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Idaho Baked Potato Makes The Perfect Lunch

By Rose Levy Beranbaum Los Angeles Times Service

One of my favorite annual family ski weeks was at Sun Valley, Idaho, when my brother and his then 8-year-old son Alex joined us.

The highlight of the trip was when Alex got to meet Clint Eastwood, who was also skiing that week. I spotted him in the cafeteria atop the mountain and encouraged Alex to demonstrate the famous Clint Eastwood impression he had been practicing since he was 3 years old, no doubt for this very moment.

After a little hesitation, he got the idea to bring over his entire ski class for moral support. I watched from a distance as Alex performed what appeared to be the least relaxed “Come on, make my day” in his repertoire. And I was charmed to see Clint Eastwood smile tenderly and reach down to stroke Alex’s dark hair in appreciation. Alex came over to report his take on the event: “I was scared,” he confided, “but I did it anyway!”

Along with Sun Valley’s slopes and scenery, there’s a superb lunch menu. After all, what could be a more perfect lunch for an athlete than a baked potato - in particular, an Idaho baked potato?

At Sun Valley, the baked potatoes are perfectly baked and large enough to make a whole meal of just one. They are served with a choice of several different toppings, including chives, chopped jalapeno chilies, shredded Cheddar cheese, sour cream, chopped olives, bacon bits and chili.

These toppings are fun and provide variety when one eats a baked potato every day. But if you really love the flavor of the potato, simple is best: creme fraiche (thickened whipping cream) or sour cream, a little butter, freshly ground pepper and salt. If you really want to go over the top, there is nothing like the ideal synergy of a few drops of white truffle oil to spoil you for life.

The irony is that there are few things easier to make, more delicious and yet more unattainable at most restaurants than a simple, well-baked potato. Maybe the problem is that the baked potato is so humble that most chefs who would know what to do with it wouldn’t dream of putting it on the menu.

Less ambitious cooks often take advantage of the potato’s forgiving nature by baking it way ahead of serving, wrapping it in foil and holding it for so long that it turns steamy and weirdly sweet-tasting.

But when done correctly, as in the following recipe adapted from “Cooking with Daniel Boulud” (Random House, 1993), the baked potato is elevated to new heights. The skin is deliciously crisp and the interior fluffy white and mealy-dry, to absorb the other ingredients willingly.

The Perfect Baked Potato

Adapted from “Cooking With Daniel Boulud,” (Random House).

1/2 cup coarse sea salt

2 (8-ounce) Idaho potatoes, each about 5 inches long, scrubbed and dried

2 heaping tablespoons creme fraiche or sour cream, at room temperature (see note)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Salt, freshly ground pepper

About 1/2 teaspoon white truffle oil, optional (see note)

Evenly spread sea salt in bottom of shallow baking pan large enough to hold potatoes. Place potatoes on top so that they are not touching. Bake at 425 degrees 45 to 55 minutes or until tender when pierced with small sharp knife (208 degrees on instant-read thermometer). Give potatoes a 1/4 turn every 15 minutes to bake evenly and pick up salt flavor.

When done, brush off salt and make long slash lengthwise down center of each potato. Push ends of potato together slightly to fluff up insides. Add creme fraiche or sour cream, butter and salt and pepper to taste. Mash lightly with fork to combine. Add truffle oil, if using, and mash briefly.

Serve at once, preferably with pinot noir or burgundy wine to complement the earthy taste.

Yield: 2 side-dish servings.

Note: To make creme fraiche, combine 1/3 cup whipping cream (preferably not ultrapasteurized, as it may take as long as 36 hours to thicken) with 1 teaspoon buttermilk in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Place in a warm area and allow to stand undisturbed for 12 to 14 hours, or until thickened but still pourable. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

White truffle oil is available in some specialty markets or by mail order from Balducci (800-225-3822).

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