BWW Cooks: English Jacket Potato Entrees Give Baking Potatoes A New Twist

The white Irish potato is frequently derided in American cooking as the "humble" white potato. Sweet potatoes are the "in" potato, as are brightly colored red, yellow, and blue fingerlings and tiny round potatoes. White potatoes, even russets, aren't sexy in American cooking. They're one more round of baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, or French fries - in short, they're a boring starch side dish. Considering how nutritious they are (despite a higher glycemic index, counterintuitively, than sweet potatoes), if the peel is included, and that they are in fact delicious, it's a shame to write them off as a class of food. Let's look at them, instead, as a main dish, and a very simple one at that.

English cooking was once considered bland and awful by Americans, who have changed their tune after their discovery of Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Nigella Lawson, and the ubiquitous Gordon Ramsay. However, much of what we're extolling is English high cuisine, when some of its best foods are casual, found at pubs and cafes. The white potato shows up in such simple and ever-popular fare as bangers and mash and fish and chips as a side dish, but it takes center stage in the quick café meal known as the "jacket potato" - simply a baked potato, in its skin, cut open and fluffed a bit with a fork, topped with a hearty and delicious filling.

Always start your baked "jacket potato" in whatever way you find gives you the best texture inside and a nicely textured, edible skin. Baking in foil often produces a damp potato with a mushy interior and a slimy skin, not the best choice unless you've perfected your technique. Microwaved potatoes turn out much like steamed potatoes many times, although you do have a nicely dry skin. My mother kept large aluminum nails that were pounded lengthwise through whole large potatoes to reduce their baking time in the oven, and she always rubbed the potatoes' skins with butter prior to baking. The result was a perfectly cooked, mealy potato with a crisped skin that was as delicious as its interior. The oven still yields the best results; consider the possibility of "nailing" your potatoes as well to cut baking time substantially.

Your filling is limited only by your hunger and your imagination. The classic fillings at London cafes run from vegetarian to meaty, from simple to complex. Consider broccoli and cheese (or cheese sauce), or the very traditionally English cheese and onions - sauté your onions as desired, and if you like, caramelize them, before stuffing them into a hot potato with shredded Cheddar, Stilton, or a gruyere cheese. Or roughly chop pickled onions, a true English pub snack, and heat them well before placing them into an opened potato with a very sharp Cheddar. (If you want a real treat but can't find English pickled onions, plan ahead - buy glass-jar small onions in the vegetable section of your grocer, drain them, and fill the jar with malt vinegar or balsamic vinegar. Re-cap the jar and refrigerate for a few days before using.) Or fill your potato with leftovers: you can stretch and transform your leftover curry, chili, or stew amazingly by reheating it as a jacket potato topping. In the early fall, when summer vegetables are still around in plenty but potatoes are coming in, ratatouille is not unknown as a jacket potato topping.

Cheese and crumbled bacon, with or without onion, is a fine filling for jacket potatoes, as is tuna - tuna-stuffed jacket potatoes are a standby supper in many English households. Consider a light salad of drained canned tuna, chopped scallion, and halved grape tomatoes, perhaps with some crushed red pepper, as the potato topping. Some place the tuna salad on top of a first filling of cottage cheese. Or use your own favorite tuna salad recipe, or the very English mix of tuna and sweet corn with a dab of mayonnaise to bind them, as your potato filling.

Vegetarian ideas besides broccoli or onions with cheese, or a vegetarian curry, include English "baked beans" in tomato sauce (if you can't find English tinned beans in your store, Heinz beans in tomato sauce are a very close approximation used by British expats and Americans who have developed a love for English beans), with or without cheese atop them. The English even use America's favorite Mexican condiment, salsa, with cheese as a potato topping - or fill the potato with diced fresh tomatoes, and top with salsa, cheese, and cilantro. You already know that almost all other vegetables are great with potatoes. If they go with cheese as well, even better; they're asking to be put into a baked potato that's been popped open for them.

Scoop out a bit of potato and set it aside; brown some ground beef with a few peas and carrots and some chopped onion, add a bit of gravy, and fill the potatoes. Mash the potato you removed and top the filled potatoes - you've individual shepherd's pies in jackets. Or rather than tuna, use smoked mackerel or smoked trout as your filling, or absolutely any kind of salmon - canned, or smoked, or freshly cooked and crumbled. The English opinion is that if it's savory and you can eat it, you can top a jacket potato with it. Try beef stew, chunked chicken with scallions and tomatoes and Italian dressing, any kind of chili you like (vegetarian included), or a crab salad. Rather than serving a lobster roll, put your lobster and mayonnaise - or your hot lobster and melted butter - into a potato. Or turn your sausage and peppers sandwich into cut or crumbled sausage with sautéed peppers and onions in a jacket potato. Sandwich fillings take on a whole new look and taste when turned into potato toppings, and there's no need to serve fries on the side.

Turn a jacket potato into a dressy entrée or side dish: sautee sliced mushrooms with garlic and red wine (or port or marsala) and stuff your potato. Or sautee sliced steak with mushrooms, garlic, and onion and top your potato. Crab Louis fits perfectly into a jacket potato. Canned chunk tuna, with chopped cooked string beans, diced tomatoes, and sliced Nicoise olives, dressed properly and sprinkled with finely diced hard-cooked eggs, fills a Salad Nicoise potato - if it's served with potato or has potato in it, you can work it into a potato topping. Give your imagination free rein.

Like Eliza Doolittle, the not-so-humble white potato can be turned from homely and apparently uncultured to a spectacularly lovely guest at your party. It can be casual, filled with vegetables and cheese, ready for a party in the kitchen or back yard, or filled with steak and mushrooms and ready for dinner at the embassy ball. Only the size of the potato and the size of your imagination limit you. Turn leftovers into very different entrees, or vegetables into a main course, or a little something in the cupboard into a full meal for yourself and friends.

Reconsider the full-size white baking potato. It doesn't have to be that boring, unfashionable starch on the side any more.

Photo credits: Freeimages: lori5000, de Wachter, Prokoso

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From This Author Marakay Rogers

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