Seriously! The renowned American food writer and restaurant critic Ruth Reichl may have preferred apples (she wrote an engaging memoir called Comfort Me with Apples), but for me it’s all about spuds, so yes, comfort me with potatoes, please, anytime.
I eat potatoes all year round: steamed, mashed, pan-fried, sautéed, roasted … but come winter, all I want is jacket-baked potatoes, but baked just so. Yes, I’m fussy. The potatoes must be a floury type, like agria. I give them a good scrub, prick them all over with a skewer so they don’t explode as they cook (it happens, and it’s nasty), then, while they’re wet, I roll them in flaky sea salt. If the potatoes are dry the salt won’t stick. Put the salt on paper towels because if you try to apply it with your fingers, the salt will stick to your fingers and that defeats the purpose. Then they go into a hot oven, 200°C (400°F), straight onto an oven rack. I put a baking tray on the bottom of the oven because some salt will flake off and make a mess on the oven floor (a tray is easier to wipe). Most people bake their potatoes for 50-60 minutes. That’s a mistake, in my books. Sure, they’ll be tender by then, but it’s not long enough; they need 1¼ to 1½ hours. It’s the extra cooking which turns the skins into crunchy gorgeousness and concentrates the flavour of the potato pulp inside the skin by driving off moisture. There’s one more trick, and this one’s vital: once you remove the potatoes from the oven, transfer them to a wooden board (it will help keep them warm), and cut open immediately with a sharp knife. Don’t dither for even a minute, because it is at this point that it can all go drastically wrong. Once removed from the dry heat of the oven – which keeps the skins crunchy – the potatoes will continue steaming on the inside and the steam will soften the skin. Within minutes! It’s so disappointing if this happens. If you cut a potato as soon as it comes from the oven, the steam escapes and the skin stays crunchy. A joy to behold.
What you do with the potato/es at this point is up to you: Slather with butter; drizzle with golden olive oil; shower with grated cheese; top with an egg, poached or fried, with or without garlic or chilli butter or oil drizzled over; or add a dollop of chilli beans, a spoonful of sour cream and a smattering of chopped coriander. Then there’s bolognese sauce and parmesan. It’s worth making the sauce just for this, to nestle inside steamy, buttery jacket potatoes, instead of dressing pasta. Just about anything that goes with potatoes can be served on top or in a jacket potato. Just give it a go.
One great thing about jacket-baked potatoes is the little time it takes to prepare them (no more than a few minutes). Another great point is that you eat the skin – it’s the best part, and nutritious – and as the potatoes are not cooked in water, all their water-soluble vitamins, such as Vitamin C, are intact. They become a culinary force to be reckoned with: comfort food supreme, fast to prepare, they take care of themselves in the oven, they’re nutritious, tasty, crunchy and tender, filling and satisfying, versatile, too, oh, and they fill the pit of the stomach like nothing else – you know that hunger-hole you have there when you are tired, cold and nearly dropping dead from lack of sustenance – a jacket-baked potato is like swallowing a warm glow of happiness that spreads from the pit of your stomach upwards, leaving nothing but pleasure in its wake.