The Barefoot Contessa, My Mentor

Growing up, I never learned to cook. Anything. I remember once trying to bake a cake (from a box) as a surprise. And I yanked it out of the oven early to save the surprise and tried to frost it (from a can) while steaming hot. It was nothing but a hot mess.

Fast forward to young adulthood and life just after college. I tried to teach myself how to cook when I could find time between commuting and working. I read Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines and started collecting Martha Stewart cookbooks. Those were hard cooking years ….

At some point shortly after my 3rd child was born, I came across, “the barefoot contessa cookbook.” I think it was a referral from Martha Stewart. Phew.

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Compared to what I’d been trying to cook out of Gourmet and Martha Stewart, these recipes looked completely different. They had fewer and simpler ingredients, fewer steps, and basic equipment. There were pictures to accompany most recipes and the food looked comfortable and comforting. Not like you were having the Queen over for dinner.

So, with Ina Garten as my mentor (“Ina” as I now refer to her), I went through the original “the barefoot contessa cookbook,” and taught myself to cook. In general Ina’s recipes are well-tested and simple but provide surprisingly superior results. I was worried originally that the food would be bland or boring. But it wasn’t. And although I wasn’t a fan of every dish, there were some I absolutely LOVED.

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Like the Grilled Tuna Salad Nicoise. As with all recipes, over time I tweak them to our personal tastes – here exchanging grilled fresh ahi tuna with Italian canned tuna packed in oil and boiled potatoes for the french potato salad.

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Ina’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe I’ve adapted by dry brining the chicken for 24 hours before roasting with the lemons and garlic but without the onion.

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A summer staple is Ina’s Barbecue Sauce. I change nothing about her recipe. Just double it at the beginning of the summer and freeze in portioned containers. My family cannot get enough of it.

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A simple technique I learned from this book was roasting vegetables in the oven. You can roast virtually anything. Here I roasted carrots in olive oil, salt and pepper then sprinkled with fresh flat leaf parsley when done, though many herbs would suffice. Now, this seems almost too simple to even be included as a recipe in a book but back when I was learning, it was a revelation!

As I cooked through this book, I began a rating system so I would remember if I liked or didn’t like a certain dish. “Yes” in sharpie across the top of the page meant “make this again, it’s worth it” and “no” meant, well, “don’t.” Pretty simple.

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Of the 87 recipes in “the barefoot contessa cookbook,” I completed 72 or 83%. Not really a success if I wanted to try everything in the book, but actually after having tried a few of the desserts, I gave up on them. Two of the 4 I tried were time consuming and not great. So I decided to focus on the rest of the book instead, making 68 of the 71 non-dessert recipes or 96%. Not bad for a beginner. (Is it obvious that I am an accountant?)

Now, almost 15 years later I still fall back sometimes on the tried and true recipes in this book. Some favorites include Ina’s recipes for Hummus, Guacamole, Lentil Vegetable Soup, Provencal Potato Salad, Szechuan Noodle Salad, Grilled Vegetable Platter and her Homemade Granola. Her “Platters” for fresh fruit, country desserts, fruit and cheese and crudite with dip have been put to use time and again.

I have since collected every Ina Garten cookbook, more out of loyalty than necessity, and another almost 300 cookbooks of many varieties. They are an obsession and my favorite thing to read! I completed a concentrated culinary school program several years ago and continue to study on my own through books, magazines, a wealth of information on the internet, travel and occasional classes. But my first love will always be this very special book, “the barefoot contessa cookbook,” that taught me that I could cook and that it wasn’t scary. Thanks, Ina.

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