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The cult of the twice-baked potato

The potato is one of nature's most flexible gifts to cooks — a culinary chameleon, if you will — with versatility matched only by its delectability.

Possibilities for this humble tuber are as rich as the imagination. For instance, once it dawned on cooks that a baked potato didn't have to be a culinary cul-de-sac, the Twice-Baked Potato Cult was born. They make wonderful dinner party fare because they're so easy to do ahead of time. The only attention they need during your event is a last-minute reheating.

When designing a stuffed spud recipe, be creative. All sorts of fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses work. Some people like to saute the ingredients in a little olive oil or butter before mixing with the spud. Some folks love lots of sour cream. Others prefer yogurt. It's between you and your diet.

Also, you don't have to use only russet (baking) potatoes. Large Yukon gold potatoes have a nice texture and slightly sweet-and-nutty flavor.

There are plenty of options beyond the classic cheese-bacon-sour cream rendition. The other evening I added a generous scoop of richly caramelized onions to my filling. By doing so, I didn’t need as much butter to keep the mixture moist. And the flavor factor was off the charts delicious. You’ll find the recipe below.

And that’s only one example. I thought it’d be fun to provide you with an inspirational springboard. To the scooped-and-mashed potato flesh, consider adding any of the following ingredients, then pile the mixture back into the potato shells and bake in a 400-degree oven until hot and golden brown. If you brush the tops with a bit of butter before baking, they’ll brown more gracefully.

It’s worth noting that most of these potato mixtures can be prepared and stuffed back into the jackets and refrigerated up to 24 hours before baking and serving. Most can even be frozen and baked months down the road. I’ve noted the exceptions below.

  •  As a zippy side-dish to corned beef, combine the scooped-and-mashed flesh with well-drained sauerkraut, a generous dash of yellow mustard, sour cream and shredded Swiss or Monterey Jack cheese. Plus a little melted butter.
  • Sliced leeks that have been sauteed in a bit of butter or olive oil, along with some chunks of ham, shredded Swiss cheese, and a splash of cream.
  • Sliced mushrooms, sauteed to a deep golden brown in olive oil and/or butter with a healthy dose of chopped fresh garlic, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, white pepper and brandy or sherry.
  • Steamed broccoli florets: mix with the scooped-and-mashed potato flesh, along with grated sharp cheddar cheese and a few spoonfuls of cottage cheese.
  • Steamed asparagus tips that have been sauteed in butter along with minced yellow onion, then combined with the scooped-and-mashed potatoes, bits of ham, shredded provlone and heavy cream.
  • Diced tomatoes, chopped/torn fresh young arugula leaves, and crumbled blue cheese (the tomatoes don’t do well overnight in the fridge, and definitely don’t freeze well, so mix up this filling right before baking).
  • Diced tomatoes, crumbled crispy-cooked bacon, chopped green onion and sour cream (again, the tomatoes don’t freeze well).
  • Season the scooped-and-mashed potatoes with ground cumin, then combine with salsa, frozen (thawed) corn kernels and shredded Monterey Jack (or pepper Jack) cheese. (If you are using salsa from a jar, it’s OK to prepare ahead or freeze, but fresh salsas with uncooked tomatoes don’t do well overnight in the refrigerator or freezer.)
  • Combine scooped-and-mashed potatoes with an equal amount of roasted or steamed and pureed vegetable (such as cauliflower, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips or celeriac), along with some shredded cheese, then stir in a bit of melted butter, salt, and pepper to taste.
  • Combine scooped-and-mashed potatoes with an equal amount of shredded zucchini that’s been sauteed in a bit of butter; add salt and pepper to taste; after filling, sprinkle on a generous topping of grated Gruyere cheese.
  • Chopped up left-over chicken (or turkey, pork or steak), herbed Boursine (or other flavored cream cheese spread), and chopped green onion (note: uncooked green onions do not freeze well).
  • Roast a head of garlic by slicing off the top pointy end, inverting into a puddle of olive oil on a roasting dish and roasting in a 350-degree oven until tender when squeezed; peel away the papery outer covering from each clove; place the peeled cloves back in the roasting dish and mash with the back of a fork (use the olive oil that roasted along with the head of garlic) into a chunky puree; stir this into the scooped-and-mashed potatoes, along with a bit of cream.
  • Frozen peas with ham
  • Fresh-cooked Dungeness crab meat, shredded cheddar cheese, melted butter and chopped green onion (uncooked green onions do not freeze well).

Twice-Baked Potatoes with Caramelized Onions, Bacon and Cheese

Makes 8 servings

4 large russet potatoes (about 3/4 pound each)

About 1/2 teaspoon salt

Scant 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces sliced bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/3 cup shredded Parmesan

3/4 cup sour cream

1 cup caramelized onions (recipe follows)

1-1/2 cups shredded sharp or extra-sharp cheddar

About 1/4 cup melted butter

Scrub the potatoes, then dry thoroughly and poke each one in several places with a fork. For a crisper skin, rub each potato with a bit of oil, removing excess with a paper towel.

Bake the potatoes in a pre-heated 400-degree oven until done (they will be soft when gently squeezed). Remove.

When potatoes are cool enough to handle, halve each one lengthwise and scoop out all but 1/4 inch of the filling. In a large bowl, using a fork or potato masher, mash the potato flesh. (For this recipe, I like to leave the flesh fairly lumpy — it produces a more interesting filling).

Add the salt and pepper and gently toss the mashed potatoes with a fork or spoon to distribute the seasoning. Taste then add additional salt and pepper if necessary.

Add the bacon and shredded Parmesan and toss the mixture again. Stir in the sour cream and caramelized onions. Then stir in the cheddar.

Mound the filling back into the potato jackets. Potatoes can be prepared to this point and refrigerated several hours or overnight before proceeding (they can also be frozen; thaw before baking).

Twenty minutes before serving, Brush the top of each potato with the melted butter, then place the potatoes on a baking sheet and bake in a pre-heated 400-degree oven until hot and golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.

Bobby Flay’s Twice-baked Potatoes with Smoked Chiles

Makes 6 servings.

6 medium russet potatoes, baked

1/2 pound soft goat cheese

1/2 cup sliced green onions

2 tablespoons pureed canned chipotles in adobo sauce

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup whole or low-fat milk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

When the potatoes are cool enough to handle (but still hot), cut off both ends and scoop out the potatoes, leaving the shells whole. Reserve the shells. Mash the potato flesh with the goat cheese, green onions and chipotle puree.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter with the milk, then beat it into the potato cheese mixture and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stuff the reserved shells with the potato mixture. Potatoes can be prepared to this point and refrigerated several hours or overnight before proceeding (they can also be frozen; thaw before baking).

When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 400 degrees (have the potatoes at room temperature before baking). Place the stuffed potatoes on a baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes, or until very hot.

— Adapted from “Bobby Flay’s Bold American Food,” by Bobby Flay

Chile and Cheese-Stuffed Spuds

Makes 8 servings.

4 large russet potatoes, scrubbed and baked

1/2 cup chopped celery

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

1/2 cup chopped green onion

3 tablespoons chopped pickled jalapeno pepper slices

2/3 cup sour cream, divided

salt and pepper to taste

salsa or piquante sauce

When potatoes are cool enough to handle, halve each one lengthwise and scoop out all but 1/4 inch of the filling. In a large bowl, mash the potato well.

In a small skillet, saute the celery in the butter or olive oil until softened, then add to the bowl of potato meat, along with the cheese, onion, pickled jalapeno peppers and 1/3 cup of the sour cream. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mound the filling back into the potato jackets. Potatoes can be prepared to this point and refrigerated several hours or overnight before proceeding (they can also be frozen; thaw before baking).

About 30 minutes before serving, place the potatoes in a 400-degree oven and bake until hot, 15 to 20 minutes. To serve, place a generous dollop of sour cream on top of each potato and then drizzle on some salsa or piquante sauce.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.