As Thanksgiving approaches (midnight is in 42 minutes here on the America's Left Coast), I'm sipping a half-warm Coke, listening to digital Frank Sinatra Christmas music from a satellite 22,000 miles above Earth, reflecting fondly on good times from the past and looking forward to a great family get-together tomorrow.
My contribution to the Thanksgiving feast this year, as in two previous years is twice-baked potatoes.
Preparing twice-baked potatoes is time-consuming, but it isn't difficult. And for the benefit of those who (like me) have well-meaning and culinarily-talented moms and sisters offering us recipes with incomprehensible abbreviations and fractions and bizarre ingredients like "lemon zest" (seriously: who came up with THAT?), I decided to document my twice-baked potato preparation in pictures and plain English and thus empower the common man.
I'll try to spell out a more complete list of ingredients later. But I started today with 15 hand-picked baking potatoes. It costs more to get bakers--and you can use smaller potatoes if you want. Just scale the other ingredients accordingly. I tried to pick potatoes that were somewhat rectangular in shape (easier to arrange on trays later), and I scrubbed them all clean with a brush before baking.
While scrubbing the potatoes, crank the oven up to 350F. When you've rinsed the spuds arrange them in the oven so they don't touch each other if possible. Note: Take a sharp paring knive and poke a few slits into each potato prior to baking to allow steam to vent from inside the potato. Potatoes can explode in the oven if the skins don't allow steam to escape quickly enough. Kind of a cool experiment for another time--exploding potatoes--but it'll hamper your twice-baked project.
With the baking started, it's time to get the other ingredients ready. Here I've got fresh chives, green onions (which I didn't end up using), salt, fresh garlic and Tillamook sour cream. The Mrs. Butterworth's syrup is for waffles and has nothing to do with this project.
Start with a clove or two of fresh garlic. (You'll find it in most grocery store produce sections--cloves look kind of like a lumpy white onion). You basically keep pulling off dry peeling until you get to the part of the garlic that's smooth and moist--similar to the inside of an onion. I don't have a garlic press--basically pliers for crushing garlic into a pulp--so I sliced the cleaned garlic as thinly as possible and added it to around 2 sticks of butter (margerine is fine) in a pan on the stove, then turned the heat to low--maybe 3 on a 10-scale initially, then down to 1 or 2 after the butter melts. The idea--suggested to me a while back by one of those culinary experts I was talking about--is to give the liquid butter/margerine time to absorb the garlic oils. Note: you could scale this back to maybe 1.5 sticks of butter/margerine. I didn't use it all. Don't let the butter boil--keep the heat low.
Next job: cutting chives. Chives are kind of like really thin green onions--tubes, basically. They're a big pain to cut finely with a knife, but food processors will tend to mangle them and aren't a good option. Great suggestion by my mom: clean a pair of sharp scissors with soap and hot water and use that to cut the chives. It works great! Easiest chive-chopping I've ever done. (Note: there ARE scissors made for food preparation use--use that if you have it, but regular scissors work fine too if they're sharp).
With chives chopped, check the butter/garlic mix--stir it around with a spoon and make sure the stove heat is on low. Check the potatoes too--poke one or two with a knife. When they're done, they should be easy to poke all the way to the center with a knife. I baked at 350F for around 90 minutes and the results were great. Your mileage may vary depending on potatoes ("dry" vs. moist potatoes, etc.).
Proper hydration and mental clarity is important--as is energy for the remaining work. I suggest a hot cup of coffee and a Dr. Pepper chaser. In this case, I have an 8 oz. novelty can of Dr. Pepper I got from Target before Halloween.
Inside of 90 minutes, your bakers should be done in the oven. Spread a towel out on the counter top (it'll keep the hot potatoes from rolling and tends to keep the skins drier). They'll have to cool a little--but you'll want to start working on the potatoes when they're cool enough to hold in a bare hand without needing to switch hands. Cut each potato in half lengthwise, where the cut will expose the most potato. Scrape the baked potato out of the shell with a metal spoon. Be careful not to dig too deep and ruin the skin. When you've scooped out a skin, there should still be maybe 2mm of potato next to the actual skin.
The skins can go back on the towel the potatoes were cooling on. It'll give them a chance to dry out a little and cool down completely.
That butter and garlic mix that's been on the stove? Time to strain out the garlic and collect garlic-infused butter.
After breaking up the potato with a wooden spoon (I like a chunkier texture so I don't use a potato masher), I drizzle some molten butter and a sprinkling of salt onto the potatoes and mix it in thoroughly with the spoon. Important: the garlic butter is mostly for flavor--not to moisten the potatoes. Go easy! Start with a little and add more if needed to adjust taste.
Add a generous amount of sour cream to the potatoes and add chives. I used 2 containers of sour cream for this project. Add more or less chives as desired--no perfect quantity here. It's up to you.
Next ingredient: shredded cheddar cheese. I use Tillamook Medium Cheddar and I'm lazy enough to buy the pre-shredded package to save the effort of grinding my own. But if you do grate your own cheese, don't grate it too fine--course works great (HA!--maybe GRATE?) and mixes in more easily. Add to taste. Don't go overboard or you'll make the potatoes oily. But it's up to you how cheesy you want the potatoes to be. I probably used 16-20oz of cheddar.
Check the taste as you go. I had to add more salt and a little more cheddar to get it right. When you've got the flavor where you want it, it's time to fill the skins. You want each one to be slightly rounded on the top--but not too much or you'll waste filling and it'll overflow when you bake the potatoes again. Note: you won't have enough filling to fill all the skins. I had 4 or 5 skin halves left over. That's normal--and you can save those skins (e.g., give them a light dusting of spray-on oil, salt and pepper and roast in the oven).
Arrange the potatoes in glass or metal baking pans. I use disposable aluminum lasagna pans--the size is just about perfect--and I spray the pan lightly with a spray-on oil first. A few strands of shredded cheddar on each potato and a light dusting of paprika will give the potatoes an attractive browned topping when baked.
Tomorrow, I'll get these potatoes in the oven in time to warm them thoroughly and brown the top (perhaps baking at 350F and a short blast under the broiler at the end?). The preparation takes some work, but the pay-off is worth it. You can adjust the ingredients as needed. Some people add cream cheese to potatoes for a creamier texture--I might try that next year. Baco-Bits can be sprinkled on top if you're after a smokier, saltier accent. And you can try a mix of cheeses for a slightly different texture and flavor. It's the beauty of bachelor cooking!
Here's the high points of my ingredient list:
Whatever YOUR Thanksgiving Dinner includes, I wish you all the best and bon appetit!
"Meandering ruminations, shared for the benefit of those who probably need to get out more."
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