As inspiration for more adventurous culinary efforts I’m following along with Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, in my tiny New York kitchen. Let’s see if I can keep up with the Contessa!
Episode: “The Cat’s Away”
The Set-up: Jeffrey is leaving for a work trip and Ina has big plans for a card party with her friends.
0:35 – “While the cat’s away the mice do like to have fun…” Truer words.
1:04 – Pro Tip #1: asparagus will naturally snap where the woody part of the stalk ends.
2:28 – Pro Tip #2: scrambled eggs will turn out lighter and fluffier if there is less liquid, so Ina is using six eggs and only 3 tablespoons of half and half. I never knew that, and I think I’m pretty decent at cooking eggs.
3:46 – Pro Tip #3: the protein in eggs gets tough if they’re not cooked over low heat. This one I have down.
4:17 - I can’t tell if making Roasted Asparagus with Scrambled Eggs is meant to be a smoke screen for later shenanigans or a treat since Jeffrey is missing the fun?
5:03 – Jeffrey is definitely suspicious but seems mollified by a delicious breakfast into condoning the nonsense, mission accomplished! In any event he’s been packed off to some conference hotel and is safely out of the way…
6:41 – I know I was teasing about making such a big batch, but it’s actually really smart to make them in advance – the proportions are the same and it saves having to make them one by one. All good in my book.
10:30 – I don’t think she said this explicitly earlier, but the theme for tonight’s dinner is Mexican, so now we’re making Jalapeno Cheddar Cornbread.
11:13 – I love cornbread, but Ina’s right most of the time it’s really dry. Who hasn’t needed a sip of water to help unstick a bite from your throat?
12:22 – Interesting, Ina’s recipe has an unusual step – it calls for letting the mixed batter sit for 20 minutes before baking to let the milk, eggs, butter, etc. absorb into the cornmeal and flour.
13:05 – Onward! Mexican Chicken Soup is next and step number one is roasting the chicken breasts. Bone in, skin on chicken really is kinda tricky to find in grocery stores – I feel like I’ve stumbled on a gold mine when I spot some.
14:54 – The cornbread has finished thinking about what it’s done and is now ready to go into the oven. Ina notes it’s super thick and sticky texture – “you can stand a spoon up in it!”
19:37 – Ina says usually she can only manage chips and microwave popcorn for card parties but that sometimes she goes all out for her friends. Which seemed a little sad until I realized that it’s really good popcorn though.
20:55 – Back to the soup which starts the way all good soups do – sautéing onions, carrots and celery.
21:40 – More delicious Tex-Mex type seasonings – cumin, coriander, jalapenos. Yum.
22:39 – Oh dear, here’s a step I just can’t get behind: strips of flour tortillas to thicken the soup. I can’t stand soggy bread in any form so this will not be happening in my soup.
23:12 – The roasted chicken is out of the oven and now Ina is shredding the cooked meat into the soup to absorb the flavors from the broth.
24:46 – The card sharks have arrived and everyone has a bowl of soup with delicious toppings (cheese, sour cream, crispy tortilla chips). Someone remarks that the Pineapple Margaritas are so good “you can’t taste the alcohol!” I would love to see this group after pitchers #2 and #3.
27:04 – Now Ina’s making Chocolate Orange Fondue for dessert and I can still hear the cackles from the others in the living room
28:27 – The orange comes from zest and Grand Marnier. Just keeping the party going I guess?
29:51 – Ina is giving them “elegant things, like doughnuts!” and strawberries, bananas, pretzels and pound cake to dip into the fondue. Apparently this is “just like the 60s without ‘you-know-what’….”
No one does a theme party quite as elegantly as Ina – not a sombrero or cactus to be found.
Buffet style with everything ready in advance is definitely the way to go for a group. Well played.
I stand by my earlier statement of wishing the cameras would keep rolling – no wonder Jeffrey was concerned about them having too much fun!
I love chili but sometimes I’m in the mood for something a little lighter. Mexican Chicken Soup seemed like a great alternative – still spicy and warming but with more vegetables and lean chicken instead.
I cut the recipe in half since I was only planning for two of us (easy to do) and made one tiny change by adding a can of drained, rinsed cannelloni beans instead of the tortilla strips. You know my feelings on mushy bread-related items and I think the white beans are a solid compliment to the other ingredients and also help thicken the broth a little. Crisis averted.
Since beans seem to absorb a lot of seasoning I increased some of the spices a little to balance them out. Two minced jalapenos - seeds and ribs removed - were enough to make this mildly spicy (Mike added more red pepper flakes to his) if you like it very spicy then I’d add one or two more.
The steps aren’t overly difficult – roasting the chicken first (worth it – don’t skip this step!) then chopping vegetables and measuring spices and components for the broth.
Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes, indeed. I used a sheet pan, my trusty 5-quart Le Creuset french oven, a large cutting board, chef’s knife, a sieve, both dry and liquid measuring cups, and a wooden spoon. That’s all!
As I suspected, Mexican Chicken Soup was a hit. Mike and I both really liked the flavors – tender chicken, warm cumin and coriander – and the leftovers disappeared quickly. Compared with chili this really is a lighter dish that feels more elegant and company appropriate. Perfect for early fall suppers and pairs super well with my Cheddar Chive Cornbread. Give this one a try soon!