Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, and her cookbooks are already a source of guidance for basic recipes but her show serves as my inspiration for more adventurous culinary efforts. So now that I’ve got the essentials down it’s time to branch out. I’ll choose a recipe from an episode of the Barefoot Contessa to try in my tiny New York kitchen. We’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!
Episode: “Pack and Go Party”
The Set-up: Ina is planning a casual, elegant picnic in the garden for her friends.
0:55 – First things first: dessert, the most important part of the meal. Ina’s making the Ultimate Ginger Cookies - yum.
1:34 – Even though these are ginger cookies the recipe also calls for cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. No weak-tasting cookies for Ina and I wholeheartedly agree – if something is supposed to taste spicy then go for it!
1:48 – Ooh, good trick – in addition to the ground spices, Ina has also minced up crystalized ginger and mixed it into the dough. Normally it’s chocolate or nothing for me, but it’s official, I need to make these cookies.
2:32 – Before the ginger cookies go in the oven a finishing roll in white sugar - a la the snickerdoodle. But, frankly these look a lot better than any snickerdoodle I’ve ever seen.
3:01 – Inspiration has struck! Why not serve the ginger cookies with fresh peaches? That does actually sound pretty good. Count me in, Ina!
3:05 – Ina calls up her friend Barbara Liberman to see if she can stop by the farmstand for peaches. Barbara agrees, but does her one better and offer to get splits of champagne for everyone. Clearly Barbara knows her audience and now I really wish I were going to this picnic.
3:07 – Also, based on the number of horses standing around behind her I’m guessing that Barbara lives on a horse farm. Please don’t tell me if I’m wrong.
7:12 – Now Ina is making Roasted Shrimp Salad with orange zest and a hit of white wine vinegar. I think shrimp is fairly sweet, so something a little tart seems like a good balance.
8:59 – For texture and additional seasoning she’s adding minced red onion, chopped dill, and drained capers. I’m not so sure about this flavor combination, but Ina has never steered me wrong before so I’m willing to trust her on this. Don’t let me down!
9:22 – Over to Pikes Farm Stand to check on Barbara’s progress with the peaches. She’s in luck; they have several bins of ripe fruit which look picture perfect in the afternoon light. Oh, the Hamptons where even the peaches have gorgeous lighting.
10:05 – Shrimp roasting time. Ina says that she got the idea to cook them this way after they started to roast chickens for chicken salad at Barefoot Contessa and found that the meat had better flavor.
10:15 – I am all about things that require almost zero fussing, so roasting things in olive oil, salt, pepper the way Ina taught me has become my go to cooking method. Thank you Ina!
11:43 – Shrimp are out of the oven and have been allowed to cool a little bit. Pro tip #1: slightly warm shrimp will absorb the orange, dill, and caper sauce better.
11:47 – Pro tip #2: add the sauce to the shrimp so that you can adjust the proportions more easily. I hate over-sauced food, so this is a good one to remember!
16:02 – Tabbouleh is in progress and Ina suggests using hot house or English cucumbers since they have a sweeter flavor than traditional cucumbers. I’m not sure I ever noticed the difference, but I do like the smaller seeds and less juicy center, so I’m more than willing to go along with this recommendation.
18:17 – Back to Barbara and her search. This time she’s on the hunt for splits of champagne and manages to find a half dozen bottles at the local wine shop. As Ina says, “Now that’s a party!” to which I say, “Yes, and Amen.”
19:21 – I think ‘bulgur’ drew the short straw - what a terrible name for something that doesn’t look that different from the much cuter sounding ‘couscous’, or exotic and unpronounceable ‘quinoa.’ Poor bulgur.
19:25 – A point in its favor, though, is that it looks really easy to cook. Hot water, lemon juice, salt, pepper and let it sit. That I can totally handle.
20:04 – Ina is a wealth of knowledge! Pro tip #4: Use fresh herbs whenever possible and in this tabbouleh salad it is 100% required. [Stern, but fair.] And, Pro tip #5: making the salad in advance gives the flavors a chance to develop and combine.
24:36 – Ina is filling up the pita pockets with tabbouleh and is putting a giant slice of feta in as well. It looks cool to have such a big piece, but I think I’d prefer some crumbled feta. Maybe I just don’t love feta enough? Where are my priorities?!
25:09 – Picnic packing time and Ina is knocking it out of the park with these cute little orange bags, white paper take out containers, and Barefoot Contessa branded ribbon to tie up the cookie bags. She is not messing around with the presentation.
26:18 – Barbara has arrived! Triumphantly bearing peaches and a bag full of Veuve Clicquot. Am I the only one who noticed that the orange labels match the picnic bags & napkins perfectly? These ladies are gooood.
26:39 – The peaches and champagne have been distributed to the bags and the guests have arrived. This really is a very charming idea - fancy(ish) food & great wine in an informal setting. They’re eating with clear plastic forks!
27:14 – Ina, Jeffrey & Co are popping bottles after which Jeffrey claims this is the best picnic he’s ever been to. I’m inclined to agree with this assessment - they look like they’re having F-U-N.
28:33 – True to form Jeffrey offers to do the (non-existent) dishes and in classic husband logic claims he should get credit for trying to be helpful. Nice try Mr. Garten, Ina may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.
29:15 – Fade out on the picnic and the setting sun.
So much good cooking advice in this episode about getting a dish just right – texture, sauce to food proportion, fresh herbs, flavors improve and develop with time.
I’m dying to have a picnic now – thank goodness the warmer weather seems to be on the way!
I would really love to see this crowd at the end of the night when all that V-C is gone… I bet they get rowdy.
Lessons Learned: Yesterday was a beautiful, sunny day here in New York – perfect for a lighter, summery menu so I decided to make both the Roasted Shrimp Salad and the Tabbouleh & Feta Stuffed Pita. Both recipes call for relatively little cooking and consist more of preparing one base ingredient – the shrimp and the bulgur – and then measuring sauce components, chopping some herbs and a few vegetables. Super, super simple.
Now, I must confess I did forget Pro Tip #2, so my shrimp salad was a little over-sauced for my taste and I also neglected to add the lemon juice, etc. to the bulgur until after it had already been soaking for 10-15 minutes. Luckily, these are both easily corrected mistakes in the future and since the recipes are really forgiving they didn’t make a noticeable difference in the outcome.
Both the Shrimp Salad and the Tabbouleh & Feta Stuffed Pita are both definitely small kitchen friendly recipes. Even making both simultaneously I still only used two large bowls, a sheet pan for roasting the shrimp, a cutting board and a few basic kitchen tools (measuring spoons, spatulas, chef’s knife, microplane zester).
I was really pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the flavors in the shrimp salad. The orange and dill compliment each other nicely and are a lovely balance to the shrimp. Mike particularly liked the contrast of the salty feta with the brightness of the lemon and fresh vegetables in the tabbouleh. He’s a carnivore at heart, so the addition of a protein like grilled lemon chicken would have put this one over the top for him.
A quick note on the colors – the coral, deep pink, red, and bright greens are gorgeous and make these dishes look as appealing as they are tasty. I’d definitely recommend them both for a summer lunch when you want to eat something light, pretty, and satisfying.