My favorite Food Channel personality is Ina Garten, “The Barefoot Contessa.” Wikipedia tells us that the name, “Barefoot Contessa” came from a gourmet store she owned for many years, which apparently was named after the 1954 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner. Still, I find the name intriguing. Ina Garten does not appear on camera to be “barefoot in the kitchen.” Wikipedia contains no reference to her lineage to say if she is descended from nobility. Frankly, I don’t care, because for me she is culinary royalty. Watching her show is the televisual equivalent of reading a Jane Austen novel in which you are transported to a romantic world where everything is beautiful and all turns out well in the end.
If you haven’t seen the show, it is set in Ina’s (I like to think that I can call her Ina) own home in
. The house is a classic cottage, surrounded by lovely gardens. Ina cooks in a dream kitchen, sparkling clean and filled with light. Her steel pans and copper pots are spotless. She is self taught! This is amazing considering that she cooks mostly from the French repertoire, making each dish seem so simple to prepare. Luscious and flavorful. She picks fresh herbs from her garden. She takes us on little trips to the local bakery or butcher shop to buy the freshest ingredients selected especially for the meal she is preparing. She usually stops at the local florist to carefully pick out a gorgeous bouquet for the table. Her table setting will be perfect and she will choose every little detail with love. East Hampton, New York
She clearly loves to cook. This is evident from her happy, unflustered demeanor and soothing voice as well as her pleasant, plump face and generous figure. She wears crisp, oversized shirts that are very flattering for a bigger girl – I think they are the no-iron variety – she always looks so polished. This alone makes her my hero. Ken said to me once when I was whining about having difficulty finding clothes that fit my expanding figure that he thought I would look good in Ina Garten-esque garb. I agreed, but try to find those shirts! My shirts are always rumpled. The ones I buy have more of a Lands End quality than the more Parisian flair that Ina accomplishes.
Anyway, what I especially love is the warmth with which she talks about the guests who “will really enjoy” what she plans to serve them. Her friend, Edwina, will be coming over and Edwina really loves some ingredient that Ina will cook with such affection for her friend. And too, her shows frequently revolve around a special dinner she is preparing — something wonderful for Jeffrey, her husband. Lucky Jeffrey, he will sit down with her at the end of the show to a meal set on a table with glowing candles, a perfectly selected wine and a beautiful floral centerpiece (a tip Ina shares is to put together several different varieties all in the same color, just simply arranged in Parisian style in a glass bowl.) They will lean toward each other, grasp hands and have a smoochy kiss. The food will remind them both of their last romantic trip to
. The perfect end to another Jane Austen-ish episode. Paris
Yes, it’s true. I aspire to emulate Ina Garten. I love the way she cooks because I’m convinced it’s close to the way I cook. In my mind, it seems that she doesn’t really follow recipes. Sure, she uses measuring cups and refers to “a cup of this” or a “tablespoon of that” but I can tell that this is only for TV and really she does most of it by sense and memory. I often take notes about what Ina does while I watch and then try it out.
Actually I get into trouble with recipes. I have never been good with numbers or following instructions, so mostly I cook like I think Ina does – by my senses. Occasionally, I’ll see something appealing in a magazine or the newspaper food section and give a new recipe a whirl.
This is where my Barefoot Contessa fantasy ends. A good example is the Baked Ziti with Summer Vegetables recipe I tried last week. Ken (my very own “Jeffrey”) and I sat down in the dining room (we always eat in the dining room) but I hadn’t lit any candles and there was no fresh bouquet of flowers. The lap top and a few bills occupied the far end of the table. The napkins matched, but that’s about all you could say about the table setting. Still, I was optimistic about this new dish with ricotta and low fat mozzarella, pasta and summer squashes. I found it in “Cooking Light” magazine and thought, “Wow! Two types of cheese and it still makes it into “Cooking Light!?” That’s got to be a good recipe!”
Ken’s reaction told me differently.
“Don’t like it?” I asked.
“It’s o.k. Not as good as what you usually make.”
“But I got it from a recipe.”
“That explains it.”
“Aw, c’mon. It’s not that bad.”
“It’s not that good either. Do you like it?”
“Well, no, not that much I guess.”
“I didn’t think so.”
That meal ended with a ceremonial ripping up of the recipe. This ritual has been performed a few times over the years. It usually follows a meal disaster – although I am proud to say there have been very few of these.
The lesson here is – well, let’s see. There are several: stick to what you do best the way that you do it. Buy no-iron shirts. And maybe things aren’t so perfect at Ina and Jeffrey’s EVERY night either, but it’s worth trying. Always serve food with love, even if you follow recipes. And let your watching of The Barefoot Contessa be a guilty pleasure of the Jane Austen novel variety.