Yes, a loaded baked potato can be dinner

JeanMarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune

Friends tell me they feel intimidated cooking for me. I let them in on my secrets to ease their minds: My favorite dinner involves popcorn. Or a baked potato. Occasionally, just a burger.

I keep these weekly meals from boredom by swirling in some variety or inspirations from dining out. Cheese and black pepper on the popcorn, for example, might remind me of cacio e pepe at our favorite Italian spot.

The classic idea of a loaded baked potato becomes dinner all by itself. Here sweet potatoes take the place of russets, and Buffalo chicken wings inspire the toppings. Think crispy chicken nuggets, blue cheese and hot sauce.

We make our popcorn on the stovetop with oil suited for high heat cooking. In fact, we have designated a 3-quart pot solely for popping corn. Like an old friend, we know the quirks of how to work with the pan, including the proper amount of oil and heat adjustments to get every kernel popped without burning. If this pandemic has you deep in microwave popcorn, give this stovetop version a shot — it’s truly dinner-worthy.

Loaded baked potatoes starred as dinner many nights when the kids had sporting events and tons of homework. Now I crave them for both comfort and indulgence. I like to swap sweet potatoes for russets, and plain yogurt for sour cream in a nod toward better eating.

To offset the mundane, this fall I’m loving a version that tops crusty baked sweet potatoes with a whimsical take on Buffalo-style chicken wings. Think chicken nuggets, blue cheese and hot sauce billowing out of the potato’s center. Feel free to swap frozen eggplant cutlets, or vegetable fries, diced after heating, for the chicken for a meatless main.

We enjoy takeout burgers on occasion — mostly as inspiration for our own versions made at home. My current favorite mash-up involves a hot corned beef sandwich with a juicy beef burger. It may sound strange to pile corned beef over grilled beef — but think bacon on a burger and you’ll get the concept. I’ve added a spoonful of sauerkraut and a dressing reminiscent of Thousand Island. This is no ordinary burger. The recipe makes six burgers — leftovers reheat nicely in the microwave for speedy meals. Of course, you can make them with ground turkey to reduce the fat content.

As for any burger, the better the bun the better the sandwich. Ciabatta buns have those large airy holes that keep them from being too dense. Pretzel buns offer sweetness that pairs well with the tang of sauerkraut. Thick slices of toasted, crusty country bed or marbled rye likewise satisfy my good bread theory.

Armed with these recipes, you can cook for me anytime. I’ll even do the dishes!

Sometimes, you just want popcorn for dinner. This recipe adds cheese flavor with powdered cheddar. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)


Prep: 5 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: 2 dinner servings or 4 snacks

For powdered cheese, try the cheddar cheese powder from King Arthur or The Spice House ( I also like the Taylor Street Garlic & Herb Seasoning from The Spice House when I want a bit of garlicky kick.

  • 1/3 cup sunflower oil, peanut oil, safflower oil or expeller-pressed canola oil
  • 1/2 cup yellow popcorn kernels
  • Fine table salt
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Powdered cheese

1. Have all the ingredients near the stove. Turn on the exhaust fan. Pour oil into a deep 3-quart saucepan with a lid. Add 2 popcorn kernels and set it over medium-high heat. Cover the pan.

2. Stand near the stove and listen for the kernels to pop. When they do, that means your oil is hot enough. Carefully pour the remaining popcorn kernels into the pan. Cover and shake gently. Cook over medium-high heat while the kernels pop vigorously, a minute or two. Reduce heat to very low, shake the pan and let cook until you hear the kernels stop popping. Turn off the heat and let stand covered while you get out a large bowl.

3. Pour the popcorn into the bowl. Immediately sprinkle with the salt, yeast and powdered cheese to taste while mixing gently with a large spoon. Enjoy while hot.

Nutrition information per serving (for 2 servings): 499 calories, 39 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 34 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 5 g protein, 3 mg sodium, 6 g fiber

The classic idea of a loaded baked potato becomes dinner all by itself. Here sweet potatoes take the place of russets, and Buffalo chicken wings inspire the toppings. Think crispy chicken nuggets, blue cheese and hot sauce.  (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)


Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 25 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

I like the gluten-free chicken breast nuggets from Trader Joe’s here. Popcorn shrimp tastes great here, too. Meatless options include frozen eggplant cutlets, frozen fried pickles or vegetable fries.

  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean, about 1 1/2 pounds total
  • 1/2 package (8 ounces) breaded chicken breast nuggets
  • 1/4 cup thick red hot sauce, such as Frank’s
  • 1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons chunky blue cheese salad dressing (or sour cream or plain Greek yogurt)
  • 1 or 2 small inner ribs celery, finely diced
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons chopped chives or green onions

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. While the oven heats, pierce potatoes in several spots with the tip of a knife. Microwave potatoes on high (100% power), turning them over occasionally, until they are easily pierced with a knife, 10 to 12 minutes.

2. Put chicken nuggets in a single layer in a lightly oiled cast-iron skillet or baking pan. Place potatoes alongside nuggets. Bake, turning potatoes and nuggets once, until outsides are crisped, 12 to 13 minutes.

3. Put each potato on a serving plate. Cut an X in the center of the potato and then squeeze potato to open it out at the X. Fill each potato with half of the hot chicken, spoonsful of the hot sauce and blue cheese. Top with a dollop of the dressing, diced celery and chives. Serve.

Nutrition information per serving: 722 calories, 41 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 86 mg cholesterol, 62 g carbohydrates, 14 g sugar, 27 g protein, 1,843 mg sodium, 9 g fiber

A cheeseburger-corned beef mashup is topped with onions, cheese, sauerkraut and a homemade dressing reminiscent of Thousand Island. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)


Prep: 25 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

You can substitute 1/3 cup Thousand Island salad dressing for the mayonnaise mixture.

  • 1 large (12 ounces) sweet onion, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon expeller-pressed canola oil or sunflower oil
  • Large pinch sugar
  • 2 pounds ground beef, preferably 85/15
  • Salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons each: ketchup, drained sweet (or dill) pickle relish
  • 1 cup drained fresh or refrigerated sauerkraut, well rinsed, drained again
  • 6 thin slices Jarlsberg or Swiss cheese, about 5 ounces total
  • 6 ciabatta rolls or burger buns (split horizontally)
  • 1/4 pound very thinly sliced corned beef (or pastrami or smoked turkey)

1. Cut onion in half. Cut each half into very thin wedge slices. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add oil and onion slices. Cook and stir until onion is golden and tender, about 10 minutes. Add sugar; cook 2 minutes more. Use warm or refrigerate covered up to 3 days.

2. Evenly divide the ground beef into 6 portions. Use 2 small deli containers to press out 6 burgers by placing a portion of the beef inside one and using the second container to press the meat into an evenly shaped round. Tap the burger patty out onto a platter. Repeat. Season the outsides with salt and pepper. Refrigerate uncovered for at least 30 minutes or up to several hours.

3. Prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium-high. Heat the grill grate.

4. Mix mayonnaise, ketchup and relish in a small dish. Put rinsed, drained sauerkraut into a small bowl. Microwave covered on high until hot, about 2 minutes. Reheat onions if necessary. Set everything out near the grill.

5. Put burgers on grill directly over the heat. Cover grill and cook without turning until bottom is nicely marked and golden, about 5 minutes. Flip burgers and top with the corned beef. Grill covered, without turning, until nicely browned and medium-rare, about 2 minutes more. Top with cheese slices and grill 1 minute more. Remove from grill and let stand on a plate for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, toast the cut sides of the buns over the heat of the grill.

6. Spread buns on both sides with mayonnaise mixture. Place burgers on the bun bottoms. Top each with some of the onions and then the sauerkraut. Put the top of the bun in place. Serve hot.

Nutrition information per burger: 665 calories, 39 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 127 mg cholesterol, 34 g carbohydrates, 9 g sugar, 38 g protein, 862 mg sodium, 2 g fiber