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Here's one hot potato issue that's tasty to solve

A goddess of the baked spud unites the country with this recipe

John Kass

November 17, 2012

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No matter what all those fuzzy-thinking idealists say, America remains a nation divided.

We’re torn over how to properly bake a potato.

Half of us insist on wrapping our bakers in tinfoil. The other half tosses their spuds stark naked into the oven. Each tribe is passionate, stubborn and wrong. But here’s a way to unite America with the best baked potato recipe in history:

Salt-Baked Potatoes with Roasted Garlic and Rosemary Butter.

Yes, you cook them on a bed of salt, but once you try it, you’ll never go back to naked spuds (too leathery) or foiled spuds (too slimy) or the microwave (too stupid).

“They’re insanely tasty. They’re the best potato ever,” said America’s goddess of the baked potato, Julia Collin Davison, of that amazing TV show, “America’s Test Kitchen.”

Davison is also an executive editor in the books division of the show’s parent company, Cook’s Illustrated. I called the other day to ask about her technique. My wife and I tried it months ago and haven’t made a baked potato any other way since.

Naturally, the use of salt seemed rather odd.

“Isn’t it though? Cooking on salt seems odd to many people. It’s a very old technique, and we experimented until we got it right,” Davison said. “It’s been around forever. It’s one of those recipes that float around, a novelty, like Beer Can Chicken.”

Beer Can Chicken?

“Yes, you know, sticking a chicken on a can of beer and roasting it,” she said. “Before you try it, you think it’s a parlor trick. And then you try that chicken and it’s delicious.”

Really? Chicken on a beer can? Sounds weird, but I can’t wait to try it. In the meantime, let’s talk about the potato recipe.

“The salt draws out the moisture, then puts it back into the potato. It is simply outstanding.”

As she spoke, I realized that I was listening to greatness. And she’s nice, too.

“Some recipes we’d found left the skin tasting like a baseball mitt. Others involve an egg wash, you encrust the whole potato, but just try serving that at the dinner table. You try to chip off the salt and it’s a real mess. Our recipe is the best of both worlds.”

Darn right. And here it is.

First let’s start with the salt. Davison recommends 2.5 cups of salt, but I use 3 cups of kosher salt because, well, just because every cook futzes with another’s recipe. Pour the salt into a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish. Spread it out evenly.

Add four big potatoes, scrubbed and dried. Davison used russets. Any nice bakers will do. Lightly set the potatoes on the salt, evenly spaced. DO NOT PIERCE THE POTATOES.

Take two sprigs of fresh rosemary and put each in the baking dish, along each of the long sides. Take two heads of garlic, cut the tops off, and nestle them into opposite corners of the dish. Davison used one head, but I love garlic.

Cover the top of the baking dish with aluminum foil and crimp the edges all around to make a tight seal. Put the pan in an oven preheated to 450 degrees. Bake for one hour, 15 minutes.

Then remove the baking dish and set it aside. Now, turn the oven up to 500 degrees. That’s right. 500.

While the oven is getting ready, remove the foil from the baking dish, and the sprigs of rosemary and toss them away. Remove the garlic heads and set those aside to cool.

Gently brush the tops and sides of the potatoes with olive oil. Do not move the potatoes. Return the uncovered baking dish to the oven for 15 minutes or so, to crisp them.

Now, for the sauce.

Finely chop about a hoofta or two (handfuls) of fresh rosemary and put into a bowl. Davison measured her rosemary this way: the leaves from two fresh sprigs, plus another quarter teaspoon of rosemary. But hooftas are what I use.

Take the garlic heads and squeeze the root ends so the cloves slip out of their skins and into the bowl. You might need to hold them with a towel if they’re too hot. Add a stick of softened butter. Davison used only four tablespoons of unsalted butter.

Use a fork to mash the garlic, rosemary and softened butter together.

Remove the potatoes from the oven. Pick up each one with a towel and scrape off any salt from the bottom. Open each potato with a fork, spoon in the sauce and watch the smiles on the faces of your guests.

“Aren’t they great?” said Davison.

So are you. America, I give you ATK’s Julia Collin Davison. Goddess of the Baked Potato and uniter of the warring tribes.

Note: I’ll be taking the Thanksgiving week off, my first vacation all year. I’ll continue with the WLS-AM radio gig in the mid-mornings, but a break from the column will allow me to see family visiting from out of town.

But I can’t go without first leaving you the turkey brine instructions. Brining is the best method for a juicy bird. If you fry your turkey, you could burn your house down or your face off. Brine instead. Then roast it in an oven or over charcoal. Be happy.

You can find the brine video at http://trib.in/TV6wDT and the brine column at chicagotribune.com/brine or on my Facebook page.

Happy Thanksgiving.

jskass@tribune.com

twitter @John_Kass