Ina Garten took a short break from testing recipes for chocolate cake with mocha frosting to talk about her life and times.
“I test a recipe 25 times easily, and I change one variable each time just to see the impact it has,” said the star of the Food Network’s “Barefoot Contessa” cooking show. “It’s what I love to do, though it’s tempting to change six things and come up with something entirely different.”
The alchemy is for her ninth cookbook, “Barefoot Contessa: Make It Ahead,” due in October, just in time for the start of the holiday gift-giving season. “It’s the question we get asked most frequently from our viewers: ‘Can I make it ahead? Can I make Christmas cookies in July and freeze them?’ ”
The recipes were getting a workout in the “barn” next to Garten’s house in East Hampton, on New York’s Long Island. The barn is really an elegant structure and is also where her show is filmed. It was described in Home Beautiful as “inspired by the simple country buildings of Belgium and designed by architect Frank Greenwald.”
“I filmed for six years in my house, so I had a crew there for eight weeks at a time. Can you imagine?” she said. “I either had to stop it or build something, and there was a piece of property next door that I bought. Now we do everything in the barn.”
Unlike the calm and soothing persona she presents on “Barefoot Contessa,” Garten on the phone talks in fast-forward. Summing up her remarkable career arc, she said with a laugh, “I’ve always been happy to jump off a cliff and figure it out on the way down.”
Luckily, a parachute popped open. “Barefoot Contessa” has aired for 12 years, landing Garten two Daytime Emmy Awards for outstanding lifestyle/culinary host, and a recent nomination for a James Beard Broadcast Award for outstanding personality/host. That’s what happens when your TV show draws 1 million-plus viewers per episode and your cookbooks sell 8.8 million copies worldwide. Her last cookbook was “Barefoot Contessa: Foolproof” (Clarkson Potter, $35, 272 pages), published in October 2012 on her schedule of a new book every two years.
Initially, she went nuclear
Ina Rosenberg, now 66, was majoring in economics at Syracuse University when she left to marry Jeffrey Garten, now the chairman of a global consulting firm. Four years later, in 1972, they settled in Washington, D.C., where she worked as an aide in the White House while earning an MBA in business from George Washington University. Eventually, she ended up as the nuclear energy policy analyst for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
“When I got to be 30 I thought, ‘This isn’t me,’ ” she recalled. “When I wasn’t working, I taught myself how to cook using ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ by Julia Child and would have dinner parties. I liked my evenings more than my days.
“When I saw an ad for a specialty-foods store for sale (in 1978), I realized I wanted to do what I loved, and not what I thought was a serious job,” Garten said. “The business I bought (in Westhampton Beach) was called the Barefoot Contessa (after the 1954 Ava Gardner-Humphrey Bogart drama) and I just kept the name, though the movie is very dark. Later, I (expanded it and) moved it to East Hampton. So instead of enriched uranium, I ended up with chocolate cake. It was a good career change, but it was all serendipity and blind luck. I just went toward what I wanted to do and a lot of things evolved.”
After selling the store two decades later, Garten published her debut cookbook, “The Barefoot Contessa,” which became a surprise best-seller. Soon the Food Network came calling.
“They wanted me to do a show, and I said absolutely not,” Garten said. “They kept coming after me with bigger offers, and I kept saying, ‘I’m not negotiating.’ I didn’t think it was something I could do. If you’re young and gorgeous and always imagined yourself on TV, that’s one thing. But I certainly wasn’t.”
Garten finally relented when Food Network executives tracked down a producer in London whom Gartner admired and persuaded her to come to the United States. “They called me one day and said, ‘(The team) will be in East Hampton in two weeks, will you do just 13 shows?’ I thought if I tried it, they’d leave me alone. Happily, it worked out. I’m into making things from my books, and (the set) feels very comfortable and safe.”
Most “Barefoot Contessa” episodes end with Garten gathering a group at the table to eat the meal she has just assembled. “They’re my friends in real life, people I have dinner parties with,” she said. “I was always reticent to ask them because I thought attending an onscreen dinner was an extraordinary favor, but they actually enjoy doing it.”
Garten is “embarrassed to say I don’t have time to watch any Food Network shows,” but counts Food Network co-stars Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentis among her friends. They and Alton Brown joined her on a Thanksgiving special last year, giving demonstrations and answering questions from home cooks around the nation. “It was live, and it was crazy, but Thanksgiving is my favorite meal,” she said.
How does her cooking style compare to theirs? “I’m not a trained restaurant chef, so I’m not somebody who has made demi-glace,” she said. “My experience was 20 years in a specialty-food store, where people would buy simple, comforting foods to take home. That’s what I love to make.”
That style shows up in her Barefoot Contessa “sauté dinners for two,” a nine-dish line of frozen meals that can be ready in minutes (see our taste test) “We’re coming out with oven dinners, too, like meatloaf, and side dishes like Parmesan mashed potatoes and creamy polenta,” she said. “The slow food movement is great, but people need to make dinner in half an hour.”
Garten’s assistants in the barn were ready to test the next recipe – twice-baked sweet potatoes – so we had to get a move on with some quick questions and answers. Such as:
The five ingredients always in her home kitchen are California olive oil, garlic, kosher salt, Dijon mustard and fresh thyme from her garden. Her favorite meals to cook at home for herself and her husband are turkey meatloaf, mustard-glazed roasted chicken, and rack of lamb.
Go-to cocktail? “Whiskey sours. If I’ve had a hard day, they solve most of life’s problems.”
Guilty pleasure? “You mean like vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream? It’s forbidden in our house.”
Three tips for home cooks? “One, you don’t need a million pieces of equipment in order to cook. Two, if you buy really good ingredients in season, you don’t need to do much to make them taste good. And you don’t have to make everything for a dinner party. You can buy a wonderful dessert at a bakery.”
Two things about Ina Garten nobody knows? “I used to fly airplanes for fun, and I love construction projects and design, for better or worse.”
We sort of already knew those ...
“You did?” she asked, sounding surprised. “Well, I have some secrets.”
And she’ll keep those to herself for now.
Tomato crostini with whipped feta
Serves 6 to 8
Recipe from “Barefoot Contessa: Foolproof” by Ina Garten.
6 ounces good feta, crumbled
2 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2⁄3 cup good olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced shallots (2 shallots)
2 teaspoons minced garlic (2 cloves)
2 tablespoons good red wine vinegar
2 pounds ripe heirloom or cherry tomatoes, ½-inch-diced
3 tablespoons julienned fresh basil leaves, plus extra for serving
20 to 25 (1/2-inch-thick) diagonal baguette slices, toasted (see note below)
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
For the whipped feta, place the feta and cream cheese in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse until the cheeses are mixed. Add 1/3 cup of the olive oil, the lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and process until smooth.
For the tomatoes, up to an hour before you’re serving, combine the shallots, garlic, and vinegar in a medium bowl. Set aside for 5 minutes. Whisk in the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Add the tomatoes, stir gently, and set aside for 10 minutes. Stir in the basil and taste for seasonings.
To assemble the crostini, spread each slice of bread with a generous amount of whipped feta. With a slotted spoon, place the tomatoes on top. Put the crostini on plates and scatter with the pine nuts. Sprinkle with extra basil and serve.
Note: Place the bread slices on sheet pans, brush with olive oil, and bake at 425 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes, until browned.
Straw and hay with Gorgonzola
Serves 3 to 4
Recipe from “Barefoot Contessa: Foolproof” by Ian Garten.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
4 ounces prosciutto, cut crosswise in 1/2-inch-thick matchsticks
1 cup chopped yellow onion (1 large)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
4 ounces Italian Gorgonzola dolce, crumbled
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
8 to 10 ounces tagliatelle or fettucine, such as Cipriani
2 cups frozen peas, defrosted (8 ounces)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
1/4 cup julienned fresh basil leaves
Fill a large pot with water, add 1 tablespoon of salt, and bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large (12-inch) sauté pan over medium heat. Add the prosciutto and cook for 5 minutes, separating the slices with tongs, until crisp. Remove to a plate and set aside. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter and the onion to the sauté pan and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the cream, Gorgonzola, 11/2 teaspoons salt, and the pepper and bring the sauce to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, until thickened. Turn off the heat.
When the sauce is almost done, add the pasta to the pot of boiling water and cook according to the package directions. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and drain the pasta, allowing some of the water to remain. Pour the pasta into the pan with the sauce. Add the peas, Parmesan, basil and prosciutto and toss well. If the pasta seems dry, add some of the reserved pasta water. Taste for seasonings and serve hot with extra Parmesan.
Raspberry crumble bars
Makes 9 to 12 bars
Garten says she loves raspberries and shortbread together. “The great thing about this recipe is that it uses one shortbread dough two ways: pat some in the bottom of the pan for the crust and the rest (with some granola added) becomes the crumble topping.” Recipe from “Barefoot Contessa: Foolproof.”
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
10 to 12 ounces good raspberry jam, such as Hero
2/3 cup good granola without dried fruit
1/4 cup sliced almonds
Confectioners’ sugar, for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on medium speed just until combined. With the mixer on low, add the vanilla.
Sift the flour and salt together and, with the mixer on low, slowly add to the butter mixture, mixing until it almost comes together in a ball.
Turn the dough out on a board. Lightly pat two-thirds of the dough evenly on the bottom of a 9-inch square baking pan and about an inch up the sides. Spread with the jam, leaving a 1-inch border. Mix the granola into the remaining dough with your hands. Break the dough into small bits and distribute it on top of the jam, covering most of the surface. Sprinkle the almonds on top. Bake the bars for 45 minutes, until lightly browned.
Cool completely and cut into 9 or 12 bars. Sprinkle lightly with confectioners’ sugar.
Note: Ina uses raspberry jam with seeds because she feels that it’s more raspberry-like, but you can certainly use seedless jam instead.