Date of Publication: 1999
Number of recipes: 94
Photography: Melanie Acevedo
Dedication: “For my adorable husband, Jeffrey, who always encouraged me to do what I loved and who cheerfully ate all those test brownies.”
The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook is the first of Ina Garten’s eleven published cookbooks. When Ina wrote this cookbook, she had recently sold her specialty food store (called Barefoot Contessa) and was looking for her next big adventure. At the urging of a friend, she wrote a book proposal, submitted it to her dream publisher, and it was accepted. The rest is history.
In The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook you will find a telling of her history with the store and how she found herself in the unexpected position of owning and operating a food-based business after years of working as a budget analyst in the White House. You will also find a rich telling of her philosophy of food and fresh ingredients, and why quality matters. She assures the reader that simple food is best, working ahead is smart, and anyone has what it takes to serve delicious food to friends and family. Between the personal narrative, there are plenty of tales from the Barefoot Contessa commercial kitchen, where her team of professionals churned out thousands of muffins, hundreds of pounds of chicken, and gallons of soups and stews on a regular basis.
This cookbook reads less like a personal recipe collection, and more like a guide on how to recreate the beloved tastes of a popular specialty food store in your home kitchen. The recipes are mostly from Barefoot Contessa. The people in the photos are Barefoot Contessa chefs and employees. The stories center around catering gigs, customer favorites, and funny behind-the-scenes antics. This is the book that shows you where Ina came from and why she is so well-respected. It’s an origin story, full of valuable recipes from twenty years in the professional food business. It is less about Ina (although her voice and fingerprint are throughout), and more about the successful business she created. It is a generous sharing of all her secrets, tips, and recipes from the Barefoot Contessa glory days.
The photographs are beautiful, but not every recipe has a photograph. They layout is clean and artful, with attention to detail, but in a manner that invites you to keep turning the pages, to keep reading, to actually execute the mouthwatering recipes in your home. It feels a lot like a first book, particularly in hind sight. When you flip through her entire cookbook library, and then come back to this one, it’s kind of like looking at a high school yearbook. “Oh look, that’s where you started!” There is a nostalgic quality about this book, but it in no way undermines the quality or legitimacy of this book to stand alone, had Ina never written another book.
It is worth noting that the forward is written by Martha Stewart, lending quite an endorsement to Ina’s first published work. Martha and Ina are peers, and Ina worked with Martha for a decade, catering many of Martha’s parties in the Hamptons. I particularly like Martha’s description of Ina. “Bright-eyed and apple-cheeked, Ina was immediately likable.” It is the instant likability that I think causes others to feel so tightly connected to her, whether through the pages of her books, the screen while watching her Food Network program, or (as I imagine) being with her in person. Her casual voice and candor, combined with a frankness based on years of experience, cuts through any potential pretense and draws you in. She is inviting. She is so easy to learn from. She knows what she’s talking about, and she wants you to succeed. Her voice is a perfect mix of grace and guidance.
This book is worth owning if you are a fan of Ina. I would not say it is the most approachable as far as the recipes are concerned, but if you love Ina, you will love this book. In its pages (and particularly in the margin notes) are all of her pillars of cooking that she has repeated over and over for the past twenty years. There is no substitute for fresh lemon juice. Always bring your butter to room temperature. Grate your own parmesan. Garnish a dish with an ingredient found in the dish so people know what to expect. Use Kosher salt. Make it ahead, make it ahead, make it ahead. It is a testament to her timelessness that twenty years later, the basics are still true.
I can remember where I was the first time I was introduced to Ina through her cookbooks. My husband Timm and I were staying with friends in Austin for Easter weekend, and I asked if I could look at some of the cookbooks on the kitchen shelf. I pulled out The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook and was instantly interested.
Without a cell phone or digital camera (this was twenty years ago!) I began to copy down, by hand, onto paper, recipes that I wanted to try. Guacamole. Outrageous Brownies. Coconut Cupcakes. Barbecued Chicken. I still have some of these original recipe pages, in my own handwriting, with notes added over the years and lots of butter spots and smudges of flour.
One of my earliest memories of interacting with her cookbooks is flipping through the pages, longing to create an occasion or reason to cook what I was reading. These recipes made me want to cook, to host a party, to get in my kitchen and figure it out. To this day, I can pick up any of Ina’s cookbooks and feel that same spark of inspiration followed by the need to grab a pencil and make a grocery list because oh my gosh I have to cook this right now! What a gift to her readers. What a gift to me.
When I began reading The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook for the sake of this review, I had a bit of an unexpected emotional response. Twenty or so years ago, when I first received and read this book cover to cover, I don’t remember the specifics of all the words from the different chapter introductions. I remember the food. I remember how I found Ina on Food Network and watched her every move, learning everything I know about cooking from those episodes. I remembered the mechanics coupled with feeling like I was in the kitchen with her, watching, listening, learning.
But when I began reading the actual chapters, all the words she wrote in between the recipes, it overwhelmed me. I discovered, again, how similar our philosophy on food and hospitality are. In a subconscious, deep way, she (along with a lot of other contributing events and factors) planted the seed for what I see every day in my work at home and at Hurley House.
“Food…I soon found out, is about more than dinner. It’s about coming home and being taken care of. It’s about Mom. I actually think that the food our mothers made may not be what we are nostalgic for. It’s more an emotional picture of a mother who was always there, knew what we needed, loved us, let us run free when we wanted to explore. Food is about nurturing: not only physical but also emotional nurturing.”
Her words speak loudly to my heart, shining a spotlight on the true essence of hospitality. It’s never about the food, but it helps if the food is amazing. To know that Ina feels the way I feel about cooking for others somehow makes me feel like we are doing the same work, just in different arenas.
Guacamole, page 50
Grilled Lemon Chicken, page 48
Lam Sausage in Puff Pastry, page 42
Homemade Applesauce, page 155
Roasted Tomato Basil Soup, page 84
Lentil Vegetable Soup, page 80
Cranberry Harvest Muffins, page 216
Coconut Cupcakes, page 175
Curried Couscous, page 94
Gazpacho, page 79
Maple Oatmeal Scone, page 223
Outrageous Brownies, page 172
Sugar Snap Peas with Sesame, page 105