"Me, too!" she says. "That's why I want things to be simple." Which makes perfect sense, considering that until a few decades ago, Ina was just like the rest of us: a woman who liked to cook, not a professional chef. While working at the White House as a nuclear budget analyst during the Ford and Carter administrations (no, really), she earned a reputation as an enthusiastic dinner party hostess, finding inventive ways to succeed in entertaining without really trying. After ditching D.C. to open a specialty foods shop in the Hamptons, Ina perfected recipes that draw on "techniques we all know," she says, but with—and here she uses a phrase familiar to fans—"the volume turned up." "I shoot for a remembered flavor or a familiar dish," she says, "and I try to make it the best version you've ever had."
And not just dishes—drinks, too. The first item on our agenda is a strawberry cocktail with orange liqueur and prosecco. No problem, I think, hulling the berries before tossing them into the food processor. There's no way I can screw this up! Then I screw it up. The recipe says to strain the strawberry puree, which I attempt to do with a bit of cheesecloth. But no liquid drips through, and I'm left holding a sack of strawberry goo. The recipe now tells you to pour the liquid through a fine-mesh sieve. (You're welcome, Ina.)
I ace the crostini, the green beans gremolata, and the salad with champagne vinaigrette. All three are delicious, but the vinaigrette—appealingly garlicky, eminently tart, rich with Dijon mustard goodness—is something I could build a religion around. "What else can I do with this dressing?" I ask Ina. "Because I want to eat it ten times a day." She beams—even after years of being famous for her food, pleasing someone's palate clearly still brings her joy—and then considers my question. "It'd be delicious on steamed vegetables," she says. "And I love a potato salad with vinaigrette, rather than the mayo-based version."
When recipes are this carefully crafted, and when their creator's mission is to make things as easy on the cook as possible, even a high-wire affair like seared scallops becomes manageable. As I start to make Ina's, which are served over a potato and celery root puree, I turn on the burner, let the pan get nice and hot, thoroughly dry the scallops with paper towels—a necessary step, since moisture impedes the searing process—and carefully lower them into the oil, spaced well apart per her instructions. It's the most care I'll have to put into anything today—and it's still not that much work—but it pays off.
We Hear You!