Return of the taters

Mar. 18, 2014 @ 09:13 PM

Like every other right-thinking resident of the Bull City, Petey, The Kid and I miss Honey’s.  That quintessential Southern diner fueled and filled generations of locals.
When my friend Bosco attended Duke, he often dined there. 
One night Bosco was at Honey’s when he observed a little old man whom he pegged as a farmer in from the country.  The gentleman ordered breakfast, and the waitress asked him the eternal question:
“Grits, hash browns, or potato ‘n cheese casserole?” 
For the uninitiated, the casserole was a rich, tasty concoction of potatoes and cheese, which was both creamy and lumpy, and of a beige hue.  He decided on the most exotic-sounding option, the casserole.
Bosco observed as the man’s meal was delivered.
The farmer studied his plate for a moment, looked up at his waitress and queried, "Whut is dat? Taters?"
Good old Honey’s.  I suppose there were some folks, somewhere, who weren’t fans.  But I honestly don’t think that there is a human anywhere who doesn’t love potatoes, in some form.
Baked potatoes are pretty much the Clark Kent of the spud world.  Simple, basic, but hiding a world of potential.
The first step is to get yourself a well-baked potato. It sounds simple, but there are myriad ways to do them grave injustice.
It doesn’t matter if you are making russets or sweet potatoes, take a few minutes in the produce section to choose the right ones. Make sure they are unblemished, and if you’re making more than one, pick ones that are all about the same size, so they will be done at the same time.
Sweet potatoes will cook about 20 percent faster than white, so if you’re making both, add the sweets a bit later.
Preheat your oven to 350. Prick your well-scrubbed taters a few times with a fork.
At this point, a lot of people would just wrap each in foil, and toss them in the oven.  But instead of baked, you end up with an unseasoned, steamed potato.
A true baked potato should be cooked in dry heat.  Start by making yourself a tinfoil boat. Rip off a square of foil, and fold up the edges.  It should vaguely resemble the lid of a shoe box.  This will deliver the most heat, and catch any drips.
Lay your spud on the foil, and drizzle it liberally with oil. I usually use grape seed or olive oil, but I’ve been known to melt a bit of bacon fat and use that. Sprinkle each with about a teaspoon of kosher salt, a hefty grinding of pepper, and some smoked paprika (you can also use other spices, depending on how you plan to dress it). Rub the seasoning all over them. With a sweet potato, I always add some freshly ground nutmeg.
Bake average sized russets for about an hour and 15 minutes, sweets for an hour, flipping once during cooking.  If your potatoes are very small or very big, adjust your time accordingly.
You can go simple, and dress them with butter, sour cream or both.  But with such a beautiful, carefully prepared canvas, you can get very creative.
For russets:
Try chili and cheese, or broccoli with cheddar sauce.  Those are Petey’s picks.
Go Mexican, with salsa, black beans, cotija cheese, and crema.
Do brunch with steamed asparagus, a poached egg, and Hollandaise sauce.
Have Italian with sausage, marinara, and mozzarella.
Dress them with leeks and mushrooms browned in butter, and glazed with sherry.
For sweets (I love the play of salty and sweet):
Crisp up some chopped bacon. Remove the bacon and sauté some chopped apples or pears in the fat.  Spoon in fruit, and top with the bacon and some sliced brie.  Put under the broiler until golden and bubbling.
Caramelize some onion and add along with butter and light sour cream, then sprinkle on some grated manchego cheese.
Drizzle with honey and top with salted, toasted pecans.
Try peanut butter, dried cranberries, and pretzel pieces.
Give it some thought, and get creative.  Then maybe at dinner your family will look at their plates and ask, “Whut’s dat in the taters?”

Thanks for your time.

Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is momsequitur@gmail.com.