I am a self-taught cook. Sure, I learned a few things along the way in my mother’s kitchen, but as a trailblazing working mom, she was more about practical survival and less about Julia Child. My favorite aunt added a bit of French-inspired flair to the mix, and I picked up a few tricks every holiday season when all the women gathered to cook. But admittedly, I wasn’t really paying close attention. When I set out to learn to properly cook, I was essentially starting from scratch.
photo by jenn kosar
I never go half-baked on anything [pun intended], so of course, I attempted to learn it all. My bookshelves are stocked not only with cookbooks, but proper culinary school textbooks and chef manuals. I scoured every information source available for the best in ingredients and techniques. While I am still learning, I am confident I have mastered most of the basics. I have had many teachers on this journey, but there are those lessons so fundamental you never forget. For me, those came from Ina Garten, known to many as The Barefoot Contessa.
Ina stands out from the crowd for a number of reasons. First, she approaches cooking principally for its most pure objective: creating a lovely meal for those you love to enjoy, with you. Nothing is overly complicated. She doesn’t skimp on what makes food taste good [fat, principally]. She creates balance through the use of whole foods and avoiding processed ingredients. Her cookbooks are filled with recipes that work, consistently, the first time, with no skipped steps or assumed knowledge. And finally, her books tell her story, not dissimilar to mine. Like me, she taught herself how to cook, entertain, and build a home filled with her [hopefully] a little grace and a lot of personal style.
photo by jenn kosar
With the holidays fast approaching, and as tribute to my best teacher, I’m rounding up my favorites from her treasure trove of advice, tips, and lessons. I’m also sharing with you the menus I’ve created from her cookbooks and use over and over for successful weeknight meals, dinner parties, and larger gatherings. Why? Because they work. Really well. And this holiday season, I’m going to need them all.
This week, we’ll cover the basics. Next week, I’ll cover the best Ina has to offer for the holiday season. Let’s get started!
[note: throughout the post I’ll note in bold recipes from Ina’s cookbooks. If you have her books, all her recipes are indexed online, and some are reprinted for free use. It is a big timesaver if you can’t remember the location of your favorite recipe. Check it out at BarefootContessa.com.]
My Favorite Barefoot Contessa Entertaining Tips
Plan to entertain in your kitchen. Ina’s kitchen is legendary, and one of her best tips is to organize the flow of the kitchen so people can sit with you, but not get in your way while cooking. Yes, those of you who have been in my kitchen now know that design was [somewhat] on purpose. I didn’t actually have a lot of choice due to space constraints, but is one of my favorite features in the renovation.
photo by jenn kosar
Get organized about your grocery store trip. When party planning, make the grocery list for the entire menu and then check off the items you already have. This avoids last-minute surprises when cooking. Categorize items by area of the grocery store, not by recipe (i.e., dairy, produce, meat and fish, freezer). If you need a large quantity of a particular item, make a note to make sure you have enough or that you buy enough. Cross things off as you go (I use the todoist app or old-fashioned pen and paper).
Buy your cheese from a proper cheesemonger. Locals can visit the Wine Library, Summit Cheese Shop, or even Whole Foods. Those of you outside major U.S. cities who do not have access to a cheesemonger’s expertise and selection can enjoy shipping from Manhattan’s beloved Murray’s Cheese. Try to stick to unpasteurized (raw milk) cheese if you are able to do so; this ensures peak flavor and avoids added stabilizers, which make it rubbery.
photo by darren coleshill via unsplash
Plan the menu to work with the event and your personal resources. When menu planning, consider the event (formal or informal, once-in-a-lifetime or tradition) and the season in terms of general food selections. Select a main course and build around it, varying colors and textures in the overall meal. Consider what you can accomplish with the time and resources (i.e., number of ovens) you have.
Have a backup plan. Don’t be embarrassed to keep a “Plan B” in the freezer for when things go wrong. It is the stuff of which memories are made, and your friends and family will love you anyway. Keep a delicious lasagna from your local gourmet grocer; with a salad, it is perfect in an emergency. Or make your own to have on hand with Ina’s own Roasted Vegetable Lasagna.
Use french kitchen towels as napkins. They are bigger and easier to take care of, and come in far more fun patterns and colors. I actually got this tip from my aunt [who knows, maybe she and Ina got it from the same fabulous French woman]. They also make lovely holiday or hostess gifts, especially for those on your list who have everything; pick up unique ones as you travel and present them with a bottle of wine or gourmet snack.
photo by jenn kosar
Remember the secret ingredient: you. Ina reminds us of this in all her cookbooks, but this quote says it best: “There is no substitute for the host actually being present at a party… making a complicated, expensive dinner doesn’t flatter [your guests] nearly as much as spending the evening talking to them.”
My Favorite Barefoot Contessa Cooking Tips
In the books Foolproof and Back to Basics, Ina gives away all her best secrets. Throughout the rest of her books and in her show on The Food Network, other tips often make their way into recipes and instruction. Here are just a few of my favorites.
- Master the “easy” French dishes that have high “wow” factor and learn to cook them at home. My favorite is the Blue Cheese Soufflé. Order the complicated ones in a restaurant.
- Good cookware will enhance your cooking and is a joy to use. Invest where you can. Don’t waste your money on a bunch of gadgets, and save for the higher quality pieces you will use all the time.
photo by stina magnus via pixabay
- Maintain a well-stocked pantry with the highest quality ingredients you can afford, particularly for key ingredients like olive oil, finishing salt, pasta, San Marzano tomatoes, mayonnaise, butter, spices, and cheese (especially Parmesan).
- Don’t skip the those last steps in a recipe like a splash of lemon juice, a dash of finishing salt, or a sprinkle of freshly cut herbs. They really boost the flavor of the dish and add that “brightness” we all love.
My Favorite Barefoot Contessa Recipes: Simple Meals
Ina’s books are filled with delicious soups and sandwiches. We are on a low-carb kick now, but I fondly remember the Roasted Red Pepper and Goat Cheese Sandwiches as among the best. For a simple weeknight meal, pair them with the Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup. The Chicken Chili is a meal in of itself, and don’t forget to make extra for tomorrow’s lunch.
photo by jenn kosar
There is nothing simpler than eggs for an easy meal anytime. I adore all of Ina’s egg recipes, most of which involve smoked salmon and caviar, because why not? For the easiest of meals, try the Herbed Baked Eggs with the Arugula and Parmesan Salad. I also love the Roasted Vegetable Frittata made with leftover roasted vegetables for easy transport of healthy breakfast or lunch at work all week long. My kids beg me to add the Maple-Roasted Bacon to any meal, a slightly less decadent version of her famous Caramelized Bacon.
My Favorite Barefoot Contessa Recipes: Dinner Party Menus
For a family dinner or a simple dinner party, I return to Ina’s recipes over and over again. Here are combinations I turn to often, and use when I want guaranteed success and no risk. Some of these recipe pairings were inspired by her, but most grew organically from my own experiences in the kitchen, following her menu planning advice.
For pasta night, Tagliarelle with Truffle Butter, topped with Chicken with Goat Cheese and Basil. Served with Garlic Ciabatta Bread and Arugula with Parmesan, this is one of my all-time favorite Barefoot Contessa meals.
photo by jenn kosar
I learned to make risotto with Ina. To this day, my favorite is the Saffron Risotto with Butternut Squash. When the spring CSA delivers, I make the Spring Green Risotto. Both are lovely with the Scallops Provençal.
In the warmer months, I like my seafood lighter and fresher. The Grilled Tuna Salad and Italian Seafood Salad are perfect on their own when you’re not in the mood for a heavy meal. The Mussels with Saffron Mayonnaise are just right for that extra-special meal in the warmer months, ideally served outside with a salad and a glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc.
When fall hits, I want lentils. Warm French Lentils, in fact, as they are both a delicious side to Grilled Lamb Chops (made with or without the Greek Yogurt Sauce) and an ideal next-over meal strategy. Take them to lunch at work the next day, or serve them for dinner with friends with the Mustard Marinated Flank Steak or the Mustard Roasted Fish and the Green Salad with Creamy Mustard Vinaigrette.
photo by jenn kosar
Dinner in our house is almost always a protein and vegetable, and Ina gives us plenty of inspiring combinations. We love the French Bistro Steaks with Provençal Butter and Parmesan-Roasted Cauliflower just about any night of the week.
For extra special meals, I often turn to beef. My favorite Barefoot Contessa recipes include the Slow Roasted Filet of Beef with Basil Parmesan Mayonnaise, the Filet of Beef Au Poivre, or the Filet of Beef with Gorgonzola Sauce. The Sautéed Wild Mushrooms are delicious with any of these mains, and the Caramelized Shallots are in the running for best side dish ever.
If chicken is your preferred protein, the Lemon Chicken Breasts are always a hit. The Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic are extra special, and the Roast Turkey with Truffle Butter is perfect for the American holiday season. I love them all with the Zucchini with Parmesan and either the Moroccan or Curried Couscous, depending on your guest’s preferences and the season.
photo by foodiesfeed
Feeling inspired, and maybe a little more confident, to host your next gathering? I’m grateful for Ina’s work to make us all a little more comfortable in the kitchen. My hope is my little side project, Food with a View, helps us all a little more. Use these ideas to inspire easy entertaining and simple weeknight meals any time of year.
If you are just getting started with Ina, or looking to purchase a starter book for a loved one, I love Barefoot in Paris, Barefoot Contessa at Home, and Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics as introductions to her style and recipes. You can buy all of Ina’s books on Amazon or your local bookseller, including her latest, Cooking for Jeffrey: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.
What better time than the holidays to get started? For me, this holiday season, it is all about keeping it simple. Next week we’ll add some holiday sparkle with more of Ina’s best tips and my lessons learned over years of holiday hosting and merry-making.
Don’t forget to join us at Smart Meals for Busy Cooks for more holiday planning all throughout the month of November with a group of expert food, money, and lifestyle bloggers.