Stuffing the Wild Potato

There isn’t a lot of written history on the stuffed baked potato, so I’m pretty sure I invented it. And as usual with me, economy was the true mother of invention.

There I was, many years ago when Wendy’s and I were young, pondering that the fast-foot burger chain made famous by Dave Thomas offered baked potatoes and chili (made from its unused patties, in a masterpiece of economy), each for only 99 cents. Then it hit me – wouldn’t a baked potato with chili spooned into it and over it make a satisfying meal? For only $1.98?

It was, for one budding food guy with not a lot of coins in his pocket, a eureka moment that even Dave Thomas would have appreciated. Then again, Dave probably wished I’d ordered one of those special chicken sandwiches he was always hawking for $5.98.

From what I can gather, the notion of “stuffed baked potato” is one step beyond “loaded baked potato,” the latter a more refined and restrained steakhouse notion usually involving butter, cheese, sour cream, chives and crumbles of bacon. A loaded baked potato was one of the first foods I remember impressing me. You mean, I wondered, they can make it with any combination of those things I want? Indeed they could.

A truly stuffed baked potato becomes not a food but a delivery system, as at various times has a sandwich, a biscuit, a pizza or a taco. The only requirement, with any of those things, is a truly open mind. Crawfish etouffee from Louisiana would make a terrific stuffed baked potato, as would creamy chicken tikka masala from India or spicy paprika-red goulash from Hungary. The sky’s not really the limit at all. The world is.

Inevitably, in baking a potato, we come to the question of which potato to bake. Here we choose NOT to reinvent any wheels, going with the russet variety from Idaho. Both Colorado and Texas grow the same type of potato, but they didn’t have a railroad to promote them.

That’s what happened in the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century, when Idaho potatoes were still grown just to feed the hogs. It was the head of the Northern Pacific Railway who started serving baked Idaho potatoes to diners in 1908, with a selection of fillings and topping to make them more interesting, more exciting.

With that single marketing masterstroke, what had long been the Idaho potato’s two greatest drawbacks – that it was large and had a thicker-than-average skin – became its main selling points, once the interior softened and the skin turned crisp and delicious in a hot oven. You can believe this puny slice of history from the annals of Idaho, which even produced a song called “The Great Big Baked Potato.” Or you can believe my dramatic origin story from Wendy’s.     

BEALE STREET BAKED POTATO

The flavor profile is clearly remembered by all who’ve ever tasted it – a soft bun holding lots of fork-shredded slow-smoked pork shoulder topped with sweet-tangy coleslaw. You might say it’s The Taste of the iconic barbecue joints of Memphis. In honor of that riverfront city’s most famous live music street, here’s a baked potato that will conjure up Beale Street in a small fraction of the time.   

4 large baked potatoes

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

Coleslaw:

2 cups shredded cabbage-carrot coleslaw blend

¼ cup prepared mayonnaise

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt and black pepper

Pork Barbecue:

½ cup Fischer & Wieser’s Smokehouse Bacon Chipotle Sauce

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon prepared ketchup

1 tablespoon prepared mustard

½ tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 pound pork tenderloin, chopped

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Brush the potato skins with olive oil and lightly salt them. Set in the oven and bake until cooked through and soft with crisp skin, 40-45 minutes. Prepare the coleslaw by blending all ingredients in a mixing bowl and setting in the refrigerator for flavors to meld until ready to use.

In a saucepan over medium high heat, bring the Fischer & Weiser sauce to a boil with the brown sugar, ketchup, mustard and vinegar. Reduce heat and simmer about 10 minutes. Stir the chopped pork with the olive oil over medium-high just until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Then add the simmering barbecue sauce. Bring just to a boil then reduce heat and let simmer. When baked potatoes are done, slice them lengthwise and press with fingers on both ends to open them as much as possible. Top with coleslaw and then with pork barbecue, spooning on additional sauce as desired. Serves 4.

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