Eric Akis: Potatoes and yams take centre stage

Eric Akis

Baked potatoes and yams are often served as a side dish. In today’s recipes, though, I’ve elevated their status and made them the star on the plate.

With regard to the spuds, I made twice-baked potatoes. To make them, you bake baking potatoes until tender and then trim off their tops. The flesh of the potato is then scooped out, creating empty shells.

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The potato you scooped out is mashed and flavoured with such things as butter, buttermilk, tangy cheddar and sliced asparagus. That mixture is stuffed back into the potato shells and topped with small asparagus spears and more cheese. The stuffed potatoes are then baked until hot, golden and delicious.

To make four twice-baked potatoes, I actually used five potatoes. The baked flesh from the fifth potato was used to bulk up the filling for the other four potatoes ensuring they were more substantial and filling.

To make a nice dinner, serve the twice-baked potatoes with a generous portion of green salad or a Caesar salad and some sliced ripe tomatoes.

If four twice-baked potatoes are too many for you, once stuffed, freeze the ones you won’t bake now. When needed, simply thaw and bake as directed in the recipe.

With regard to the yams, I created a meal by baking them until tender, splitting them open and topping them with an easy-to-make chickpea broccoli curry. Both are then topped with items that will enhance their flavour, such as chopped mint or cilantro, chopped nuts, pomegranate seeds, yogurt and/or chutney.

The yam recipe yields three servings. If that’s too many, bake the number of yams you’ll eat and, once cooled, freeze any leftover curry for another time.

Twice-Baked Potatoes with Aged Cheddar and Asparagus

These hearty and filling-stuffed potatoes can act as dinner when served with a side salad. They could, of course, also be served as a very filling side dish for steaks, ribs or chicken.

Preparation time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: 90 to 105 minutes
Makes: four servings

4 large baking potatoes (each about 275 to 300 grams)

1 medium baking potato (about 200 grams)

3 Tbsp butter, melted

1/2 cup buttermilk, or to taste

1 1/4 cups grated aged cheddar cheese (divided; about 100 grams)

12 asparagus spears, tough lower part of each spear removed

1/4 cup finely chopped green onion

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• splashes Worcestershire and Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce

Preheat oven to 400 F. Wash potatoes well and then dry. Prick each potato a few times with a fork and set on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake potatoes until very tender, about 65 to 75 minutes.

While potatoes bake, bring a small pot of water to a boil. Cut the top two inches off each asparagus spear. Set those 12, two-inch long pieces of asparagus on a plate. Now thinly slices the bottom pieces of asparagus.

Set the 12 pieces of asparagus in the boiling water and blanch one minute. Lift that asparagus out of the pot, cool in a bowl of cold water, drain well and set back on the plate.

Now add the sliced asparagus to the boiling water, blanch one minute, drain well, cool with cold water and drain well again. Set the sliced asparagus aside for now.

When baked, cool potatoes until safe enough to handle, but still warm. Cut the tops, about three-quarters of the way up, off the four large potatoes. With a small spoon, carefully scoop out as much of the flesh as you can from the bottom portions of the potatoes and place in a bowl, or in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.

Place potato shells back on the baking sheet. Also remove the flesh from the top portions of the potatoes and put that in the bowl too.

Cut the medium potato in half, scoop out its flesh and add it to the bowl. Discard or compost the skins from that potato.

Mash the potatoes in the bowl until very smooth. Add the butter and buttermilk and vigorously mix to lighten and increase the volume of the potatoes. Add a bit more buttermilk if mixture is not moist enough for you. Now mix in 2/3s of the cheese, sliced asparagus, green onions, Worcestershire, Tabasco and salt and pepper, to taste.

Spoon the mixture into the potato shells, packing it in and mounding it well over the top of them.

Set three pieces of the asparagus on the plate on top of each potato. Top the potatoes with remaining cheese (see Eric’s options).

Bake potatoes in 400 F oven until golden brown and hot, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Eric’s options: You can make the potatoes oven-ready hours before needed. Once stuffed and topped, refrigerate until ready to bake. You might need to add a few minutes to the baking time, as you’ll be starting from cold. If you don’t want to use buttermilk, replace with 1/2 cup regular milk, or with 1/4 cup regular milk and 1/4 cup sour cream or thick yogurt. Any other sharp-tasting cheese, such Swiss or aged Gouda, could replace the cheddar.

Baked Yams with Chickpea Broccoli Curry

Yams are baked until tender, plated, split open and topped with an easy-to-make, meat-free curry and assorted toppings. Make a splendid meal by serving the yams and curry with steamed basmati rice.

Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: about 60 minutes
Makes: three servings

3 large yams (each about 275 to 300 grams)

2 tsp vegetable oil

1/2 cup diced onion

2 tsp chopped fresh ginger

1 medium garlic clove, minced

2 tsp mild or medium curry powder (see Eric’s options)

1 (400 mL) can coconut milk

1 Tbsp lime juice mixed with 2 tsp cornstarch

1 Tbsp brown sugar

2 tsp soy sauce

1 (19 oz./540 mL) can chickpeas, drained well and rinsed (see Eric’s options)

18 to 24 small (about 1 1/2-inch wide) broccoli florets, blanched (see Note)

• salt, to taste

• toppings, to taste, such as pomegranate seeds, coarsely chopped unsalted cashews or almonds, shredded coconut, chopped mint or cilantro, mango or other chutney, and/or thick yogurt

Preheat oven to 400 F. Prick each yam a few times with a fork and set on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Bake yams until tender, about 50 to 60 minutes.

When yams have baked 30 minutes, heat oil in a medium pot set over medium, medium-high heat. Add onions and ginger and cook three to four minutes. Add the curry powder and garlic and cook and stir one minute.

Add coconut milk, juice/cornstarch mixture, brown sugar and soy sauce and bring to a gentle simmer. Lower heat as needed to maintain that simmer. Simmer chickpeas five minutes. Mix in the broccoli and heat through a few minutes. Taste and season the chickpea broccoli curry with salt.

When yams are baked, set on individual servings plates. Make a lengthwise slit in each yam. Squeeze the yams open and top with the curry, allowing some of it to spill onto the plate. Top the yams and curry with some of the items in the ingredient list, and enjoy.

Note: I cut the small broccoli florets off a large, about 275- gram, broccoli crown; the top part of the plant is sold that way at supermarkets. After cutting off those florets, save the rest of the broccoli for another use, such as a stir-fry. To blanch broccoli, cook in boiling water two minutes. Drain well, cool in ice-cold water, and then drain again.

Eric’s options: 2/3 cup of dried chickpeas, soaked, cooked until tender and drained could replace the canned chickpeas.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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