Author and Food Network star Ina Garten has a new cookbook, her seventh, out this fall, titled Barefoot Contessa: How Easy Is That? (Clarkson Potter). She chatted over the phone from her "barn" in East Hampton, N.Y., about her life, her new book, and a few of the recipes.
Question: Is there really a need for one more cookbook?
Answer: If I had been asked that question, never having written one, I would have said no. But now, having done it, I have a very clear vision of what I want a book to be: I want a very edited group of recipes, not 500; I want a gorgeous photo of what each one looks like done that looks delicious; and I want recipes that read like, "I could actually do that." I think I have done that with each of my books.
This time around, I thought to myself, people are really busy, the recipes need to be even easier, so I challenged myself to take each recipe, but simplify it, using a simple technique, a simple process, or simple ingredients.
For example, figs with prosciutto: You know when you buy figs, most of the time they are not really ripe. Well, if you throw them in the oven, you can sweeten them up. Then if you wrap them in prosciutto, that heightens the salty/sweet contrast. It's that simple.
Q: Did you get feedback from readers and viewers who wanted simple recipes? Or did you have market research that directed you?
A: I never do market research. If I make something during the day, and my assistant goes home and makes it for her family that night, it goes in the book. If I make three desserts for my friends, and everyone likes one the best, it goes in the book. If it's too complicated, I might throw it out and make something easier. I want recipes that are easy enough and delicious enough that I want to make it again. That is my market research.
Q: Are there any cookbook authors who inspired you?
A: One of my dear friends, Sarah Chase of Que Sera Sarah [a food specialty takeout store], wrote the cookbook Cold Weather Cooking, and all her recipes are the kind of things you want to eat at home. She has been a great inspiration, and I usually include one of her recipes in each of my cookbooks. . . . I think it's not a coincidence that I am compared to other food specialty store-inspired cookbooks [like Silver Palate]. I think the way people eat at home is very different from the way they eat in a restaurant. In a restaurant, you want to experiment and try something new. At home, you want roast chicken and roasted carrots, maybe rack of lamb for company. You want really simple, classic food.
Q: You do seem to stick to familiar flavors. You don't seem to go in for Asian fusion.
A: Blah. How do you spell that? Chef cookbooks are generally more complicated and they tend to call for restaurant ingredients, like a tablespoon of demiglace, or two sheets of gelatin. I look at that and say, where do I buy that?
Q: How do you come up with your recipes?
A: My life feeds my work. I go to a restaurant in Milan and taste something and then try to reproduce it. One recipe comes from the hairdresser where I get my hair cut in Paris. I taste things and I wonder, what is in here? I spend time wandering the aisles of the supermarket. I find new ingredients that I have never used before.
You are not inspired sitting by yourself at home. Or working all the time. At one point I had a TV crew following me to a farmers market, and I thought to myself, I used to have time to actually do this. So I cut back. I think it is really important to stay creative to have downtime to do what you really love to do. I love that I still have a life. I'm embarrassed to say that I say no to almost everything. My first response is no.
Q: Many of your recipes are very heavy on the cream and butter and mayonnaise. Do you feel any obligation to come up with "healthy" recipes?
A: I think a lot of my recipes are healthy, like roasted summer vegetables and french green bean salad, but you have to balance them, and I find everyone finds balance in a different way.
I know that people do low-fat versions of my recipes, and that's fine. But when I am testing recipes, I don't want something that just tastes good, I want the best of that thing that you've ever had. That's what I am always looking for, not just the perfect flavor, but the perfect texture too. I might make something five times, sometimes 25 times trying to get it just right.
Q: I admire your ability to be so calm and organized before a party or event. What advice do you have for me and other home cooks who are often scrambling up to the time the doorbell rings?
A: You are trying to do too much. I keep it really simple. I don't make hors d'oeuvres. I will put out salty cashews, or fresh cherry tomatoes instead. I make three things: one I can do the day before like the mocha icebox cake that you have to do the day before [see accompanying recipe], one thing to be served room temperature, and one thing that is served hot.
The test of a really good party is that all the guests think this is just something you whipped up in the five minutes before they got there. Keep it really simple, and absolutely delicious, and people will have more fun. There is nothing that makes people feel less welcome than to feel that the hostess killed herself for this party. But, having said all that, everyone says to their husband a half hour before the party, "Don't talk to me" or "Who invited all these people?" - including me.
Q: Do you have a mission?
A: My mission is that everybody has fun. I am not trying to teach anybody anything, but I do think the more relaxed we are about cooking, the more people will cook. It is not a high-wire act, it is not a competition. If you cook, you will eat better, less processed, food. And if you cook, everyone comes to the table, and that is my favorite way to engage people.
Lobster and Shells
Makes 8 to 10 servings
Good olive oil
1 pound small pasta shells
Kernels from 4 ears of corn (about 3 cups)
6 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1 yellow or orange bell pepper, seeded and small-diced
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 pound cooked fresh lobster meat, medium-diced
3/4 cup good mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup minced fresh dill
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon of salt and some olive oil. Add the pasta and cook it for 8 to 10 minutes, until al dente. Add the corn to the pasta and cook for 2 more minutes, until the corn is tender.
2. Drain the pasta and corn together in a colander and pour them into a large mixing bowl. Add the scallions, diced pepper, tomatoes, and lobster, tossing gently to combine. Allow to cool slightly.
3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, sour cream, lemon juice, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Pour about half of the dressing over the pasta mixture and mix well to bind the ingredients. Add more dressing to coat the salad to your liking. (I used only about three-quarters of the mixture.) Stir in the dill and season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for up to 6 hours to allow the flavors to develop. Check the seasonings and serve chilled or at room temperature.
Per serving (based on 10): 476 calories, 28 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 23 grams fat, 121 milligrams cholesterol, 525 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Grilled Steak and Arugula
Makes 4 servings
2 boneless rib-eye steaks (sliced 1 inch thick, about 14 to 16 ounces each)
1/2 cup good olive oil, plus extra for brushing the steaks
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
8 ounces baby arugula
1 chunk good Parmesan cheese (about 4 ounces)
1. Prepare a charcoal grill with hot coals or turn a gas grill to medium-high heat.
2. Brush the steaks lightly with olive oil and sprinkle both sides liberally with salt and pepper. Set aside at room temperature for 15 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Set aside.
4. When the grill is hot, place the steaks on it. Cook for 5 minutes on each side and then close the lid, making sure the vents are open slightly to prevent the fire from going out. Cook for 5 to 15 minutes for medium-rare, depending on the heat of the coals, until the centers of the steaks register 125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove to a clean plate, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
5. Place the arugula in a large bowl and toss with enough of the dressing to moisten. Divide the salad among 4 plates. When the steaks have rested, slice them thickly and place half a steak on top of each salad. Shave Parmesan onto each steak with a vegetable peeler, sprinkle with salt, and serve hot.
Per serving: 687 calories, 56 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 50 grams fat, 120 milligrams cholesterol, 707 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Roasted Summer Vegetables
Makes 6 servings
2 medium zucchinis
1 red bell pepper, preferably Holland
1 yellow or orange bell pepper, preferably Holland
1 fennel bulb
1 small red onion
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Trim the ends of the zucchinis and cut them diagonally in 3/4-inch-thick slices (the slices will seem large, but they'll shrink while they cook). Cut the peppers lengthwise in 11/2-inch-wide slices, discarding the core. Trim off the fennel stalks and cut the bulb through the core in 1-inch wedges (cutting through the core keeps the pieces intact). Peel the red onion and slice it in 1/4-inch-thick rounds, leaving the slices intact.
3. Place the vegetables in groups on a sheet pan. Drizzle with the olive oil, add the garlic, and toss gently to be sure the vegetables are lightly coated with oil. Spread the vegetables in one layer on 2 sheet pans (if they're crowded, they'll steam rather than roast). Sprinkle with salt and pepper and place the thyme sprigs on top.
4. Roast for 15 minutes. Turn each piece (turn the onions carefully) and put the pans back in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes, until all the vegetables are crisp-tender. Sprinkle with extra salt and serve hot or at room temperature.
Per serving: 85 calories, 2 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 350 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Mocha Chocolate Icebox Cake
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 cups cold heavy cream
12 ounces Italian mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup Kahlua liqueur
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, such as Pernigotti
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 8-ounce packages Tate's Bake Shop chocolate chip cookies
Shaved semisweet chocolate for garnish
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (you can also use a hand mixer), combine the heavy cream, mascarpone, sugar, Kahlua, cocoa powder, espresso powder, and vanilla. Mix on low speed to combine and then slowly raise the speed, until it forms firm peaks.
2. To assemble the cake, arrange the chocolate chip cookies flat in an 8-inch springform pan, covering the bottom as much as possible (I break some cookies to fill in the spaces). Spread a fifth of the mocha whipped cream evenly over the cookies. Place another layer of cookies on top, lying flat and touching, followed by another fifth of the cream. Continue layering cookies and cream until there are 5 layers, ending with a layer of cream. Smooth the top, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
3. Run a small sharp knife around the outside of the cake and remove the sides of the pan. Smooth the edge with a knife and sprinkle the top with the chocolate. Cut in wedges and serve cold.
Per serving (based on 10): 598 calories, 9 grams protein, 52 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams sugar, 38 grams fat, 108 milligrams cholesterol, 289 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.