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Grilling: Pimento Cheese Twice-Baked Potatoes

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[ Photographs: Joshua Bousel ]

It was a gradual, creeping change. Year by year, one by one, I took over every dish of the Thanksgiving dinner, save the out of season asparagus my Mother insists on. At this point, I've settled into a menu that adorns the holiday table each year, a series of dishes I think of as family tradition. So it came as some surprise when there was a request to alter this comforting and familiar spread into something new this year.

Being a man of tradition, it comes with a little trepidation that sweet glazed ham will replace the roast turkey, macaroni and cheese will take the place of the cornbread and sausage stuffing, and Brussels sprouts with bacon will stand in for my green bean casserole. When I asked what we should do instead of mashed potatoes, my sister made it explicitly clear that those are to go nowhere. Still, I couldn't help but wonder how I would replace them, and thought these pimento cheese twice-baked potatoes would fit nicely.

Baked Microwaved Potatoes

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It would seem a prerequisite that a twice-baked potato requires a first baking. Of course it needs to be cooked to a point where the flesh can be easily scooped out, but I've been getting my potatoes to this point for some time by employing the microwave. Whenever I mention this publicly, it seems to come with some shock and awe—how can you use that machine and still get a spud that's got the crisped exterior you get from the oven?

It's true that microwaved potatoes come out with a rather undesirably soft skin, but if they're going to be baked again, that flab will turn into crunch with just a little time.

To prove I'm not misleading anyone (or myself), I cooked two batches of potatoes—one batch roasted in a 400°F oven (they can also be roasted over indirect high heat on the grill) and the other done in the microwave‐until they both had little to no resistance when pierced with a paring knife. This took 60 minutes in the oven, and about 10 minutes in the microwave.

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As expected, the oven roasted taters had a slightly shriveled and crisped skin, while the microwaved ones still retained their original shape and were comparatively soft. The interior of both had the right consistency to be easily scooped out with a melon baller or spoon. Next, it was off the grill to see if a second baking could level out this uneven playing field.

Getting Baked

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At this point, I brushed all the potatoes with butter, seasoned them, and stuck them on the grill over indirect high heat. I found this second baking to be a necessary step for both iterations of potato, giving them a crackingly crispness that turns the spuds from run-of-the-mill to irresistible.

After ten minutes on the grill, all of the potatoes had a ring of golden color around their tops, paired with a wrinkled and crunchy exterior that made the once-soft microwaved spuds almost indistinguishable from their more traditionally baked brothers. If you split hairs, you could probably be able to point out the slightly dryer oven-roasted potatoes, but for 50 minutes less time and spare oven space, I'd argue that the microwave is a perfectly fine way to get them jump started.

Getting Stuffed

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With a set of now beautifully crisp potatoes, it was time to turn my sights on the filling. It would seem to be an easy formula—add pimento cheese to the potato innards and mash. For some reason, though, the thought of loading my potatoes with mayonnaise seemed inherently wrong. So I tried out a few different combos to find the best results.

For the first, I mixed my favorite pimento cheese with the potatoes, plus a little extra seasoning. Next, I stuffed the cheese-laden mixture back into its parent potato shells and cooked it again on the grill until warmed through, making sure my extra sprinkling of cheese on top was completely melted. This certainly tasted right on point with the sharp cheddar bite and roasted pimento flavor, but it was also overly dense, lacking that fluffy texture and extra richness of really good twice-baked potatoes.

For the second round, I mixed together the potato flesh with cheddar, pimentos, sour cream, and seasoning. Subbing in sour cream for mayo was definitely a great choice—this version was lighter and tangier, making a much more pleasing potato. Still, it lacked some body.

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To round out the flavor, I turned to butter, which I mixed in along with all the previous ingredients for my final batch. They turned out just right—the creamy and fluffy potato filling had all the rich flavor of pimento cheese, with a little added tang that struck a nice balance with the sharpness of the cheddar. There's no doubt I would happily replace mashed potatoes with these twice-baked spuds on my Thanksgiving table—if those mashers weren't the sole holdover of a tradition I've long been developing.

About the author: Joshua Bousel brings you new, tasty condiment every other Wednesday and a recipe for weekend grilling every other Friday. He also writes about grilling and barbecue on his blog The Meatwave whenever he can be pulled away from his grill.

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