Ina Garten, TV's beloved Barefoot Contessa, invites one very lucky amateur cook into her home—and then puts her to work.
It's one thing to see Ina Garten blanching green beans on television, or beaming from the covers of her best-selling cookbooks. It's a very different thing to see her here, at her home in East Hampton, New York—or rather, in the vast, sunlit structure next door, which she calls the barn and which smells like fresh laundry and homemade bread. That is to say, it's a much, much cooler thing. The legions of cuisine hounds who ring in Saturday mornings with Barefoot Contessa, Ina's delightfully unfussy cooking show on the Food Network, have watched her whip up a whole host of delicious things inside this barn, from white-chocolate almond bark to chicken roasted with 40 cloves of garlic. But they haven't seen her do so in slippers.
I've come to Ina's inner sanctum to learn more about her unusual recipe-testing process, which she's explaining to me in the barn's kitchen—an airy space anchored by an 18-foot, marble-topped island, two tidy refrigerators, and a dining table that could seat a royal court. "I work on a recipe until it's exactly what I'm envisioning," Ina says. "Sometimes I nail it on the second try, and sometimes it takes 25. But once I feel it's right, I give the recipe to my assistant and have her make the dish. She's not a trained cook, so as she works I watch to see what mistakes she makes. It helps me recognize all those little instructions I forgot to make clear—like 'Cook on high heat' or 'Chop diagonally.'"
It is my great privilege to temporarily take the place of her assistant today, becoming, for a few exhilarating hours, Ina's culinary guinea pig. I'm relieved to learn that the cookbook from which most of today's dishes are taken—Ina's eighth, it hits stores in October—is called Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust. Her food has always been both miraculously simple and stunningly sophisticated, which is a line most chefs find difficult to walk. But this latest volume is designed to take both the ease and the elegance of her food to a whole new level. And thank goodness for that: As I explain to Ina, I'm a serviceable cook and an eager eater, but I lack the finesse, assuredness, and, to be frank, the attention span to really prepare things properly. In short, I tell her, "I love food, but I'm lazy."
"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.
"I did a bad job the first time I made scallops," Ina confides. "I crowded the pan. Scallops need a lot of room to get a good crust." Which is why the recipe includes a warning to this effect: "Don't crowd the scallops, or they'll steam rather than sear."
The final task—a gingery carrot cake with mascarpone frosting—makes me nervous. While one can arguably get away with cooking lazily, baking lazily is a contradiction in terms. Haplessness has no place in an undertaking this akin to chemistry. But then I read the recipe. There's no separating of eggs, no belabored creaming procedures. You mix the batter, pour it into pans, and bake.
Then I notice something even more exciting. "The recipe calls for frosting between the layers of the cake," I say, "but not around the sides." I have never once been able to frost a cake without the result looking like a seventh-grade home-ec project.
There's a gleam in Ina's eye. "I eliminated that step," she says. "Who needs the trouble of frosting the sides if it looks just as elegant without it? Throw some diced candied ginger on top, and you're done."
Ina Garten, I think, you're my hero. The cake is stunning, naked sides and all.
It's been lovely to hang out on Ina's home turf, and it's a singular treat to discover that she keeps Fox's U-bet chocolate syrup in her pantry (for egg creams) and to use the luxurious hand soap in her powder room (Molton Brown, in the citrusy Naran Ji scent). But for this cook, correctly baking Ina's cake—and eating it with her, too—is as good as it gets.