Sunday, February 9, 2014

Loaded Baked Potato Soup- Houston's Knock Off

Happy New Year... a month late! The year is already flying by and I just realized I had no time to post last month as it started with a righteous case of the flu over New Year's eve and week followed by Austin's famous Cedar Fever and then a trip to Ocho Rios, Jamaica to celebrate the hubby's birthday. This was likely my 28th visit to Jamaica, but my first time in Ocho Rios and we had a fantastic time. We stayed at the Sandal's Royal Plantation and were very impressed with the level of service and quality for an all inclusive resort. We were upgraded after a little reservation snafu and I've never had any hotel go above and beyond like that to remedy an error. We cannot wait to return. I will post a few pics at the end of this post.

But now that we are back in Austin, we've had some crazy weather this year. One day it's 70 degrees and sunny and the next the whole city has shut down due to ice storms, or it shuts down in anticipation of an ice storm that never arrives. Classic Texas weather, for sure. Yankees and the like make fun of us, but the reality is that a lot of Texans don't have the proper cars or driving skills to take on icy roads and as a result tons of accidents happen. I was driving slowly into a meeting a few weeks back, knowing sneaky black ice could be lurking, yet a foolish young guy in the opposite lane hauled passed me at 60 miles an hour, hit some ice and started to lose control. Yeah, no thanks, I will stay at home and make some SOUP.

Since I've been working on eating 5 cruciferous vegetables a day per doctor's orders, I admit my culinary adventures have been pretty boring. Roasted Brussles' sprouts, lean meat or kale salad from Whole Foods for dinner. Bah! Boring!

On a cold day, sometimes this family just wants a creamy cup of loaded baked potato soup inspired by our favorite Houston's Baked Potato soup (Now called Bartlett's in Austin). I could never figure out what the underlying hint of herb was until I searched around and found a copy cat recipe online that said they use fennel in their recipe. But of course! However, it's so subtle that my fennel averse husband even loved this soup. The copy cat recipe also calls for 5 cups of whole milk plus half and half, which explains the decadence, but I decided to tweak it a bit for health purposes and it tasted just as good if not better. Instead of baking my potatoes in the oven, I peeled and grilled them in a veggie basket on the Big Green Egg while the hubby was cooking some meats. The slight smoky flavor of the potatoes added a nice little surprise to the flavor profile that complemented the bacon terrifically. This recipe makes about 10 servings and freezes well for later use.

4 large organic russet potatoes, peeled and diced
4 strips of bacon
2 shallots
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1.5 tsp fennel seeds (bundle them in cheesecloth with the bay leaf & thyme for easy removal)
1 tsp celery salt
3 cups chicken stock
2 cups 1% organic milk
1/2 cup half and half
1/4 cup sour cream
Shredded sharp cheddar to garnish
Chopped scallions and chives to garnish

Either bake the potatoes in the oven  for an hour then peel and scoop the insides, OR peel and dice them, drizzle with olive oil and grill them at 350 degrees in a veggie basket over charcoal for 25 minutes or until soft.

Meanwhile in a large 6 quart Dutch Oven, cook bacon until cooked crispy. Set aside for later.

In bacon fat, add shallots and potatoes and saute until shallots are softened- about 5 minutes.

Then add herb bundle, milk, half and half and stock, cover and cook over medium low until the potatoes are very soft- about 40 minutes. Be sure NOT to boil as you don't want the milk to curdle. Stir occasionally.

Remove herb bundle and add the sour cream and pour it in small batches in the blender until it is creamy and smooth. Add more chicken stock if it's too thick, or if you like chunky soup, just mash the soup by hand.

Pour in very warm bowls, garnish with bacon, chives, scallions and sharp cheddar (I used a nice Irish white cheddar). Fresh cracked salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!!

Some highlights from our trip...

 Gorgeous West Beach with the restaurant grill to the right.

Lovely lunch of fresh grilled snapper and island lamb kabobs delivered right on the beach after a morning of sailing the hobies.

The stunning villa and private pool

Beautiful plate waiting for us upon our return from a day at the beach.

Birthday FEAST fit for a king! Many thanks to Oratio, Claudine and Lucian for the big surprise.

One more bite of Jerk chicken at the airport before sadly returning to the chaos that is the Houston International Airport. Won't ever fly through there again if possible. 1500 people trying to clear customs through THREE lanes. Almost everyone missed their connecting flight. All the relaxation of the prior week was instantly snapped away in a heartbeat! 

And when things get stressful I just need to close my eyes and picture myself back here...

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