Ina Garten is the secret behind so many successful home cooks. Even my own mom relies on the Barefoot Contessa’s books for rock-solid recipes that slip into our repertoire so smoothly we almost forget they were handed down by a Food Network star rather than a distant aunt. (Thanksgiving, for us, is all about her brilliant cranberry cake.)
Garten’s coming to Benaroya Hall Sept. 16, where Marche chef-owner (and Seattle Times contributor) Greg Atkinson will interview her on stage as part of a national tour for her upcoming cookbook, “Foolproof.”
We spoke by phone recently about her cookbook, about her new blog, about what her own kitchen looks like, and about recipes for pets. As always, the multitalented Garten – a White House nuclear budget analyst many years back — was frank, funny, and dedicated to real home cooking rather than flash-in-the-pan tricks.
Garten develops such “foolproof” recipes by testing them as many times as it takes to match the flavors and textures she’s imagining, sometimes 5 times, sometimes 25. Then she prints the recipe out for an assistant who’s a “perfectly good home cook” to see all the ways people might misinterpret what she’s written – she might learn, for example, that she needs to specify cutting carrots on a diagonal, or that simply saying to stick cloves into a turnip in one recipe was not specific enough.
“She had these skewers going out and she had garlic somewhere, and I said ‘What in the world?’ She had confused dry cloves (the spice) with garlic cloves, and she’s trying to get the cloves of garlic into the turnip – it wound up looking something like Sputnik.”
Once those bugs are fixed, Garten makes the dish herself again – not on its own, but as part of a bigger meal, showing her if it’s too time-consuming as part of a real-life meal.
“I feel like cookbooks are where I live. I love doing them, I’m very scientific with them, I love the scientific process of figuring something out like that,” she said.
“What I see with other recipes that drive me crazy is that they are very often done by restaurant chefs, (calling for) half a teaspoon of demiglace or a sheet of gelatin – you can’t find them… One of the tests I always have is, “Can you find this ingredient in Kansas City?”… I think you can go to a perfectly good grocery store and buy perfectly good ingredients and make them taste great, and that’s what I do.”
Here’s an edited, condensed version of our conversation.
Q: Has your cooking changed over all the years you’ve been doing it professionally?
A: It’s pretty stable. I think when I look back at the recipes I wrote 12 years ago, I would like them to have a little more flavor… a little more salt and pepper, a little more seasoning. I’ve noticed over time I always add something at the end before I serve it that gives it a little hit. One of my favorites is orzo with roasted vegetables. Just before I serve it I’ll squeeze some fresh lemon juice onto it, and maybe a little sea salt. It just gives it an extra pop and extra flavor.
Q: What do you make of all the new media options for communicating with fans?
A: You can talk about blogging all you want, but until you’re in the flow you don’t know what it is. I started about 12 weeks ago, and thought ‘This is just what I needed, more work!” It turned out to be so interesting. I wasn’t really prepared for the responses, and it’s just been fantastic. It’s much more interactive than I thought it was.”
Q: How is your TV audience different from your cookbook fans?
“It’s a much broader audience. Some people like to just be hanging out in the kitchen when somebody’s cooking, they don’t want to be following the instructions… The TV for me is a next step. It gives people a broader range of seeing how you actually chop the garlic, if it says ‘2 teaspoons of chopped garlic,’ how chopped is it?”
Q: What is your own home kitchen like?
A: “I’m sitting in it right now, so I can describe it. It’s smaller than you think it is. I have a house with a small kitchen, then next door I have a barn with a big kitchen that I work in…It’s really important to me that the work space is out of the flow of traffic. There’s enough counter space that I can actually work, there’s a classic triangle between the stove, sink, and refrigerator.
Q: How do you keep things from getting cluttered?
A: All the appliances are on the back of the counter against the wall, which leaves another 12 inches of counter space to work on…I don’t have a lot of fancy specialized equipment. I have really good All-Clad pots, I use Le Creuset a lot… I have maybe three sets of white plates.
Q: Is your stand mixer a basic version?
A: Yes, it’s a KitchenAid mixer. I have a Cuisinart, a toaster, and my microwave would shock you, it’s like $99 and has a turn dial from 1 to 10. I like it that it’s really simple. It’s not a lot of digital buttons, it’s basically on-off.
Q: Are you ever tempted by modernist equipment and techniques?
A: Every once in a while I’m tempted to go out and buy the (Big Green) Egg smoker. Bobby Flay’s always raving about it, and I think he’s a fabulous cook, but how many people at home actually have that?
Q: Are there other cookbook authors or food writers that you really enjoy reading?
A: I tend to look for cookbooks (by) people at specialty food stores – like the original one was The Silver Palate. These are recipes where they’ve been tested over and over again, where everyone seems to like them because they’re recipes for, (for example), corn salad that sold really well in the store. I like the Loaves and Fishes cookbook, a specialty store near here in Sagaponack.
Q: What questions do people most commonly have for you when you meet fans?
A: ” ‘Is Jeffrey your real husband or your TV husband?’ ‘The blade in my Cuisinart is broken, where can I get another one?’ ‘What’s your favorite place in Paris?’ They’re all over the place, and it’s just wonderful. ‘Can you write a cookbook for dogs?’ You can’t imagine the questions I get.
Q: Could you write a cookbook for dogs?
A: I only have one dog recipe, and I just blogged about it. It would be a very short one.