Afternoons when I am hungry and wish that I had a personal chef, I make a Marjorie Morningstar lunch, named in honor of the protagonist in the Herman Wouk novel of the same name.
It all began when I was thirteen and an avid reader. I was home alone and hungry and didn’t want to stop reading to make lunch. I wanted it to appear with minimum effort and attention so I turned on the oven, scrubbed the biggest potato I could find, poked holes in it with a fork and put it in the oven. I enjoyed an uninterrupted hour of the melodrama of Marjorie’s quest for love and adventure and the details of her life on Central Park West in New York City while my potato baked in a kitchen, on a hilly street, in a suburb of Pittsburgh.
A weekly trip to the library and a baked potato lunch became my Saturday ritual. The first lunches were simply a baked potato topped with a lump of butter, a pinch of salt and lots of black pepper. It wasn’t long before I added an onion to the menu. I poked the root end of an unpeeled onion with a paring knife, nestled it into a cup made of aluminum foil to catch the juice, and roasted it along with the potato. Roasting made the onion soft and sweet and the onion made my lunch more interesting. The next improvement was influenced by the flavor combination of potato latkes and sour cream that I had enjoyed at a kosher deli. I imagined that Marjorie Morgenstern, aka Marjorie Morningstar, ate something similar in a New York deli.
Caviar came after sour cream. My mother worked in a large grocery store and when I had to wait for her, I wandered the aisles of the market looking for exotic new foods. I was amazed when I found a tiny jar of black lumpfish caviar that cost less than two dollars. It wasn’t sturgeon caviar from Russia but it was caviar that I could afford. Even Noel Airman, Marjorie’s grand passion, would be impressed by a baked potato topped with sour cream and a spoonful of caviar.
I haven’t thought about Marjorie Morningstar for years and discovered today that I can’t get a copy for my Kindle but I’ve have continued to create tasty and quick meals that begin by baking a potato. Here is my list of rule for making the perfect baked potato:
1 Use either russet or new potatoes that have been well scrubbed and poked with holes.
2 If making baked potatoes for a crowd, chose potatoes of similar size.
3 A baked potato must be baked, cooked with dry heat, not steam. This means no aluminum foil wrapped potatoes and, although it is permissible to start the cooking process in a microwave, the potato must be finished in an oven that is at least 375º.
4 Rather than using a knife to open a baked potato, use a fork to created a ‘dotted line’ on the top of the potato and push the sides of the potato together to pop open and fluff the potato.
5 Potatoes are ready when they yield to a gentle squeeze and the skin has begun to crisp.
6 Baked potatoes should be served immediately so that the contrast between the crisp skin and soft center is not lost.
7 Pepper should be freshly ground, the salt should be at least kosher salt and flakey crystals of sea salt are even better.
8 There is no wrong topping for a baked potato, only combinations yet to be discovered.
Aside from my standard of unsalted butter, sour cream, salt and pepper here are some other toppers I like. A can of tuna, combined with two stalks of diced celery, three thinly sliced scallions, a generous handful of chopped fresh dill, a tablespoon of mayo and two tablespoon of sour cream, transforms two large baked potatoes into a quick, inexpensive, pre-movie supper for two, especially if the movie is The Little Mermaid, Old Man and the Sea or Jaws.
I like potato toppings to coordinate with what I’m reading, so when I was reading E.M. Forester’s A Passage to India, I added a scoop of plain yogurt and a tablespoon of mixed Indian pickles. Salsa, sour cream, grated cheddar cheese and chili sauce were the perfect flavors when I was reading a biography of Frieda Kahlo. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was the inspiration when I combined a big scoop of cottage cheese, a diced local tomato, cubes of cucumber, and slivers of fresh basil leaves to top a large russet potato to make a low fat meal.
I’m about to start reading Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra; I wonder what sort of topping she would have liked.