I really have a love/hate relationship with the Food Network. I can be found at times, I am willing to admit, splayed out on the sofa, hypnotized by one cooking show after another. Give me the Paula Deen/Barefoot Contessa/Michael Chiarello trifecta and I am set for a Saturday morning. And I love love love Alton. But every single recipe I have downloaded and tried has been an utter disappointment. I refuse to try anything Giada cooks anymore, no matter how tempting it looks. I know it just won't work right. Same thing for Chiarello -- I just had a butternut squash disaster last week. And Paula? Well, her stuff is good but it's the same stuff you get out of those spiral bound community cookbooks that your mother always seemed to have with the same damn cream of mushroom soup-based casseroles. And since her four food groups are butter, sour cream, sugar and mayonnaise, well how the hell can recipes not be good? And please don't get me started on Rachael Ray.
Which brings me to Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I know there are those that trust her, those that worship her and those that are just plain obsessed, but I have always been on the fence. Sure, her show is one of my favorites and I think she is lovely and her relationship with Jeffrey is adorable, but I was just never inspired. I always felt that her style, while beautiful and easy, was ordinary.
This was until Mother gave me Barefoot Contessa at Home: Everyday Recipes You'll Make Over and Over Again.
Always thrilled to get a new cookbook, I read it like I read all others: like a novel. I savored it. I noted her comments about making sure you have a spotlessly-clean oven before cranking it up to 500 degrees and that she uses Kikkoman brand soy sauce. It was a nice book but I wasn't compelled to cook anything.
I seized the opportunity to cook a birthday dinner for my father, using only recipes from the book, just as an experiment.
The result? I am buying the rest of the Contessa's library. I am a convert. I will cross the line to obsession. She is a freakin' magician. I love her.
I tested seven recipes:
- Summer Borscht
- Mustard-Roasted Potatoes
- Parmesan-Roasted Cauliflower
- Seafood Gratin
- Coconut Cake
- Eli's Asian Salmon
- Irish Soda Bread
Let's start at the beginning, shall we?
Summer Borscht. It was psychedelic. I really had my doubts putting this together. The recipe was just too easy and so few ingredients... how good could it be? Drop on the floor, smack-your-momma kinda good, that's how good. Proof? The folks ain't adventurous. Never heard of "borscht." I tried to mask the name and called it a chilled beet soup, but both Mother and Pops were dubious. And the color was slightly scary... it's amazing that anything like that occurs in nature. So, we sit to eat our first course of borscht and our collective heads explode. I shocked myself. Ina made me a chef, man. This was goooood.
For the main course, we had steak, which was fine -- we loosely followed Bobby Flay's recommendations for steak cooking, but The Mayor took charge of that. What we really want to talk about are the sides, right?
Here are her Mustard-Roasted Potatoes. I loved the look of the whole-grain mustard seeds dotting the potato and onion landscape. The flavor wasn't overpowering, but it lent a flavor that was earthy and slightly tangy. These will be made again in the Bungalow, oh yes, but my resident all-things-potato-expert Irish husband quibbles about the choice of a "waxy" versus a "floury" potato. Whatever. He also thinks I should parboil before roasting. Sheesh. There is no living with him when he's on a potato rant.
Next, we have Parmesan Roasted Cauliflower. Super simple and unbelievably good. I actually said at dinner, "You know, cauliflower is really an underrated vegetable." The Mayor looked at me like I lost my mind. I'm not a big veg person. I will definitely make this again because like Ina says, anything with one cup of parmesan and one cup of Gruyere has got to be good.
And finally, the star of the show: Seafood Gratin. Ina includes this under the "Dinners" section, but I made it as a side for a "surf and turf" kind of meal. Outstanding. The only substitution I made was using canned lump crab meat instead of fresh lobster. I also made it in one large gratin dish rather than individual dishes as Ina does. It was heavenly: a layer of shrimp, cod (oops... another sub -- she called for halibut) and crab, covered with sauteed carrots and leeks, soaked in a creamy tomato-ey seafood stock and then topped with panko, cheese and fresh tarragon. It was truly exceptional. And really so easy.
For Pop's birthday dessert, I baked my first layer cake ever, Coconut Cake. And I stood in front of the oven window, fretting the entire time. Did it rise too fast, is it browning too much, is it done, is it overdone, are the edges dry? Really. Fifty minutes of worry when I should have just trusted, right?
Of course. It was beautiful. The frosting was wonderful. The cake was moist. I wasn't shamed or embarrassed. I mean, I'm no cake decorator, but for a first effort, this was stellar.
I was on such a roll, I decided to test a few more recipes out and since I had a half box of currants leftover from making the Christmas Pudding, I treaded softly on hallowed ground and baked Irish Soda Bread. This, along with potatoes, is not something that you want to get into with an Irishman. The Mayor has his own feelings about the bread, and while he hasn't said it must be banished to the back garden and buried, he's not exactly attacking it with fervor, weeping that it reminds him of his childhood when he would eat warm bread on a cold day on the shores of Bantry Bay, either. He has noticed, and annoyingly comments, that I have made a dent in the bread.
Yes, I have made a dent. A considerable dent. Slathered with Kerrygold, it's my new breakfast. Forever. Seriously.
My only bummer recipe was Eli's Asian Salmon. Something just went really wrong. It was so salty I couldn't eat it. I drank two Cokes immediately following this dish. I refuse to believe it's the Contessa's fault. It simply must be me. I did appreciate her instructions to line the pan with foil, and the hint for the aforementioned clean oven. I also appreciated her telling me what temperature to pull the fish out at... for I am a over-cooking worrier so things tend to be undercooked in the Bungalow, something I am not to fond of, either. God bless probe thermometers. I loved the idea of this salmon, I loved the ingredients, I loved making it. But I've got to figure out the salt problem... maybe it's just as simple as less soy sauce or a low-sodium variety.
What have I learned through this Barefoot Contessa experience? Her recipes are anything but ordinary. Her food is simple to put together, yes, but not plain on the tongue. To hell with complicated instructions and grocery lists that require three stops and cooking for two days. This was the first time I put together an entire meal and didn't feel cheated at the end. I didn't feel like I had put so much effort in and got so little out. Quite the opposite in fact.
It has been so long since I have made a recipe that I could say I would make over and over again... Ina has given me six in a weekend. I may never need another cookbook. Well, okay I am lying about that, but this cookbook gives you exactly what the Contessa promises: everyday recipes you'll make again and again.
Excerpted from Barefoot Contessa at Home: Everyday Recipes You'll Make Over and Over Again
by Ina Garten
5 medium fresh beets (about 2 pounds without tops)
2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
16 ounces sour cream, plus extra for serving
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons champagne vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 cups medium-diced English cucumber, seeds removed
1/2 cup chopped scallions, white and green parts
2 tablespoons fresh dill, plus extra for serving
Place the beets in a large pot pf boiling salted water and cook uncovered until the beets are tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove the beets to a bowl with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Strain the cooking liquid through a fine sieve and also set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups of the beet cooking liquid, the chicken stock, sour cream, yogurt, sugar, lemon juice, vinegar, 1 tablespoon salt, and the pepper. Peel the cooled beets with a small paring knife or rub the skins off with your hands. Cut the beets in a small to medium dice. Add the beets, cucumber, scallions, and dill to the soup. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for a least 4 hours or overnight. Season to taste and serve cold with a dollop of sour cream and an extra spring of fresh dill.