With seven bestselling cookbooks and 15 seasons of “Barefoot Contessa” on Food Network, Ina Garten has made a career of making cooking and entertaining look effortless. Her abiding belief that everyone can and should be able to cook is further encouraged in her latest cookbook, Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust, From her home in Southampton, NY, Garten shared her thoughts on everything from how to create a foolproof recipe to the dessert she’d take to a desert island.
Your signature line and words to live by are “How easy is that?” Yet, foolproof isn’t quite the same as easy. How did you make your cookbook foolproof?
First, I want the reader to open the book and look at the photographs and say: “That looks delicious, I want to make it.” The next thing you do is look at the recipes and say: “I can actually do that.” There is a list of ingredients that you can actually find in a grocery store--you don’t have to go to India to get a certain spice. So, it all seems accessible and do-able and simpler than you think. And the end result comes out perfectly every time. I have to say I work very hard making recipes over and over again, in different seasons, with different ingredients, just making sure that no matter what someone is going to do with it--or to it--it’s still going to come out alright. I really work very hard to make sure that it’s going to come out perfectly.
When I’m done testing a recipe myself whether it’s five times or twenty-five times, I’ll print out the recipe on a piece of paper and I hand it to my assistant. I watch her make every single recipe. And then I find out what someone with no instruction whatsoever is going to do with the printed word on that page. There isn’t a recipe where she doesn’t do something that surprises me. It’s really just astonishing. You think, ‘How many things can go wrong in a recipe?’ And there is always something!
I think many people get nervous in the kitchen because they are overwhelmed by everything they have to do all at once. What are your secrets for making it all happen? How do you ensure a foolproof dinner party?
The first thing is to remind yourself is it’s about the people not the food.
It’s funny, I just came from California, we were filming there, at the Sinskey vineyard. The chef there made lunch for my crew, and it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. There were BLTs and the ingredients were just divine. There was a green salad with lettuce from her garden and a sherry wine vinaigrette, and a pear tart that made you just want to put your head down on the table and weep. It was delicious. And that was it. The pears were from her orchard. The bacon was thick-cut smokehouse bacon, and the tomatoes were warm from the vine. She made the bread. It was very simple food that you know people are going to like, but it’s better than they expect. It was only three things! It wasn’t a whole buffet of a million things.
I think that’s so important: Keep it simple. You don’t need a million side dishes. The second thing is, I think everyone thinks everything has to be hot to the table. But it doesn’t! Some things can be room temperature. Some things can be cold. One hot thing makes all the difference in the world. Often I’ll just make one big thing, like lamb shanks with orzo, it’s great. It cooks in the oven, you set a timer and go away and forget about it. And then I’ll serve some salad and some wonderful cheese--a slice of a really runny brie, or some other wonderful triple crème cheese. Dessert can be from a bakery. My friends aren’t going to have more fun if I make the dessert myself.
Do you have a favorite fall foolproof menu?
The Slow-Roasted Filet of Beef. I’ve made it so many times I’m embarrassed to say. The Provencal Cherry Tomato Gratin. The Truffled Mashed Potatoes. It’s soo good. I have friends starting to request the potatoes. And the Sticky Toffee Date Cake. It’s amazing.
Your recent cookbooks have taken a healthier approach, with more fish and chicken dishes and vegetable options with the flavors ramped up to make them even more appealing. But I think a lot of people see healthier eating as more difficult. What is your approach?
It’s not that I’m on the cutting edge of what is healthy. I’m certainly not an advocate of what every person should do, because I think that every person should do what’s right for them. Obviously it’s important to have a balance of things that are rich and things that are simple. I think if you cook for yourself, rather than buy packaged things and take-out things—you know what you’re getting. I think if you cook yourself, you just eat better. It’s that simple. And that’s one of the reasons I like to have really simple recipes, such as the Mustard-Panko Crusted Chicken. It takes no time to make and you’ve got something that’s really worthwhile. It’s food worth eating.
I’ve always wondered if you ever took on highly complex dishes, such as turducken [where a chicken is cooked inside a duck inside a turkey]. Then I read your latest cookbook and laughed when I saw: “If you get the urge to make a turducken, lie down until the urge passes.” Has your approach always been so simple?
There are things that you want to order when you’re out, like choucroute garnis and cassoulet, but I have no interest in making them at home. The recipes that don’t make it into the book are the ones where I feel like the cooking goes on and on and on. And when I get bored with a recipe—and it’s quite quickly—it just goes in the trash and I never look at it again. There is no reason to. You can make perfectly delicious things with ingredients from the grocery store.
Let’s travel back a little in time to look at your transition from DC wonk to Barefoot Contessa. What compelled you to make the change, and what do you think you’d be doing if you were still in DC today?
I would’ve killed myself. (She laughs.) You know, people thought it was a brave thing to do, but truthfully, I was really unhappy doing policy work. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t creative enough. What I did when I wasn’t working was renovate old houses and give dinner parties. And so at some point, when I hit 30 I thought, why don’t I just do that? Forget the nuclear energy part. And Jeffery was—and is--the fulcrum.
What would be your Desert Island Dessert be?
It would be a French Apple Tart and, if I get two things, I would also have a glass of Sauternes. The tart is made from very simple pâte brisée on the bottom and thinly sliced apples on the top. It’s my favorite.