Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Secrets of a Restaurant Chef

In this, the first (and possibly only) installment of my very own "Secrets of a Restaurant Chef" I give to you twice baked potatoes. These simple delights were one of the first things I learned to make in northeast Pennsylvania during my tenure in the very first professional restaurant kitchen graced with my seeming lack of coordination (I have the burn and knife scars to prove it). If you follow Bethenny Frankel as I do with almost religious fervor (I admit, I admire her in HUGE ways) then you mostly likely know that her husband, Jason Hoppy, hails from the town of Hazleton, PA - about two hours due west of Manhattan. If you somehow missed this fact you must go back and watch season two of Bethenny Ever After. It was in this tiny town of Hazleton where I worked alongside a woman in her late forties named Jo, the head chef, who took her sweet time letting me "in". The past decade has brought a lot of change in the restaurant world and circa 1994 it was rare to find a woman at the helm running the line in a professional kitchen. Actually, it still is rare, but it was even more uncommon then. Naturally, she was not about to give my 17 year old self any easier of a time than she herself had received. Falling back on my old stand-by tactic, I won her with my wit which was, at that time, far sharper than my culinary skill. She had one child, a grown son, who had no interest in the things of food other than to show up hungry at the back door of the kitchen every once in a while. Over time, lots of time, I became a sort of surrogate daughter to her and slowly she stopped giving me single, random pieces of a culinary puzzle to fit together on my own, but rather the whole box of 1,000 pieces and a little instruction too. These potatoes were one of the first things we created together, standing side-by-side in a comfortable silence, working tirelessly until hundreds were ready for the dinner service. They are simple. They do not require astonishing skill or unusual intellect. They have merely become an emotional creation for me as I never make them without thinking about Jo. Salt and pepper hair, wrists loaded with sterling silver bracelets, a muppet-like nose, a crass sense of humor and a manner of speaking that could make a sailor blush. Yes, I have a fond spot in my heart for a woman such as this as she helped to liven within me a heartfelt passion for my first true love. Food. I only regret that I did not tell her more about God. I have tried to find her and to no avail. That sweet little restaurant closed its doors a few years back. This delectable side - as well as others - and a few fond memories are all that remain. Simplistic in nature and full of guilty cream cheese pleasure, I hope you make these for a special dinner and create your own memories of deliciousness.

Twice Baked Potatoes

6 large baking potatoes
1 stick unsalted butter
4 oz. cream cheese
3/4 cup shredded (by hand) cheddar cheese
6 slices turkey bacon, cooked crisp and chopped
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. dried parsley

Scrub baking potatoes thoroughly, pierce with a fork once on each side and bake, uncovered (do not wrap in foil) at 375 for about 1 hour or until a fork can be easily inserted. When done, let cool briefly (no more than 30 minutes) and slice the top off of each potato. Using a spoon, gently remove the inside of each potato and place in a large bowl. Add to the potatoes, all of the remaining ingredients, except paprika. With a mixer set to a low setting, gently mix together the warm potato meat with the cheeses, butter, salt, pepper, garlic powder, parsley and bacon. Spoon the potato mixture back into each potato and top with a light sprinkle of paprika. At this point you can either return them to the oven for 15 minutes to warm through or place them in the refrigerator and heat the following day. This recipe is great for entertaining because of the make-ahead advantage. Leftover potatoes can be refrigerated for 3-4 days and make a great easy lunch.