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EATING SMART : No Meat, Just Potatoes

March 18, 1993|MARLENE PARRISH

You'd think, with the decline of beef consumption over the past couple of decades, that potatoes would have been edged off the preferred plate along with the meat. But with the health police recommending that we eat more fruits and vegetables, the potato is realizing its own potential.

Always the bridesmaid, now finally the bride, potatoes and their toppings are being served as main dishes. They're almost as flexible as pasta and certainly as universally liked.

There will always be times when nothing will improve a fluffy, loaded baked potato buttered to death and heaped with crisp crumbled bacon, shreds of melting Cheddar cheese, globs of cool and silky sour cream and sprinkled with chopped chives.

On the other hand, when the restraint of economy and calories prevails, simple additions can be satisfying and, in the long run, preferable. Try these: low-fat yogurt mixed with herbs or horseradish; a dash or two of soy sauce; a few tablespoons of stewed tomatoes; lemon juice or flavored vinegar, and cottage cheese and lemon juice pureed in a blender.

To cajole die-hard meat-and-potato eaters to eat their vegetables, steam and puree a vegetable such as broccoli or carrots and mash it in with the potato, then restuff the potato, heaping it high with filling. Kids in particular take a liking to green- or gold-tinted spuds.

One twist on a baked potato is the potato-fan-club sandwich. Rub soy sauce into the skin of a clean Idaho potato and bake until tender. Cut it almost all the way through in three or four places. Insert bits of turkey, bacon, lettuce and tomato in the sections and eat the whole thing with a knife and fork. It's better than it sounds.

Baked potatoes make an ideal breakfast meal for the person who is cutting down on eggs and dairy foods. Simple with olive oil or zippy with chiles and Monterey Jack cheese, baked potatoes for breakfast are filling enough to carry you past coffee-break doughnuts and right up to lunch.

Before you even think about asking, I'll tell you: No, the potato itself isn't fattening. It got that reputation from the buttery, high-fat way it is commonly served. Potatoes alone are relatively low in calories because they contain almost no fat. Nearly all of the potato's calories come from carbohydrates. A medium-sized baked potato weighing about five ounces contains about 150 calories. And because potatoes contain dietary fiber, especially when eaten with their skin on, they are filling.

Like other vegetables, potatoes can either be delicious or horrible, depending on the product and care taken in preparation.

The best baked are russet potatoes, also called Idahos, after their place of origin. They are elongated cylinders with reddish-brown skin and can be on the mealy side when cooked.

Store them in a cool, well-ventilated place. Since new houses, condos and apartments don't have root cellars, that isn't as easy as it sounds. Just don't store potatoes in the refrigerator. At temperatures below 40 degrees, some of the starch may turn to sugar, making the potato undesirably sweet when cooked. A potato that's too warm will sprout and shrivel. To further complicate matters, prolonged exposure to light develops solanine, a poison that is found in and under green patches on potatoes and in eyes that have sprouted. These areas should be removed since they result in a bitter flavor. It's good to know that solanine is destroyed in the cooking process. The best solution to storage is to buy what you'll use in about a week.

Potatoes don't need a specific oven temperature for baking, so you can bake them along with other foods at oven temperatures ranging from 325 degrees to 450 degrees. Just remember, the lower the temperature, the longer it takes.

To bake, rub scrubbed potatoes well with butter or oil and always remember to pierce the potato skin in several places before baking to allow steam to vent. Every now and then you hear a horror story from a new cook telling about exploded potatoes and what fun it was to clean the oven.

Some restaurants roll the unbaked potato in kosher salt after greasing the skin. At serving time, the crust has a crunch and flavor sort of like a potato chip. Another trick will hurry the baking process along: Use "potato nails"--aluminum nails inserted lengthwise through the center of the potato.

Potatoes can be set directly on the oven rack or on a baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees to 400 degrees about 45 minutes to an hour. It's best not to bake potatoes in foil--this steams the potato and gives it a mushy, boiled texture. Besides, a foil-wrapped potato takes longer to bake.

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