Steamy baked potatoes, topped with sour cream, chives and bacon bits must be one of America's best-loved comfort foods. On a cold winter night, nothing fills you up better. I fell in love with the fully loaded tubers when I first arrived in the United States from India, about 13 years ago. Unlike the highly-spiced varieties that I'd known growing up -- always either sautéed or in curries -- the simple baked spud was fluffy, creamy and soothing. I tasted the first one at the college cafeteria at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va., and was instantly hooked. A decade later, however, baked potatoes have become a "ho-hum" choice at our house -- like that trusty green salad that you start taking for granted. Knowing the tasty tuber had more to give, I started experimenting to see how I could cook up a more satisfying side.
First, I discovered, the base has to be perfect. "Use a good starchy potato, like an Idaho or Russet," suggests Mark Bittman, author of "How to Cook Everything: The Basics" (Wiley, 2003). "They provide a pleasant mealiness. Yukon gold, the closest thing to an all-purpose yet, is also good." Bittman advises oven-baking the spuds right on the racks, since wrapping them in foil or microwaving them just doesn't produce the right pairing of crisp skin and fluffy center.
(Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)
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Now the potato is ready to be topped. The classic combos are always tasty, but to get out of a gastronomic rut, reach for more intriguing ingredients: Prepared horseradish and cream, sprinkled with your favorite cheese and broiled; jalapenos with cheddar; flaked poached salt cod; pesto sauce and bacon bits or sun-dried tomatoes; hollandaise sauce; salmon roe and chives; even ladlefuls of broccoli and cheese soup. Flavorings generally recommended for mashed potatoes -- like pureed roasted garlic and blue cheese -- will also work deliciously as toppings. If you still want more ideas, try "Potato Primer" on www.eGullet.org , an online class that provides 130 potato recipes for free.
Want a more honeyed variation? Try baking a sweet potato. Its juices caramelize as it cooks, so I top it with lemon, coarse salt and ground roasted cumin, for a tongue-tickling combination of sweet and savory. Or there's always the standard: Salt, butter, butter, and oh, some more butter. Monica Bhide
WITH MUSTARD AND CRUNCHY SHALLOTS
2 large baking potatoes (such as Idaho or Russet), scrubbed
4 medium shallots
1/4 cup vegetable oil (such as canola or grapeseed)
Salt to taste
1/4 cup warm milk (preferably whole)
2 tablespoons butter
2 to 3 tablespoons dry vermouth (or dry white wine)
1 to 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard