It should come as no surprise that Ina Garten charmed the heck out of a sold-out audience this month at the State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.
The earthy/elegant star of the Food Network’s long-running hit series “The Barefoot Contessa” is also the author of 10 bestselling cookbooks, including her just-released “Cooking for Jeffrey” (Clarkson/Potter, $35), a collection of recipes that she loves to cook for her husband of nearly 48 years, Jeffrey Garten.
I was fortunate enough to share the stage with Garten that evening. In this excerpt from our conversation, she talks about her beloved Paris, the ins and outs of Thanksgiving dinner and the joys of Hellmann’s mayonnaise.
Q: You write about what you describe as “the power of food.” What does that mean to you?
A: When you cook, everybody shows up. Everybody wants a home-cooked dinner — at least, that’s my experience. I always serve dinner in the kitchen, so that everybody is kind of a part of it. Somebody serves wine, I’m carving the chicken, someone is taking the plates out. You’re all part of it, together. That’s where you create community for each other, where you really talk and spend time caring about each other. To me, that’s what cooking is all about. It’s about making people feel warm and comfortable. I never invite somebody I don’t love, because cooking is hard. You want to cook for people you love.
Q: How are your books related to your television show? Does one medium impact the other?
A: Totally. A lot of people on Food Network see themselves as Food Network stars, and they write cookbooks after they do the show. For me, the cookbooks are what I do. Cooking is not easy for me, and I’m assuming that for somebody who hasn’t been doing it professionally for 30 years that it’s even less easy. With the books, I want you to be able to look at the photograph and say, “That looks delicious,” and look at the recipe and say, “I can actually make that, and I can find the ingredients at the grocery store.” To me, the show is the next step in that teaching part of it. It really gets to the nuts and bolts of cooking. So the cookbooks come first, and the shows come from the cookbooks.
Q: Your recipes are famously foolproof. What’s your process?
A: We work really hard at that. If I went to the trouble to make a recipe and then it didn’t work, I’d be really annoyed. I’ll work with a recipe over and over again, until I get it exactly the way I want it. Sometimes that’s like 25 times. Then I take the printed page and hand it to my assistant, Barbara, and I say, “Make it.” And then I watch her, and I learn. Then I serve it at a party. It’s one thing to make a tarragon shrimp salad and that’s all you have to do all day. But for a party, you have to make three or four things, so if it’s too complicated to make as a part of a menu, then it doesn’t make it into the book.
Q: Are you a fan of Thanksgiving?
A: It’s my favorite holiday, because it’s a food holiday. All of our best friends come, with their children and their grandchildren, and I make Thanksgiving for everybody. It’s the best. Doesn’t everybody love Thanksgiving?
Q: Has your Thanksgiving dinner remained the same, or does it evolve from year to year?
A: It evolves, because in each book I have a better, easier way to make turkey. The turkey in “Make it Ahead” (Garten’s 2014 cookbook) is really my go-to turkey now. You roast the turkey earlier in the day, and make the gravy ahead. Then, on a big ovenproof platter, you put the gravy on the bottom, you slice the turkey and you just leave it on the counter. Then before everyone arrives, you throw it in the oven and reheat it. Because the gravy is underneath the turkey, it’s not only moister than any other turkey, but it also stays hot. It’s absolutely my favorite turkey now.
Q: Any advice for first-time Thanksgiving hosts?
A: Keep it really simple. First, everybody gets obsessed about the turkey: Am I going to fry it? Am I going to brine it? Really, it’s just like a big chicken. Don’t make yourself crazy. Just roast it. Keep it simple. It’s really about the sides, anyway. Make things two days before, and a day before. Plan it out so you have time to make mistakes.
Q: That keep-it-simple wisdom applies to novice cooks for the other 364 days a year, right?
A: Master a few recipes. Don’t try to make a million things. If you know how to make a roast chicken, you can make a roast turkey or a roast duck. If you know how to make a risotto, you can make many risottos. Pick a recipe, learn the process, and you can make many different meals.
Q: Do you have a suggestion or two for Thanksgiving guests?
A: Bring something that the host can enjoy at breakfast, or some good coffee, or a box of chocolates they can pass around after the meal. Don’t ever bring something that has to be served at the meal, unless the host or hostess has asked for it. I’m always afraid that if you bring a raspberry cheesecake — and they’ve made something for dessert that’s good but not great — then everyone is going crazy for your raspberry cheesecake, and that’s horrible for the hostess. It’s rude.
Q: How often do you and Jeffrey find yourself in Paris?
A: Twice a year for two weeks, at Christmas and in May, and whenever we can sneak away otherwise. Someone once described it as shutting down the hard drive and rebooting. It’s great. There’s a market nearby. We go and buy ingredients, and I cook. We go for long walks. It’s wonderful.
Q: What are three must-do activities for those visiting Paris?
A: Have a picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens. Take a long walk along the Seine when the sun is setting. And visit the Rodin Museum. It’s wonderful.
Q: What are five kitchen gadgets that you can’t live without?
A: What I’ll say is that I don’t have a lot of kitchen gadgets. They tend to get piled up in the drawer, and you can’t find them. You don’t need a pasta maker that you’ll use once and then put in a cabinet. I have a stack of half-sheet pans. You need really good knives. And good pots and pans. If you can’t afford expensive ones, go to a restaurant supply store and get inexpensive ones, then eventually replace them with All-Clad or Le Creuset. And probably a food processor.
You can make so many things with those few things.
Putting the Barefoot Contessa to the test
It was fun to play a quick round of word association with Ina Garten. Here are her thoughts on ...
Butter: “It makes everything taste better. When you open my refrigerator door, there’s like 40 pounds of butter.”
Hellmann’s: “Forget everything else. You don’t need to make your own mayonnaise. With mayonnaise, you whisk in some white wine, or some kind of vinegar, and it makes a great sauce.”
Sauternes: “My favorite thing in the world. Sauternes and apple tart are my two favorite things together.”
Le Creuset: “It’s so good for cooking. It’s heavy, and it lasts a lifetime if you take care of it.”
Jeffrey: “The love of my life. I’m very lucky that I get to live with him. He’s an inspiration, all the time.”