Give that spud a little love

    Bake some potatoes at your next participatory dinner. Photo by traveling.lunas on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    While I love cooking for my friends, multiple dinner parties a month doesn’t really do wonders for my bank account. Though potlucks are great in theory, they can often be hard to organize on the spot and are better left for when you have time to plan them out. And so I’ve found that the happy medium is what I like to call participatory dinners. You make one or two dishes that your guests can contribute to in some way by bringing an ingredient of their choice. You provide the theme and let them do the choosing. I’ve had participatory dinners with pizza, ice cream and quesadillas, to name a few, but my latest conquest is potatoes.

    Oh, potatoes. They’re so versatile and yet so, well, boring. Or at least that’s what I used to think. And then I saw this Idaho potatoes commercial, and perhaps I was a little delirious because I was battling the swine flu, but damn, did those potatoes look good! They were baked to crisp and golden perfection and topped with a mountain of different garnishes from sour cream to cheese to scallions to bacon. Then came the “aha” moment — a baked potato participatory dinner! It’s cheap at $1.49/pound for potatoes at Whole Foods Evanston, it’s easy and you can dress those baked babies up in any which way.

    The Plan

    Figure out how many people are coming to your dinner and budget one large Idaho or Russet potato per person, plus a few extra in case there are any mishaps or particularly hungry eaters. You will be in charge of baking all the potatoes and providing a few of the basic toppings, like butter, sour cream and chopped bacon, since that requires cooking. Tell your friends to bring a topping or two of their choosing.

    How to Bake a Potato

    There are a million different recipes for how to bake a potato, and the end result varies slightly. Here’s my recipe and feel free to tweak it to your liking:

    1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and make sure that one of the racks is directly in the middle of your oven.
    2. Wash and scrub each potato thoroughly with water, and fully dry.
    3. Use a fork to pierce holes in the potato to allow some of the steam to escape.
    4. Lightly coat the exterior of each potato with olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt.
    5. Place each potato on the middle rack(s) of your oven, and try your best to evenly space them.
    6. Bake for approximately one hour until the skin is crisp and the potato is very tender to the touch.

    Topping Suggestions

    You should encourage your friends to be creative, but you can also make some recommendations about what to bring. Here are a few ideas:

    • Shredded cheese: Cheddar and Monterey Jack are crowd pleasing faves, but most sharp and tangy cheeses will do.
    • Fresh herbs: Herbs with a bite like scallions or chives are my favorite, but cilantro, parsley and tarragon also work well.
    • Spreadable cheeses: My favorite way to eat a baked potato is with a slathering of Boursin cheese. Flavored cream cheeses and Laughing Cow cheese also taste delicious when paired with your spud.
    • Chopped vegetables: Chopped tomatoes, chopped steamed broccoli, chopped olives, chopped artichoke hearts and chopped avocado are all great.
    • Salsa and/or guacamole
    • Some funky options: alfalfa sprouts, hummus, toasted sunflower seeds, pesto, blue cheese dressing, chopped sun-dried tomatoes.

    Serving Suggestions

    While one baked potato per person is filling, I’d recommend that you have something else just to give your guests a little variety. Throw together a simple salad to pair alongside or whip up a batch of brownies to end your starch fest on a sweet note.


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