As inspiration for more adventurous culinary efforts each week I follow 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: “Impromptu Dinner”
The Set-up: Ina’s friend and creative jack-of-all-trades, Miguel, is in town and she invited him to a spur of the moment dinner Chez Garten.
0:48 – Ina explains that Miguel is in the Hamptons doing research on historic homes for a photo shoot and when he called she just had to invite him to dinner. We don’t see this phone call, but if I were an F.O.I. (that’s Friend of Ina) I would totally hit her up anytime I was within an hour radius. Well played, Miguel.
1:07 – The challenge is, can she make an entire dinner from things she already has in the pantry? I know I can and it takes less than 5 minutes to prepare: cereal!
2:11 – But for real now, first up: dessert. We get a quick how-to on Shortbread Cookie dough before Ina starts rolling them out. Oh, the counter space in that glorious barn kitchen! I’ll give you a minute to revel…
3:16 – Additional perks of being a F.O.I.: introductions to the movers and shakers of the East Hampton Historical Society. We get a few glimpses of Miguel touring the Osborne Jackson House. Spoiler alert! There are old time-y kitchen tools.
4:59 – Now Ina is making a little chocolate glaze for the Shortbread Cookies. In order to get the chocolate to harden to a glossy finish it has to be tempered.
5:36 – Apparently this is an annoying process, so Ina gives us “Tempering for Idiots.” Pro Tip#1: melt part of the shaved (not cubed!) chocolate in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time, stirring in between until it’s just melted. Then add in the remaining chocolate shavings.
6:44 – As she dips the cookies in the chocolate she remarks how it’s nice when they don’t look like they’re straight from a box. One of my favorite things about Ina; she makes a virtue of imperfect, homemade looking food.
11:23 – This meal appears to be 50% entrée, 50% dessert (all good in my book) because now it’s Caramel Pecan Sundae time. Ina toasts the pecans, of course, and then starts the caramel sauce.
12:32 – I am super intimidated by anything that involves boiling sugar but this looks fairly simple. Pro Tip #2: Ina says swirl, don’t stir the sugar and water or it will solidify.
13:19 – Off the heat before adding the cream and vanilla. She says stand back it will “bubble up violently” and she’s right – terrifying. Now it’s okay to stir? Hmm. Caramel sauce will require more research…
13:56 – Back to Miguel for a moment. He’s doing a credible job of feigning interest* in the “original milk paint.” Keep up the good work!
14:08 – Ina claims that everyone has some kind of ice cream in the freezer, which is probably true, but hers is brand new pints of Haagen Dazs and mine is half eaten Edy’s slow churn.
19:13 – Now for the main course: Risotto Primavera. As Ina chops leeks and fennel she tells us that she thinks cooking is hard (Lord help the rest of us, right?) so to make it easier she has a few basic recipes and varies the ingredients to make something totally different. That’s fair I guess.
20:42 – As the leeks and fennel sauté Ina reveals that her “one weakness” is keeping lots of homemade chicken stock in the freezer. Question is: should we believe her? What if her weakness actually “really good vanilla” or “very cold butter”? Probably best to leave that one alone in case she’s bluffing…
21:34 – I need all the help I can get with risotto, so here’s Pro Tip #3: Coating the Arborio rice with the butter and oil keep the risotto from becoming sticky.
22:29 – Ina also shares that she thinks making risotto “therapeutic” at the end of a long day; just standing there and stirring. If I had this dish a little more under control I’d probably agree. Alas, for me it’s stressful!
22:45 – We check in with Miguel again. He compliments the fireplace in the master bedroom and says it will be “perfect for the [alleged] photo shoot.” Fairly sure this is all an elaborate ruse to get dinner out of Ina. Miguel is wily*.
23:21 – Back to Risotto Primavera. Ina tells us that she doesn’t really believe in frozen vegetables, except for peas and asparagus. Convenient, yes? I’m pretty much with her, but I’ll also use corn and green beans. Please don’t judge.
27:16 – Did anyone else notice the glass of white wine on the counter? No wonder cooking risotto is so “therapeutic.”
28:38 – A few finishing touches mainly in the form of CHEESE! Mascarpone and Parmesean for anyone who’s curious.
29:51 – Miguel arrives and pretends this wasn’t his real destination* Ina ushers him in and it’s dinnertime!
*I do not know Miguel and this statement should not be interpreted as fact. I'm just assuming...
I am so not adept at ‘impromptu’ dinners – perhaps my pantry & freezer stocks need a little TLC?
The concept of basic recipes with multiple variations is brilliant!
Ina’s friends have the best jobs – florist, location scout, magazine editor, pastry chef…
Hmm, two rice dishes in a row? Oh, well. Since my first risotto was only semi-successful I thought a second try with Risotto Primavera was in order. I watched Ina very carefully and I think my earlier issues were because I didn’t fully coat the rice in the butter and olive oil, and also added the stock too slowly.
Tip number one, don’t be stingy with the stirring when you first add the rice. The butter coating is important!
My second tip involves a little math. Try this one on: once the leeks, fennel and rice are all in the pot the remaining cooking time should be ~20 minutes. The recipe calls for 4 cups of hot stock total to be added 2 ladles at a time. One ladleful = approx. ½ cup of stock, so each time the stock is added it's about 1 cup. 20 minutes divided by 4 cups of stock means an average of 5 minutes for absorption. If after the first addition of stock it’s taking more or less time than 5 minutes then adjust the flame under the pot (higher or lower) so that your cooking time settles in to that rate. Does that make sense?
The third tip is to taste the rice periodically like you might when cooking pasta. Revolutionary, right? It won’t be fully seasoned yet since the salt, pepper and cheese come later, but you will be able to see how close to ‘al dente’ you are and make adjustments.
Using these guidelines I'm happy to day that my Risotto Primavera turned out much, much better than the Butternut Squash Risotto I made in April. Not mushy at all! Still working on the creaminess, but I think I’m well on the way to “therapeutic” risotto cooking!
Small Kitchen Friendly?
It depends. If you’re going with the Ina method of using frozen veggies, then it can be done with just two pots on the stove. But if you need to blanch fresh asparagus like I did, then you’re up to three pots and a large bowl. Choose your own adventure...
I used a 5 qt dutch oven, two medium sauce pans (one for chicken stock, one for blanching), a medium bowl, and a medium sized cutting board. I also used a chef’s knife, a box grater, a microplane grater, a wooden spatula, and measuring cups & measuring spoons.
I made this on a warm evening this week and the fresh spring-y flavors of the Risotto Primavera are excellent for a summer dinner even though it’s a hot dish. Definitely add the lemon zest and juice to keep it bright and balance out the creaminess of the cheese. This one is a winner, and since the vegetables in the recipe are available year-round I’d still make this in the dead of winter when spring seems far away.