that pre-fried bacon that has to be warmed up in the microwave, which is where I cook my bacon in the first place.

Yet when I took that potato for show-and-tell at a recent speech, there were women who, perhaps a little red-faced, had already purchased one. Its brand name is PotatOH! It's from Colorado, while its gold-wrapped, "oven-ready" cousin is called MountainKing and hails from Houston. Neither of these potatoes is branded an "Idaho." An Idaho potato has to be grown in that state, though many other states, including Pennsylvania, also grow the russet variety of baking potato.

How hard is it to wash a potato? I'm not taking sides, though I continue to receive my own inspiration from my little potato-shaped brush, complete with eyes. Look, I never said I was without whimsy.

Perhaps the fact that we can buy 10 pounds of potatoes for peanuts is beside the point. Many households don't need that many, though you can purchase a single potato out of the bin. When I was a girl on the farm, we grew our own potatoes, and the job I hated most was descending into the basement to crawl under the stairs in the dark to search out five potatoes for dinner. By this time of year, potatoes that had been dug in the fall were mushy, they were sprouting, they could even be gross. Besides, there may have been monsters down there in the dark.

When you get right down to it, one compelling component makes a great potato: freshness. We've probably forgotten how a potato that has just been dug, washed and baked can taste. Wonderful is how.

Let's not forget that potatoes are alive. They're seeds, after all. So I wasn't surprised when the potato wrapped in aluminum sprouted -- right through its golden jacket.

A meal all by itself

A bag of potatoes can go a long way to feed people, and some say the Irish couldn't have survived without the spud, which had been cultivated in Peru since at least 200 B.C., though it wasn't until the early 16th century that the Spanish Conquistadors took potatoes to Europe, according to "A Passion for Potatoes" by Paul Gayler (The Lyons Press, $24.95).

"They were regarded, along with tomatoes and eggplants, as the work of the devil," Gayler writes.

In 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to Ireland. It wasn't an easy sell. Frenchman Louis XVI organized banquets with potatoes in every course and persuaded Marie Antoinette to wear potato blossoms in her hair and have them embroidered into her evening gown, thus making them fashionable. Frederick the Great had recognized the potato's potential and distributed seeds to the peasants of Prussia with a warning that anyone who objected would have his nose cut off,. If we have Marie Antoinette to thank for french fries, who gets the credit for garlic mashed potatoes?

There are hundreds of varieties of potatoes, which come in red and black, too. But in 1845, a horrendous potato blight struck Europe, and the Emerald Isle was especially hard hit. Nearly 1.5 million people died of starvation. The flip side of this horror is how the United States was enriched when so many Irish immigrants came here. So, to my mind, no celebration of St. Patrick's Day tomorrow would be complete without a potato dish.

Of course, this is America, so we often take a perfectly good, nearly fat-free food -- about 98 calories in a 1/4-pound potato that also contains potassium, Vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin and fiber -- and gussy it up in such a way that it's loaded with calories. Not that I would ever, as the saying goes, throw a Twice-Baked Potato out of bed. In fact, a potato can be a whole meal if you add a bit of cheese and perhaps some vegetables.

If you had to choose a single meal for eternity, you couldn't beat potato soup. There are many variations, one of them Gayler's Tattie Hushie, which contains potato, cauliflower and oatmeal. It's both nutritious and filling.

For eight years, I have admired the efforts of the Empty Bowls benefit, this year at Rodef Shalom in Shadyside. Diners choose a handmade bowl designed by high school and college students and then a soup (or more) to fill it.

Last Sunday, a friend and I were among about 1,000 people who bought tickets for this wonderful event, which benefited Just Harvest and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. My friend enjoyed Italian Wedding Soup while I imbibed bisque and enjoyed the music of the delightful Hot Matzohs.

Chefs prepared a delicious repast that was a chilling reminder of how much we have while others have little or nothing. The organizations that provide groceries each month for the 120,000 people say 37,000 are children, 16,000 are older than 65, and 17,000 have been laid off or have disabilities. And 35,000 of the households have someone who is working either full- or part-time but isn't making enough to make ends meet. The genial man sitting across from us took his contemplation one step further. He was fasting. It was satisfying just to smell the different soups, he said with a smile.

Tattie Hushie

Floury potatoes, such as russets, are potatoes that are more starch than water. They fall apart easily and disintegrate in water, thickening the cooking agent. Floury potatoes become light and fluffy when baked.

  • 2 tablespoons butter

  • 1 leek, sliced (if unavailable, use mild onion)
  • 7 ounces cauliflower, cut into small florets (about 4 cups)
  • 1 1/4 pounds floury potatoes, peeled and diced (we used russets)
  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 2 1/2 cups well-flavored chicken stock
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the butter in a pot, add the leek and cauliflower, and cook gently for a few minutes. Add the potatoes, then cover and sweat for 10 minutes. Mix the milk and oatmeal and pour them over the vegetables. Add the stock, bring to a boil, and simmer until the vegetables are tender. Blitz the soup to a puree in a blender, then reheat gently and season to taste.

"A Passion for Potatoes" by Paul Gayler

Baked "Chips"

These potatoes are so delicious and easy, you may give up the fried version forever.

  • 4 large baking potatoes, unpeeled

  • 4 tablespoons good olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon fresh minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary leaves

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Scrub the potatoes, cut them in half lengthwise, then cut each half in thirds. You'll have 6 long wedges from each potato. Place the potatoes on a sheet pan with the olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary. Toss the ingredients together with your hands, making sure the potatoes are covered with oil. Spread the potatoes in a single layer with one cut side down.

Bake the potatoes for 30 to 35 minutes, turning to the other cut side after 20 minutes. Bake until they are lightly browned, crisp outside and tender inside. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately. Serves 6.

Author's note: If you don't have fresh rosemary, these chips are delicious with just olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic.

"Barefoot Contessa Family Style" by Ina Garten (Clarkson N. Potter, $35)

Food Editor Suzanne Martinson, who can be reached at bsjmar2@aol.com.

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