Potato skins have renewed appeal

Comfort classic's popularity grows as chefs create new twists on a favorite

Potato skins are the latest type of retro comfort food to get an upscale makeover. As with the gussied up macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches and hamburgers that preceded them, these refreshed items strike a nostalgic chord with customers while still showcasing a chef’s personal style.

A longtime staple of casual dining chain appetizer menus, potato skins have started to get extra attention from customers, too. In fact, the number of servings of potato skins ordered was up 10 percent increase in the year ended November 2011 — a year when the number of overall potato orders was flat, at 15.7 billion — according to The NPD Group/CREST service.

“They’re a huge hit,” said Daniel Stern, chef of R2L restaurant in Philadelphia, whose potato skins have been on the menu since the restaurant opened in January 2010. 

To prepare them, he scoops out still-hot baked potatoes, rices the flesh, and mixes it with bacon, aged Cheddar and seasoning.

He puts that mixture back into the skins, folds them, deep fries them, and serves them with horseradish crème fraîche and scallions.

An order of four is $6 during happy hour, $10 as a side dish on the dinner menu and $10 on the late-night bar menu.

“They have all the elements of traditional skins, with a different approach — so they’re familiar and new at the same time,” Stern said.

At The Hawthorne, the new cocktail lounge at the Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, chef Jeremy Sewall gives his potato skins extra crunch by stuffing them with more skins.

He starts with fingerling potatoes, which he bakes until they’re just cooked. He also bakes Idaho potatoes on a bed of kosher salt. The salt draws the water from the potatoes and helps make the skins crispy, Sewall said.

He crumbles the skins and mixes them with the flesh of the Idaho and fingerling potatoes, along with raclette cheese, cream, butter, salt and pepper.

“Part of the appeal of the potato skin is the crispy part, but we don’t cook the fingerlings so much that they get crispy. They have a nice texture and they hold really well,” he said.

He browns the stuffed potatoes in the salamander to order. He tops them with horseradish crème fraîche and sells them for $12 for an order of four.

“It’s an easy, sharable thing that has a little bit of nostalgia,” he said.

The leftover mashed potatoes are used for his staff meal, he said.

Potato skins are themselves derived from a classic American dish, the twice-baked potato, for which baked potatoes are hollowed out, the flesh is mixed with flavorings — often dairy and cheese — then stuffed back into the potato and browned.

But some of the new versions stem from other American favorites. 

At Park Avenue Tavern in New York, Chef Jeffrey Forrest’s potato skins are derived from a version of home fries he learned to make from a chef in North Carolina.

He simmers whole Yukon Gold potatoes until the skins start to break, about an hour. Then, he drains them and allows them to dry a bit.

When the skins are ordered, he gently crushes the cooked potatoes a bit so the insides push through the skin some more, and then deep fries them at 360 degrees Fahrenheit until they’re golden brown.

“They’re like mashed potatoes in the middle, French fries on the outside, and they’re sweet,” he said, speculating that the slow cooking converts more of the starch in the potatoes to sugar than would happen with faster cooking.

He plates them skin-down and tops them with fontina, Cheddar and an Amish Jack cheese, along with crème fraîche, parsley and thyme. 

“They’re simple, but they’re wonderful. There’s nothing confusing about them; there’s nothing weird. There’s nothing customers don’t understand.”

A plateful costs $8.

At the other end of the complexity scale are the potato skins at Studio at the Montage Laguna Beach, in Laguna Beach, Calif.

There, chef Craig Strong bases his skins on French pommes soufflées, for which he fries quarter-inch-thick potato slices, first at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for one minute, and then at 375 degrees until they puff up.

Then, he makes a potato purée by simmering peeled, diced potatoes in equal amounts of heavy cream and chicken stock and then pulsing them in a blender until they’re smooth.

Next, he measures 1 liter of the purée and places it in a saucepan with 2 grams each of high-acyl and low-acyl gellan gum, and slowly brings it to a boil. He purées the mixture again and strains it through a fine sieve.

He makes the purée into a foam by pouring it into a charged whipped-cream canister and spraying it into a piping bag. He pokes a small hole in each of the pommes soufflées and fills them with the foam.

Strong garnishes the potatoes with crème fraîche, chives and bacon powder.

The powder is made by slowly baking bacon at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit until very crispy — three to four hours — drying it well with paper towels, chopping it finely into a powder, and then drying it again with paper towels. 

Strong offers five skins as part of a set of four hors d’oeuvres, priced at a total of $25.

Potato skins get a farm-to-table treatment at Planet Dailies and the cocktail lounge Mixology101, both at the farmers market in Santa Monica, Calif.

Chef Adrian Tenorio said those potato skins, made from local potatoes and California cheeses, are almost like giant steak fries. 

He quarters the potatoes and bakes them with California and Monterey Jack cheeses and chopped local bacon, so the cheese melts and the bacon gets crispy. 

Then, he tops them with green onions and serves them with a side of sour cream at $8.99 for six.

“Potato skins are a hugely popular dish, sell well and are easy to share,” Tenorio said. “It’s a dish that really promotes our casual, fun environment.”

Don Keisala, head of marketing and promotions for two-unit quick-service chain Joe’s Burgers in Portland, Ore., said they had something different in mind for the potato skins at their full-service Joe’s Burgers & Bar.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the potato skin by making a fancy version of yesterday’s classic. We like to keep things simple. We use a pre-prepped, par-cooked potato boat. The quality is really high, and it’s a consistent product. We then deep fry them on-site, finishing them off in a hot oven with shredded Cheddar, chopped bacon, scallions and sour cream.” He said customers are encouraged to embellish them with other toppings, such as guacamole, salsa or taco meat.

“We’re also toying with different variations, such as a Mexi-Cali style with taco meat, queso fresco, sour cream, guacamole, scallions and black olives.”

The skins are $5 for a basket of four, except on Wednesdays when they run them as a $3 special.

Chef-restaurateur Anthony Pino, who operates several restaurants and a catering company based in Hoboken, N.J., offers potato skins topped with pancetta, Taleggio cheese and Brussels sprouts on his catering menu.

He scoops out the center of baked Red Bliss potatoes that he has sliced in half. He stuffs the potatoes with cubed Taleggio, shaved caramelized Brussels sprouts and crispy pancetta, heats them for three to five minutes “or until the cheese is creamy and the smell of Taleggio lifts you to euphoria,” and then drizzles them with olive oil and grated pecorino cheese. A five-piece order is $9. 

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