Great Minds Eat Alike: Ina Garten’s How Easy Is That?
Earlier this summer, we were lucky enough to interview one of our cooking mentors (and friend), Ina Garten, about her new book How Easy Is That? which comes out tomorrow! This installment of the Barefoot Contessa cookbook series is a must have for twenty-somethings like ourselves. It’s all about meals that are easy enough for everyday dinners but simultaneously special enough for company.
Below, Ina shares her wisdom on how quarter-life cooks can make their lives easier. During our interview, she dispelled a bunch of popular entertaining myths and described the best inexpensive tablescapes to distract from our mismatched cutlery. We’re so grateful to be able to showcase a sneak peak of Ina’s book, and we’re even more thrilled that she will soon be a part of ours.
Ina will be writing the foreword for the Big Girls, Small Kitchen cookbook, and we couldn’t be more excited!
Another exciting announcement is that this post marks the beginning of a new blogging category on BGSK: Great Minds Eat Alike. In this column, we’ll be publishing guest posts from home cooks whose recipes, entertaining tips, and kitchen strategies mesh beautifully with ours. Great Minds guest posters will help the BGSK reader make the most of their limited resources—be it time, space, money, or skill. We’ll be seeking the counsel of seasoned chefs and cookbook authors, and sharing the advice they have for the younger generation cooking first meals in first kitchens. And we’ll also be turning to stories from our friends (both online and off), who never cease to amaze us with their creativity and connection to food. If you have an idea for a post, and would like more details about submitting, contact us!
We hope you enjoy the interview below, and check back this weekend for a chance to win your very own copy of Barefoot Contessa How Easy Is That?
From our kitchens, where great minds eat alike, to yours,
Cara & Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOKS
BGSK. We want to start in the past. As you say in the How Easy is That? introduction, you cook just like anyone else, but obviously you’ve had a lot more experience, being in the food industry thirty years longer than most cooks. What were some of the lessons you learned way back in the day, during your first experiences in the kitchen when you were a fledgling home cook like us?
I.G. My experience is that it would take me a week to make dinner.
BGSK. So what were some of these meals that you would labor over for a week?
I.G. Well they were all from Julia Child. Roast Leg of Lamb, Tomato stuffed with Duxelles, which is finely minced mushrooms. And this was pre-food processor times, so you had to cut it all up yourself. And all these incredibly elaborate desserts—things like dacquoise. So when I started to teach myself that you could actually make a delicious meal and not take a week to do it, I realized that you can choose equally delicious things. But you can’t make a dacquoise that way.
BGSK. Do you remember what was the first thing you made that converted you to that viewpoint, that simple things could be as delicious?
I.G. Well I can tell you the first thing I remember making that was a disaster for a party—omelets. The first party I had was a brunch and I invited twenty people and thought “oh, I’ll make an omelet for everybody.” That’s not a good idea. I was in the kitchen the whole time. I literally didn’t spend ten seconds at the party. And people didn’t have their omelets all at one time. One person would have a hot omelet, and then the next person would have a hot omelet. Eventually I realized that you could make something like a big frittata and have an absolutely delicious piece of an omelet all together.
BGSK. Did your mother teach you any tips or tricks in the kitchen when you were younger?
I.G. There’s a very simple answer: no. My mother and I cook very differently. My mother was a very sort of spare cook. Everything was very healthy. No carbohydrates, no fat, no nothing. No flavor. [Laughs] It wasn’t exciting.
Although there is one thing I remember she used to make for Thanksgiving, a pumpkin banana mousse soufflé–a cold dessert that was delicious. I turned it into pumpkin banana mousse tart–in Family Style. But it was rare that she did anything that was that sumptuous.
BGSK. So who gave you your first Julia Child cookbook?
I.G. I think it was me. What really started me is Jeffrey and I went camping in Europe when we were first married, for four months. I remember going to the French markets and going Oh My God. This is what it’s about. And I started cooking in our tent, if you can believe that, with a camping stove. And I started making cous cous. I just was really inspired. When I came back I went out and bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
And you know I think even before that, when I first got married, I remember buying Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, and I must have read that book a thousand times. Cooking was almost in my DNA—I’d just never been exposed to it. I couldn’t wait to start cooking—just couldn’t wait.
BGSK. Back when you were working in the White House, what was your eating schedule like with Jeffrey? (When you weren’t preparing for elaborate dinner parties over the weekend…)
I.G. I think we must have had breakfast together and then gone to work and come home at 8pm and had dinner together. I almost can’t remember. It wasn’t a time when you did takeout so somehow I must have done dinner. It was probably fairly simple. But the fun I had was working on dinner parties. That was my experimental thing.
BGSK. What did you learn from this period of living and cooking?
I.G. Most of what I learned I learned from the store. I think the experience of running a specialty food store for twenty years–that was what I did–I thought the simpler it is and the better flavor it is, the more successful the store will be. And then what I found was, I was making those same things at home.
For three reasons: it was simple, it was economical–you know, you wouldn’t make something with fresh truffles on it in the store. But the third thing is, they were things you could make in advance. Not something that you just cooked and put on the table. When you run a specialty foods store, you make something, then you put it in the glass case and someone takes it home and heats it up. And it’s not that it tastes good when it comes out of the pan. And it’s not that it tastes good when it’s in the refrigerator. It has to taste good a day later, when they reheat it.
I trained myself to think about what it was going to taste like in two days when someone reheated it, and they were all recipes I could make the day before or two days before and serve at a dinner party. That’s not something I always do, but I could. If I’m making a dinner party now, I’ll think through the menu: “OK, I’m going to make panna cotta, which you have to make the day before so it sets; I’m going to make orzo with roasted vegetables (from the Barefoot Contessa Parties! Cookbook) which actually is better made a few hours before the dinner party and served at room temperature. And I’m going to make rack of lamb, which I can prepare the completely early in the day and just throw it in the oven a half an hour before dinner. So I have a range of things in different temperatures and different cooking times that all can easily be put on the table at the same time.”
BGSK. In that vein, in addition to the timing contingencies, what sort of advice can you give people on how to plan a menu that strikes the right tone–be it casual or celebratory, comforting, sophisticated?
I.G. The more elegant the company is, the more casual I make the food. People feel more comfortable, and they’re so happy when you make a roast chicken, something really simple. I can’t tell you how many people from Greenwich have told me “I’ve made your mac and cheese for my guests and they were thrilled.” So for example, in this book, I make the lemon chicken breast and the cous cous a lot. And you just put some haricots verts with it. It’s absolutely delicious.
The big thing about entertaining is planning a menu where you don’t have to have four things cooking at the same time. I can’t do that. I’ll forget about one. I’ll forget the cake is in the oven and burn it. I like to do one thing at a time.
BGSK. What are your philosophies about entertaining when you’re busy but also have these itsy bitsy tiny little kitchens?
I.G. When I’m planning a party, I have to have one dish that doesn’t require any cooking. Like for dessert–affogato. Then I’ll have one dish that you sauté on the top of the stove. And one dish that goes in the oven. And then, if I need another dish, I’ll buy it.
I think the less experienced we are, the more likely we are to try to overreach. In fact, you should do just the opposite. Sometimes the best thing to make are BLTs. Good bakery white bread with wonderful modine apple-smoked bacon and tomatoes from the farmstand. The ingredients are fantastic, the sandwich is simple.
BGSK. Are there any kind of specific formalities or myths that people hang onto that make entertaining that much more difficult that you would tell someone to throw out the window?
I.G. Yes. First thing I’d say is: forget Saturday night dinner. It’s the hardest time to entertain. I love Sunday lunch. Because you can make a big salad, and you can have a big glass of wine, and everybody’s done all their chores on Saturday, so Sunday’s a really relaxing day. Everybody’s got energy and they’re up, and then they go home, take a nap, whatever.
I.G. [Laughs] Yawning. No, I try not to kick people out. I’m thrilled if people want to say. I’ve never tried that actually.
Cara. I think one time Phoebe got into bed.
Phoebe. Yeah it’s a problem I have. People never want to leave.
I.G. That just means you have good parties.
I.G. I love things that are served family style, so that everybody is sharing the experience. In this book there’s this wonderful baked fontina, which is baked in a cast iron skillet. I put it right in the middle of the table and everybody has big chunks of crusty bread, and they just help themselves. My mouth is watering just talking about it!
I think that idea of shared food is really fun. Another thing I always do too is I always ask someone to help me. Everyone always asks “can I help?” and all of us hosts always feel like we have to say “No no no, you just sit, I’ll take care of it.” But in fact, if you say to someone at a party, “sure–help me serve dinner,” they feel like they’re on the A Team. Everyone wants to help. So actually use that to your advantage rather than saying no, no, no, I’ll do it.
Cara. We just wrote an article about cooking with friends when everybody insists on helping.
I.G. Do you let them?
Phoebe. We said: make guacamole. It’s not too easy to mess up and there’s so many tasks involved.
Cara. Like, “You, cut the onions.”
I.G. “You, cut the onions…and I’ll do everything else.” [Laughs]
I.G. A great thing to do is to buy a chocolate cake at a local bakery. And then if you take a pint of vanilla Haagen Dazs and melt it—ice cream is crème anglaise that’s been frozen. If you melt it, it becomes crème anglaise again. Pour that on a plate and put a slice of chocolate ganache cake on top with a couple raspberries. And you’ve got the easiest dessert in the world, but it’s not just a piece of chocolate cake on a plate, it’s a whole thing.
BGSK. Can you think of particularly budget-friendly ways of approaching the “buy one thing” idea?
I.G. One thing I use a lot now, and I think it’s pretty inexpensive, is truffle butter, which is really luxurious and incredibly flavorful, and it’s about $6 or $7 for a three-ounce pot. Like a truffle pasta–you toss it with pasta and use the truffle butter as the butter. It’s dinner for four. That really goes a long way.
Phoebe. And butter.
I.G. Yes, and butter! In this book there’s a truffle popcorn. It’s great. Instead of using butter on it, you do microwave popcorn and then melt the truffle butter and toss them together. It’s a great hors d’oeuvres for drinks or when people are coming over to hang out. And for $6 or $7 it’s a very reasonable thing to have.
BGSK. Do you have any guilty pleasures when cooking for yourself? For us, some of the simplest, easiest meals we make are the ones we might not want to share with anyone else…
I.G. I have to say I never cook for myself. Ever. Maybe a bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar and butter. That’s my guilty pleasure. I don’t cook for myself at all. Probably because I’m cooking all day, the last thing I want to do is be cooking something at night. Or I would say my guilty pleasure is a glass of Sauternes and some foie gras. That to me is like I’ve died and gone to heaven.
Cara. That’s pretty easy–slice and pour!
BGSK. What about romance? Are there any dishes in your repertoire that you would prescribe for wooing a guy?
I.G. You know there’s a story about the roast chicken in my book that came from the women at Glamour magazine. The women from Glamour make a version of my chicken and they call it Engagement Roast Chicken. They keep track, and apparently there’s a very high percentage of the women who’ve made this for their boyfriends who’ve gotten engaged within 24 hours. That’s about as romantic as it gets. I actually called it Jeffrey’s Chicken for that reason.
I.G. I think I made Jeffery a steak sandwich once and that just did it. When I was in school, for a minute I was taking Home Economics (I thought it was boring, so I stopped). I made him a soufflé. He couldn’t believe I made him a soufflé. So maybe the soufflé was it. Overall though, I would say probably the most romantic meal is a roast chicken and a brownie à la mode. That’ll get any guy.
BGSK. What would you say to young couples or newlyweds who eat together on a regular basis? It’s such a strange balance between making what you’d make yourself–that bowl of oatmeal–or going the distance and cooking something you’d make for company. I know this book contains a lot of answers to that question. But in terms of general recommendations, do you have any insight from your early days of cooking for Jeffrey?
I.G. I don’t think it needs to be an either-or thing. No matter how simple, it should be really delicious. I actually really like to do something that can be served in different ways for two or three days. I’ll make a big enough roasted chicken for two, and then the next day it will become sliced chicken sandwiches, or chicken hash, or something other than a roasted chicken.
Cara. Although I have to admit the most recent time my boyfriend made roasted chicken I don’t think there were any leftovers.
I.G. Oh yeah, that’s a problem. I’d say you have a good boyfriend if he makes you roasted chicken.
I.G. I like it when they don’t match!
BGSK. On a personal note, what keeps you excited in the kitchen? You’ve been doing this for so long, you have seven amazing cookbooks–what keeps you so enthusiastic and wanting to return to your kitchen every day?
I.G. I have no idea. I get up in the morning and I think to myself–what do I feel like doing today? And I always feel like testing a recipe. There’s something about it. It’s really inspiring. I mean, I travel a lot so I can see what other people are doing. And sometimes I’m inspired by the colors of the clothes in Milan and I’ll come back and design a cookbook in those colors. Sometimes it’s a remembered flavor that popped in my head. Or I went to a restaurant in London…
BGSK. Is there anything else you’d like our audience to know about How Easy Is That?
I.G. I think all my recipes are easy. You go to a grocery store, buy good ingredients, come home, and you know the recipe will work, and that it’s delicious. I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could do it even easier. Each recipe is one page, almost all the ingredients you can buy in a grocery store, and they’d be really really delicious. And I feel good about it. I find myself making these recipes all the time and I hope other people will too.
BGSK. Count us in!