The popular and prolific Barefoot Contessa, a.k.a Ina Garten, was on tap for the first meeting after our summer break. Garten has several titles published over the past ten or twelve years, and the one we chose is How Easy Is That? In general there was a lot of enthusiasm for this cookbook; recipes were often familiar, but with an interesting, flavorful twist. And many were, in fact, quite easy!
The size and shape of this book made it a pleasure to use; pages stayed open on the counter and every recipe was accompanied by a luscious photograph. Many recipes were on one page, which eliminates tedious flipping; and even most that were on two pages were on two facing pages, again avoiding that annoying back-and-forth. This may be a small detail, but it’s much appreciated by a cook with messy hands! All of Garten’s cookbooks have this same format, so it’s obvious she and her publisher have worked to develop a layout that is both practical and pretty.
But let’s get into the kitchen and see what we cooked up! Starting at the beginning, the roasted figs & prosciutto were quick to make and delicious; but most people focused on the main dishes and sides. Jeffrey’s roast chicken was “really good,” as was the panko-crusted salmon. However the roasted salmon with green herbs didn’t work out so well; the fresh herbs burned in the hot (425 degree) oven and were charred instead of the pretty green shown in the photo. Warm French lentils were deliciously mustard-y; the spicy turkey meatballs & spaghetti were good, but not a whole lot better than any other meatball. The rich beef barley soup used a less-common ingredient, oxtails, to boost the beefy flavor. This technique did work; but the oxtails were not inexpensive, as the recipe’s headnote claimed– and so that recipe isn’t a keeper! The lobster & shells pasta salad was flavorful with lemon and dill, while the easy Parmesan risotto was a snap to make in the oven, and a good introduction to a dish often avoided because of its typically fussy stovetop preparation. Other side dishes we liked were the garlic-roasted cauliflower (“very tasty, but it became blah after a couple of days in the fridge”), the scalloped tomatoes (“so good!”), and the tomatoes roasted with pesto (ditto– is there a trend here?). But, the roasted butternut squash did not live up to expectations; it was just plain old cooked squash! In the dessert category, the easy cranberry & apple cake was tender, fruity, and delicious (I can personally attest to this!), and the fresh peach cake was equally enjoyable.
There were a few quirks that we noticed. Many recipes called for what seemed like an excessive amount of salt, though certainly this is easily adjusted. We wished that some recipes gave alternate measurements, for instance, how much breadcrumbs result from “3 cups of cubed bread”? What is the weight of 1/2 cup of grated cheese (in order to know how much to buy)? Garten also repeatedly lists “good” olive oil as an ingredient. What other type would anyone use?? A few people complained that, despite assertions to the contrary in the introduction, they had to buy specialty ingredients that they only used a bit of, and were then stuck finding another use for.
These were minor quibbles, though, and most people thoroughly enjoyed their journey through Contessa-land. This was reflected in the voting, where most gave it the top rating: 5 chef’s hats. And for Barefoot Contessa devotees, she has a new book coming out on October 25: Cooking for Jeffrey: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.
Our next meeting will be on Friday October 28 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. This month’s title is A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage. All are welcome to join us!