Over the weekend, my mom treated me to an afternoon with the Barefoot Contessa’s Ina Garten. (Thanks Mom!) She came to Seattle’s magnificent Benaroya Hall for a conversation with well-known Seattle chef Greg Atkinson in anticipation of her upcoming cookbook Foolproof. It’s an elegant venue, and the lobby was filled with mini-bars, a pastry table, and, of course, all her cookbooks for sale.
I was beside myself, and not just because I was drinking a glass of wine. I love Ina Garten! I have watched her show for years, starting when my children were very small and I just couldn’t stand another episode of The Wiggles. I started watching Food Network because I never had to worry about someone dropping a bad word in the middle of a sentence or taking their top off and making out with the camera operator.
Watching Food Network was a nice distraction from the mountain of laundry I was supposed to be folding, but somewhere along the way, I realized that I could be making some of these recipes myself instead of relying on boxed mac & cheese all the time. And so began my love affair with Food Network in general and Ina Garten in particular.
Ina is everything in person that she is on TV. She’s calm, down-to-earth, and comfortable in her own skin. She knows who she is and makes no apologies for it. And she’s happy! She giggled her way through the entire interview, not because she was silly or nervous, but because she’s a genuinely happy person. Plus the woman can cook. Is it any wonder Benaroya Hall was filled and as soon as she came out on stage we gave her a standing ovation?
When Ina was young, her mom refused to let her cook because she was supposed to be studying. She studied herself right into a job at the White House during the Ford-Carter administration until she hit the age of 30, at which point she thought “I can’t do this one more minute.”
Her husband, the amazing Jeffrey, whom she met at age 15 (!), told her to pick something that would be fun for her and not to worry about whether she’d make any money at it. How supportive is that?
With no experience whatsoever, Ina took a leap of faith and bought a specialty food store in the Hamptons called Barefoot Contessa: “…when you jump off a cliff, it really focuses your attention.”
She worked there for 20 years and “it didn’t feel like work because [she] loved it.” And then one day, a customer came in and asked her for some chicken salad and she started to cry. The time had come to move on, but to what?
She finally decided to submit a book proposal for a cookbook, and the rest we know: more cookbooks and a TV show on Food Network.
I love her philosophy: she approaches food simply because she has found that the more familiar the meal is, the more comfortable the people are. She takes something as simple as a grilled cheese and dials up the volume by using Parmesan, Gruyere, and sharp Cheddar cheeses with applewood smoked bacon. Voila! The Ultimate Grilled Cheese is born.
As Ina says, you “don’t have to make something complicated to have a delicious dinner.” Her cookbooks reflect this: simple recipes with a nice photograph, and when you cook the dish, it looks like the photograph when you’re done with it—something that doesn’t always work out for me with Martha Stewart’s recipes! I guarantee you that even if I paid meticulous attention to these 2 recipes, they would never turn out like Martha Stewart’s for her granddaughter Jude’s Birthday! (Although I still might try the cake. Brown-Sugar Layer Cake with Caramel Buttercream Frosting …yum!)
Don’t get me wrong: I adore Martha Stewart! I could stare at these beautiful creations all day. I keep her in my back pocket for special occasions, and Ina gave her a shout out for bringing home ec back into fashion.
But for everyday, Ina’s recipes are so easy and full of flavor! I now own three of her cookbooks and cook from them often. Why? Because just like it says on the cover of barefoot contessa at home, these are “everyday recipes you’ll make over and over again.”
It’s true. I’ve made her Turkey Meatballs and Spaghetti multiple times, and the Green Green Spring Vegetables are a summer staple.
How does she come up with her recipes? Ina begins by imagining a flavor and a texture of a dish in her mind. She’ll read everything there is to know on the dish she’s creating before going into her kitchen and experimenting. Sometimes it will take her two tries, sometimes it will take her 25 times, but she eventually works it out.
Her next step is to write the recipe and pass it on to her assistant to actually make the dish while Ina watches. Ina’s trying to see what someone at home with only a piece of paper as a guide experiences when making the recipe. If something’s confusing or unclear, she changes it.
When everything’s perfect, she puts it to the ultimate test: she makes it as part of a meal. It’s easy to focus all your efforts on one dish, but if it’s too complicated when adding in all the other elements of a meal, then what’s the point?
I was shocked when she said that if it doesn’t work out, she’ll throw the recipe out and never make it again.
What? What if it was really good?
That just goes to show you how much ease and simplicity is a part of her life. That is something I could really get behind.
It was a wonderful afternoon spent with a cooking icon who, with the way she carries herself, honestly could be my next door neighbor…and I wish she was.
In honor of Ina Garten, I’ll share with you the only ginger cookie recipe I’ll ever use because it is that good. Enjoy!
Ina Garten’s Ultimate Ginger Cookie
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 ½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp kosher salt
1 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
¼ cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup unsulfured molasses
1 extra-large egg, at room temperature
1 ¼ cups chopped crystallized ginger (6 ounces)
granulated sugar, for rolling the cookies
Crystallized ginger comes in packages in the produce aisle or in the spice aisle.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and salt and then combine the mixture with your hands. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the brown sugar, oil, and molasses on medium speed for 5 minutes. Turn the mixer to low speed, add the egg, and beat for 1 minute. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula and beat for 1 more minute. With the mixer still on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the bowl and mix on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add the crystallized ginger and mix until combined.
Scoop the dough with 2 spoons or a small ice cream scoop. With your hands, roll each cookie into a 1 ¾-inch ball and then flatten them lightly with your fingers. Press both sides of each cookie in granulated sugar and place them on the sheet pans. Bake for exactly 13 minutes. The cookies will be crackled on the top and soft inside. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for a minute or two, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.