Ah, the Barefoot Contessa. Who among us doesn't long to be a contessa (or count, it just depends), lounging on the beach with sand between our toes, sipping a Pomegranate Cosmopolitan and nibbling on a Savory Palmier? Ina Garten makes it all seem possible, even easy, with her new cookbook Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics.
I should tell you up front, I had never seen one of the Barefoot Contessa books, or even watched the popular television show on the Food Network, until Back to Basics landed in my kitchen. Turns out we have a great deal in common. "I want an easy recipe that I can hopefully make in advance," Ina writes in the opening, "and when friends arrive, I want the house to smell wonderful. (And I wouldn't mind if they thought I was a great cook, too.) That's not too much to ask, is it?" No, Ina, it's not. I want that, too!
Flipping through the pages of the book makes me hungry. The glossy photographs occupy full pages and are so lifelike you think you could take a fork to that pound cake with raspberries or pluck one of those Parmesan and Thyme Crackers right off the plate.
Chapters are divided into logical groupings like Cocktail Hour, Dinner, and Dessert. The first page of each begins with a "10 Things" list offering helpful hints. Ten ways to "Bake like a Pro" leads off the Breakfast chapter. Ten tips to "Set a Table like a Pro" takes you into Vegetables. Just before the comprehensive index you will find a FAQ with Ina section. This seems redundant if you have read the book but I suppose not everyone reads a cookbook like a novel as I do.
For the most part the recipes call for ingredients you already have on hand. Sometimes I feel like I'm gaining weight just by reading the recipe, but the next page redeems with very little added fat.
Although Ina refers to salt as one of her secret weapons, along with lemon and Parmesan, I have to take issue with the amounts called for in the recipes. Salt is a matter of taste, I know, but a newer cook might follow a recipe to the letter and find themselves with an over salted dish.
I felt like I was overdoing the salt when I prepared the Chive Risotto Cakes. The recipe to serve six calls for no less than 3 3/4 teaspoons of salt. I may have expected it to be too salty, therefore it was to me, but two other tasters differed in their opinions. One said maybe a little salty and the other said just right.
The risotto cakes overall were a real hit. Arborio rice is simply boiled until quite soft, which the recipe points out will be the case so you know you haven't made a mistake, then combined with creamy Greek yogurt, plenty of snipped chives and Fontina cheese. I know, it sounds good. But wait for it. Now you form the mixture into patties, give them a little jacket of panko and fry them up in olive oil. Comfort food, one taster called them. I found myself craving more risotto cakes a couple of days later.
You know how some cookbooks have beautiful photographs, but when you make the dish it never looks the same? Not so here. My Chive Risotto Cakes looked just like the picture. So did my Blueberry Streusel Muffins.
That was the first recipe I prepared from Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics. I did cut the recipe in half because my little family of two has no business having twenty muffins hanging around the house. Still, we ended up with a dozen so the neighbors were happy, too.
The Blueberry Streusel Muffins, rich with buttermilk and plenty of butter, baked up with a lovely, tender crumb. They weren't too sweet and the simple cinnamon-laced streusel offered a pleasing crunch. I'm glad I followed the directions to line the muffin tins with paper cups. This isn't something I normally do with muffins but the blueberries would have likely stuck to the pan if I hadn't.
Salt became an issue for me again while whipping up the Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Warm Cider Vinaigrette. Two teaspoons of Kosher salt in the preparation and another dusting as a garnish for four servings? I went with the two teaspoons, half of it went onto the roasting squash and another teaspoon in the salad dressing, but skipped the final addition.
While I enjoyed the combination of ingredients in this salad---maple syrup-roasted squash with dried cranberries, walnuts and Parmesan tossed with arugula---it bordered on too sweet. I ended up adding more arugula than Ina suggested to even out the flavors to suit my taste. The final result looked only similar to the gorgeous photo this time.
My version of the Savory Palmiers possessed not one single photogenic quality to match those on page 42, however. This is the one recipe that just didn't work out for me. The little puffy cocktail snacks were not bad, they just weren't all that good. Using my own homemade pesto along with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts folded into puff pastry, you would think they would be great. The recipe's instructions were clear and even someone who hasn't worked with puff pastry before would have been able to produce some version, photo-ready or not.
I like this book. New cooks will learn helpful techniques like roasting tomatoes or pan-frying fish fillets while seasoned cooks might glean inspiration from the more unusual entries such as the French Chocolate Bark or the deep-dish Baked Blintzes with Fresh Blueberry Sauce.
My only quarrel is the number of dirty dishes that littered my kitchen after cooking up the sample recipes. Washing so many mixing bowls and rolling pins and baking pans interferes with my pampered contessa on the beach fantasy.
Recipe: Chive Risotto Cakes