Our theme for the month of July is “stunt journalism.” Writers were asked to try something new, take on a challenge, or perform some other interesting feat strictly for the purpose of writing about it.
With characteristic zeal and her ubiquitous singsong voice, Julia Child, the gawky Francophile chef of my heart, implores her faithful home cooks to embrace the mess and eat the mistakes anyway. As long as they’re edible.
Julia is immortalized by the illustrious Meryl Streep in the film Julie and Julia, also starring Amy Adams as a haphazard insurance agent named Julie Powell who embarks on a quest to cook through Julia’s tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Based on Julie’s memoir of the same name, Julie and Julia is a joyful, heartwarming, hunger-pang inducing film that alternates between Julia Child biopic and Julie Powell cooking disasters. It’s a movie I’ve seen dozens of times, and it never gets old.
But this is not a film review.
This is a copycat mission.
I cannot simply steal the premise of Julie Powell’s book and movie franchise. Plus, she already wrote twelve million blog posts about it. (She’s honestly kind of a jerk in real life—read at your own risk.) I must innovate. I will obviously do this by choosing a different chef. Who to choose, who to choose? How about… drumroll please…. the Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten!
The specs for this challenge:
- Duration: one week
- When I cook something more than scrambled eggs or a sandwich, it must be an Ina Garten recipe. Generally, I will make as many of her recipes as possible.
- I must try out new recipes and use ingredients I’ve never cooked with before. (I love to cook and do it often, but I gravitate toward similar dishes and flavors most of the time.)
- In general, I must immerse myself in the #BarefootContessaLifesyle as much as possible. This includes reading cookbooks, watching episodes of the show, following Ina on Insta, and learning about her history and life.
I have a good amount of Ina Garten knowledge. I’ve watched a lot of Food Network in my time, and I already followed her on Instagram before this challenge. She is known in the foodie world for her East Hampton lifestyle, which is exactly what you’d imagine. She uses fancy ingredients, throws a lot of effortless dinner parties, and absolutely adores her husband, Jeffrey. Her favorite words are “elegant” and “simple.” Her entire closet is full of various shades of blue chambray button downs that she wears with the collar popped. I think of her as pretentious and oblivious to the real world of actual people who cook, but also so dedicated to her craft and her aesthetic that you almost can’t dislike her. This leads to many internet parodies. Will she grow on me? What is the real source of my skepticism? Only time will tell.
Recipe 1: Raspberry Crumble Bars
I have secured three dinner guests for this evening, so we’re starting off the week with a three-recipe bang. One problem I already foresee with this project is that there is simply going to be too much food. I am one person. I typically cook two or three dishes each week and then subsist on the leftovers until I can’t stand them anymore. Any extra stomachs I can co-opt for the week will be appreciated.
I know to start with dessert when cooking for a dinner party because you can almost always make it ahead and then reveal it dramatically after dinner. I don’t even need Ina to tell me that. So I bake up these raspberry crumble bars in the morning. (Sidebar: this challenge is graciously brought to you by “I’m a teacher and have free time in the summer!”) They’re fairly straightforward. Make some shortbread. Spread some raspberry jam on it. Sprinkle more shortbread and almonds and granola on the top. Bake. But this is an Ina Garten recipe, so she insists on dropping little pretentious hints throughout the notes and the ingredient list itself. She calls for “good raspberry jam” and also “good granola without dried fruit.” If there’s an Ina-ism to be learned from this challenge, it’s the insistence on “good” ingredients. It’s as if she’s worried that you’ll obtain your ingredients from the dumpster behind Trader Joe’s. I’m very pleased because I just happen to have a hoity-toity jar of jam that someone gave me. I decide to use the granola I already have sitting in the pantry. It’s got dried cranberries in it. Suck it.
Recipe rating: 6/10 chambray shirts. These taste fine. It’s just a raspberry bar. The fruit almost makes them taste healthy? Until you remember the two sticks of butter in the dough.
Recipe 2: Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta
Passive-aggressively fancy ingredients needed:
- good feta
- good olive oil
- freshly squeezed lemon juice
- good red wine vinegar
- ripe heirloom tomatoes
- julienned fresh basil leaves
- diagonal baguette slices
- toasted pine nuts
Hipsters love Ina. She makes expensive things feel “rustic.” This recipe, for instance, requires lots of “good” ingredients as well as “heirloom” things. You must also “julienne” something and purchase pine nuts. I did not purchase them. They are six dollars per nut.
Recipe rating: 10/10 pine nuts. This is straight up delicious, no matter what quality of ingredients you use. It does require a food processor, which my four-people-who-own-lots-of-appliances-equipped-kitchen happens to have. But mix up some feta with cream cheese and lemon, spread it on bread, and top with tomatoes and basil? Heaven.
Recipe 3: Roasted Salmon Tacos
I chose this recipe because a) it sounds delicious and b) it fulfills the rule about using new ingredients. I love salmon and often order it at restaurants, but I’ve never cooked it myself. It seems…expensive? And I never know how to cut or trim fish. First time for everything, right? I have to skin the salmon. I decide not to look up a video of how to do this because I’m lazy. I just go for it. It can’t be that hard, right?
It is quite difficult. I end up wasting a lot of the good stuff, probably. But then I successfully sprinkle some chili powder and lime juice and stuff on it, toss it in the oven, and am rewarded with really delicious, moist salmon. It goes in some tortillas with pickled cabbage and cucumber and mashed avocado with sriracha.
Recipe rating: 9/10 fussy garnishes. These taste fantastic. Diner comments include “Jeffrey would love this” and “You should open your own restaurant.” 9/10 because tacos always seem to easy to make, but actually they end up being fussy because you have to prepare all the toppings and then assemble them and then they are gone in two bites. Also: this needs cilantro. I later learn from the notes on another recipe that Ina hates cilantro. This seems like a character flaw.
Sidebar: Cooking for Jeffrey
In literally almost every episode of The Barefoot Contessa, Ina reveals that she’s making this recipe “as a surprise for Jeffrey when he gets home.” Husband Jeffrey is an omnipresence in the show. He likes certain things. He will be home at any minute. Viewers get the sense that he is lurking outside the house, just waiting for Ina to be squeezing the final lemon or drizzling the last bit of good olive oil on the pasta so that he can burst in the door Dezi Arnez style. He appears at the end of most episodes eager to eat the gold-leaf coated crab cakes or whatever that Ina has made. She is devoted. She watches him, doe-eyed, as he eats. It all prickles against my feminism. The New Yorker, in a very timely article, agrees.
So when one of the cookbooks I conveniently obtained from the library turns out to be called Cooking for Jeffrey, I’m already peeved. The jacket promises “charming stories from Ina and Jeffrey’s many years together,” and I roll my eyes. Can’t wait for lots of stories of Ina spending hours in the kitchen (barefoot, no less) and Jeffrey reaping the benefits. I read Ina’s introduction to the book. She gushes about how much she loves cooking for him, but then hits me with this sentence: “I already loved to cook for Jeffrey, but he helped me realize I could do more with that interest. I often say that he was the first feminist I ever knew; he believed that I could do anything I wanted to do.” It turns out Ina was working as a secretary or something for the government, and Jeffrey encouraged her to quit and do something creative with food. Hm. I need to rethink my assumptions after hearing someone’s narrative? Imagine that. Ina opened a fancy food store in the Hamptons called Barefoot Contessa, and the rest is history. Customers started asking her to write cookbooks with the recipes she made at the store, and now she’s America’s best-selling cookbook author with ten titles under her belt.
Sidebar: What is a Barefoot Contessa?
As I start reading and cooking, I realize that I have no idea what “barefoot contessa” means. It’s just Ina’s title. I’ve never considered it. Barefoot? I mean, I understand what that means. Contessa? I actually have to type this into Google. It’s “an Italian countess.” Is she saying she’s royalty? But wouldn’t a queen or whatever wear shoes? Puzzling. I set this quandary aside for later.
Recipe 4: Lobster Potato Salad
Well, I don’t have to set it aside for long. The notes for this recipe answer my barefoot contessa questions. “The name Barefoot Contessa is about the juxtaposition of elegant and earthy,” Ina says. Aha. A queen who is also down to earth. This makes sense. I think it also justifies my love for boxed wine. Wine = elegant. Box = earthy. Someone buy me a crown.
Anyway, it’s day two and I decide to make lobster potato salad. I’m going on a picnic with a gentleman caller tonight, so this is a good day to make some more recipes and then feed them to someone else. Reasons I choose this recipe:
- I love potato salad.
- My all time favorite chef and food blogger, Deb Perelman from Smitten Kitchen, whom I trust with every ounce of my being, made this salad with Ina Garten! Deb happens to post the old recipe on Facebook at the very same time I’m doing this challenge. What are the odds.
- I have never cooked lobster. It sounds like an adventure. I remember eating it once on a family vacation in Maine, but otherwise this is a completely new ingredient to me.
I head to Meijer for ingredients. I go to the ritzy Meijer in Forest Hills because I need some fancy ingredients for today’s dishes, and they’re more likely to have them. I collect all the produce I’ll need, then venture into the seafood section. There are live lobsters in a tank. That is obviously not happening. Who do you think I am, Julia Child? My plan is to buy some already murdered and butchered lobster. I find these behind the seafood counter, lying on ice. Guess how much they cost? Go ahead, just make a per claw estimate. I know lobster is fancy or whatever. I know. But is a lobster claw worth NINE DOLLARS? Absolutely not. I just can’t do it, Ina. I have no idea how to harvest the meat from that obscenely red and armored claw, and I’m sure I’d need at least three of them to collect any substantial amount. (“If you’re cooking them yourself, 4 or 5 lobsters will yield 1 ½ lbs of lobster meat.”) I decide to go with plan B.
I think this is what they refer to as “the good stuff,” folks.
Recipe rating: 5/10 lobster claws. I don’t care for this. My gentleman friend says it tastes good, but he’s probably just being nice. I find it way too vinegar-y, and there’s no sauce. I don’t want my potato salad to be mostly mayonnaise or anything, but this one just feels naked. Lobster (well… imitation lobster) just tastes like fish, and that’s weird in potato salad. There are leftovers, and I can never bring myself to eat them.
Recipe 5: Tuscan Mashed Chickpeas
One thing I’ve realized about cooking all-Ina: the ingredients repeat themselves. Often. I choose this because it sounds like making your own hummus, which fancy and hip people do, and because I have almost all of the ingredients already. Good olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, fresh lemons, bread… Ina knows what she likes. I buy a ninety-nine cent can of chickpeas, and this probably ends up as one of the more affordable dishes. Basically, you cook up some tomatoes and garlic, then toss ‘em in the food processor with the chickpeas, some parsley, and a bunch of parmesan cheese. Then you spread it on bread or crackers. I will eat most things spread on bread or crackers.
Recipe rating: 8/10 French baguettes. It was almost bland? Probably chef’s error. I always forget to taste as I go. A plus: this is good hot (I tasted it immediately after making it), room temperature (as eaten on the picnic) or cold (as leftovers). If I’m thinking like Ina, this would be a good dinner party appetizer: versatile and make-ahead.
Sidebar: Speaking of Dinner Parties
Ina is the queen of “simple” dinner parties. She hates being stuck in the kitchen during a party because that’s not good hosting, so she focuses on things you can make ahead and offers adages like “When it comes to hors d’oeuvre, I always serve one thing I make and three things I can buy.” As queens do. In her TV episodes, she and Jeffrey are forever having “company” over. Her “good friends” are always dropping in for a perfectly pulled off dinner on the terrace or lunch in the library. Michael is a frequent guest. He’s a florist. He brings flowers. As in, “Hi Ina, thanks for spending all day preparing a four course dinner for us! I brought some daisies.”
But here’s where I really lose her. And the reason I started this project with a fair amount of derision Her friends are almost exclusively middle-aged white people like her and Jeffrey. They all wear nice clothes. They ooo and ahh over the brine of this particular caviar. There are flowers and coordinating cloth napkins and different kinds of wine for each course. The Barefoot Contessa universe begins in East Hampton and ends in Paris, where Ina and Jeffrey spend several weeks each year. Everything is so achingly perfect and upper class and white. It is, as the kids these days say, very bougie. From her Wikipedia page, I learn that Ina is on the East Hampton “Design Review Board,” which I know is in place to keep the “aesthetic” of the neighborhood consistent (gotta keep up those appearances, you know?), but which I imagine is more like the Clybourne Park Improvement Association from A Raisin in the Sun. But also on Wikipedia I find a snippet about Ina’s politics: Democrat, Planned Parenthood advocate, frequently features her gay couple friends as guests on The Barefoot Contessa.
And it strikes me that what’s uncomfortable about all of this is that Ina and I would get along. We’d gush about Paris and complain about Donald Trump and giggle about our sassy gay friends. We’d tsk-tsk the gentrification of Grand Rapids while sipping our bespoke whiskey sours with organic egg whites. If I’m being honest, I think I’m better than Ina. But I’m really just sitting here on my Macbook in a Beatles t-shirt thinking about grad school.
Well that got dark. Let’s keep cooking.
Recipe 6: Chicken Piccaata
It’s day I don’t even know (five?) and I’m alone for dinner. I pick out three recipes that I can halve or that might produce good leftovers. Chicken Piccata requires me to pound out some chicken breasts, which is cathartic. I look up what “piccata” means online and it means “larded.” Ew. I have no idea what this has to do with the dish. It’s just breaded and sautéed chicken with a lemony butter sauce. The sauce is the consistency of water. I’m not sure what I did wrong.
Recipe rating: 6/10 Hamptons pool parties. Edible. Dry.
Recipe 7: Creamy Rosemary Polenta
I’ve enjoyed polenta cakes at a restaurant once but have never made it myself. Turns out it’s really easy. You boil some tasty liquid, then pour in cornmeal and stir it forever. Add cheese and herbs at the end and you have something way more delicious than mashed potatoes (which I find comforting but bland).
Recipe rating: 9/10 sassy gay friends. I over salted.
Recipe 8: Orange-Honey Glazed Carrots
I’m a big carrot fan, but I tend to just eat them raw whenever I have that “I’m bored; let’s eat” feeling. I rarely take the time to cook them, but now that I know to add some honey, orange juice, and ginger to them à la Ina, I’m much more prone to. This recipe also fills that difficult gap I often encounter when menu planning: the simple side dish.
Recipe rating: 10/10 cloth napkins. These no longer taste like vegetables, which I imagine would be great if I had kids. Regardless, they’re quick and yummy.
Sidebar: How Easy is That?!
If Julia’s catchphrase is “never apologize!”, Ina’s is “how easy is that?!” It’s the title of one of her cookbooks. You’ll hear it at least once in every episode of The Barefoot Contessa. And yes, she says it with the interrobang.
Ina trusses a whole chicken. How easy is that?!
Ina makes her own ricotta cheese in under six hours. How easy is that?!
Ina makes tiramisu with her eyes closed. How easy is that?!
Ina’s tarragon plant in the herb garden hasn’t bloomed yet, so she harnesses the power of the sun and generates spontaneous photosynthesis. How easy is that?!
Recipe 9: Lamb Kebabs
I’m on a roll, and I make another dinner for myself the next day, chosen again in the spirit of using new ingredients. I’ve never cooked either of these things. Lamb turns out to be hard to find, even though I go to the fancy grocery store by my house. Among the seven or eight meat cases, lamb occupies one tiny corner, and there are approximately five packages of it. None of them are the “top round lamb” that Ina calls for. But then again, she regularly says things like “have your butcher leave the bones in but cut straight through the chop.” Well, sure, great suggestions. I would, Ina, but that would require me to HAVE A BUTCHER. Sigh. I pick one that is neither the cheapest nor the most expensive option.
Recipe rating: 8/10 Italian Chiantis. The lamb is tough, probably because I don’t have my own butcher.
Recipe 10: Couscous with Pine Nuts
I would conservatively estimate that one third of Ina’s recipes call for pine nuts. As noted earlier, I have simply left them out of recipes because all I know about them is that they are twelve dollars per nut. WE GET IT. YOU’RE RICH. But along with currants (?!) they are the only sort of flavor in this couscous recipe, so I figure I’d better bite the proverbial bullet and just get some. A 2.4 oz. bag turns out to be four dollars. I use the padlock for my gym locker to secure them in my glovebox on the way home. At home, I also investigate the currants, another four-dollar item, which look like small raisins and taste like absolutely nothing.
Recipe rating: 6/10 cold soups. The texture of this is fun, but the taste is not much different than plain rice or unseasoned mashed potatoes. An underwhelming side dish if I ever tasted one.
Recipe 11: Easy Lobster Paella
As a last savory hurrah, I decide to attempt paella. This traditional Spanish dish combines rice, seafood, sausage, chicken, peppers, saffron, alcohol—pretty much the whole kitchen sink (or, if you believe the legend about it, everything in a romantically-inclined man’s pantry and cellar, which he combined to serve to a girl he wanted to impress and called “para ella”—for her). Ina’s version is much less involved than the traditional, so I decide to give it a shot. And I’ve got to use up this pretend lobster somehow.
Saffron, it turns out, is not something one can find at grocery stores in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I try four different stores and then give up. This is probably a bad start because saffron is a fairly key ingredient and gives the paella its signature yellow color. Alas. I also need a specific alcohol called Pernod, which the internet says is an herbal liqueur. This seems specialized, so I make a trip to my favorite fancy liquor store. This is also good because I’m out of contessa-worthy box wine.
I open the Pernod back at home and it smells like my Dutch grandma’s candy cupboard. By “herbal,” the internet meant to say “anise/black licorice flavored.” This seems like a strange thing to put in a rice dish with lobster and kielbasa. But who am I to question Ina?
Recipe rating: 9/10 expensive cheeses. It turns out that a third of a cup of Pernod is almost too much, but it somehow doesn’t ruin the dish. This is really good, and I could almost confidently say “how easy was that?!” when I finished. Also note: halve this if you are cooking for fewer than twelve people. I served three for dinner and all three of us ate leftovers for days.
Recipe 12: Beatty’s Chocolate Cake
The recipe notes say that Michael the florist’s dad created this recipe, but all I know is that it’s delicious. The only pretentious ingredient is “good cocoa powder,” so I use Hershey’s because Ina and I have an understanding now. This cake comes together easily, bakes perfectly, and tastes so much like chocolate. Ina says the secret is the bit of coffee in the batter and frosting. She’s right.
Some founding members of the post calvin and I eat this cake on a deck with comfy furniture and tiki torches and wine and cheese. It’s a magical ending to a satisfying project.
Recipe rating: 10/10 old photographs of Jeffrey
So I think this is where I tell you what I learned about cooking, myself, and how to make the world a better place. No promises on the changing the world part, but here’s what I’ve got.
- Cooking multiple recipes almost every day for a week makes a huge mess. A dishwasher (be it human or machine) is a #blessing.
- “Good” is a relative term. Except, probably, when it comes to lobster.
- Pernod tastes like black licorice and is also subject to the “ouzo effect.” Splash some in your glass, add water, and watch the magic happen. Recommended for porch sipping as the fireflies come out.
- A good apron saves lots of laundry headaches.
- Telling a date that you’re using him as a guinea pig to taste dishes you’ve never made might offend him.
- There’s actually something nice about using physical cookbooks. I usually cook from the internet, but this week there was so much less distraction. Just remember to bookmark the pages you need. (This lesson brought to you by the chocolate frosting now adorning the pages of the Grand Rapids Public Library’s edition of Cooking for Jeffrey.)
- Pine nuts are probably not worth it.
The sentimental stuff:
In the introduction to Cooking for Jeffrey, Ina waxes poetic about how much she loves—wait for it—cooking for Jeffrey. It still grates a bit on my down-with-the-patriarchy nerves, but—you go girl. Third wave feminism and all that. And once I get past the idea that she’s barefoot in the kitchen cooking for her husband, I realize that Ina and I cook for the same reason.
“What Cooking for Jeffrey has taught me sit he power of food,” she writes. “Cooking is one of the great gifts you can give to those you love. It says ‘you’re important enough to me to spend the time and effort to cook for you.’ … When people show up around your table, you create a community of friends who take care of each other, which is, for me, the whole point of cooking.”
I cook because i love people. I don’t always have the words for it, so sometimes a bowl of soup will have to do. Ina’s right—whether it’s your Jeffrey or a housemate or a daughter or a friend from out of town, and whether it’s something as simple as a pan of scrambled eggs or as intricate as beef bourginon, just sitting down to eat is the ultimate unifier. How easy is that?