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: “Sweet Charity”
The Set-up: Ina donated a lunch to charity and now it’s time to make that $$$ raised worth it.
0:39 – This is one of my all-time favorite episodes thanks to the awesomeness of ‘guest stars’ Mariska Hargitay and Alec Baldwin. Trust me, this is way better than the Mel Brooks dinner and my photography has improved too, so there’s that…
1:01 – Ina admits that she’s under pressure due to the six-figure pile of cash the auction winners paid, but she’s refusing to be fancy (i.e. fois gras and caviar) and is instead making a simple lunch with a luxurious touch.
2:13 – To start she’s serving Chilled Cucumber Soup with Shrimp which seems to involve all the English cucumbers known to man and a few tubs of Greek yogurt. So far so good.
2:52 – We cut away for a minute to see footage of the bidding on Ina’s dinner complete with shocked reactions from Mr. Baldwin as the figure hits $100K. I’m having flashbacks to my non-profit days….
4:07 – Pureeing in batches is my number one, least favorite part of making smooth soups, but I’m glad to see that Ina has to deal with it too just like the rest of us.
4:55 – Now we go to Quail Hill Farm with Alec Baldwin to get vegetables for Ina. Even the guy at the farm stand knows this is a tricky task…
5:14 – I’m glad to see Mr. Baldwin is taking this very seriously – he is out in the field harvesting dill and scallions in his penny loafers. Fresh!
9:22 – Main course time. Ina is making Lobster and Shells and Alec arrives right on cue with the box of vegetables from the farm stand. They agree how much they “love Quail Hill.”
10:56 – Onward with the cooking, which involves cutting the kernels off corn on the cob. Two observations that make me feel better – Ina doesn’t seem overly concerned with getting every last piece of silk off (I get kinda obsessed) and she also has corn kernels flying everywhere.
11:18 – Alec somehow managed to find the most adorable cherry tomatoes on the vine, those little guys are seriously cute and of course the perfect size to stay whole. Nice.
12:34 – Lobster time and once again Ina and I are 100% aligned on not wanting to cook our own lobsters. She also notes that this is the high part in her “high/low” take on entertaining.
13:09 – We go outside for a moment with Mariska who is looking impossibly lovely in a gorgeous sheath dress as she lays out striped napkins for the table setting. These people are getting their money’s worth!
14:37 – Back inside with Ina who is whipping up a dressing for the lobster and shells. Perhaps I should make clear: this is essentially a macaroni salad, but with diced lobster and Alec-harvested produce.
15:08 – Ina finishes up by stirring in the dill and even her most giant bowl is barely up to the task – it is a MASSIVE salad.
20:25 – Last stop: Eton Mess and Ina has a scheme in mind; she’s making the guests assemble their own dessert and then she reveals that the meringues are from a bakery (“There’s absolutely no reason to make them yourself!) If Ina had an evil laugh now would be the time to unveil it…
22:14 – Eton Mess seems to involve a healthy quantity of fresh raspberries and raspberry sauce, so I’m going to look the other way on the meringue incident.
23:53 – The auction winners have arrived and I’m 98% positive that the wife of the guy doing the bidding left him at home and brought all her girlfriends.
27:06 – Cucumber soup garnished with shrimp is finished; time for the Lobster and Shells which Alec points out, ahem, could not have been made without his help. Props are duly given and accepted with humility.
28:19 – Ina is already my hero, but even more so now – she has the guests crushing up their own meringues. Brilliant.
28:52 – Back outside to the dessert table and Ina demonstrates how to assemble Eton Mess by making one for Mariska. When you’re an Emmy-winning actress some special treatment is to be expected.
29:07 – I can’t tell if the ladies are impressed or not, but except for one woman who looks a little peeved they all seem to roll with it. Alec hams it up by making the messiest Mess.
29:46 – Then everyone receives a copy of How Easy Is That?, which coincidently (?) features that exact recipe on the cover and the ladies go back to their normal, non-celebrity lives. Sigh.
I love Ina’s take on high/low entertaining – centering a dinner party on home style classics, or taking something simple and adding a dash of something really special.
I’m fairly sure that if Mike won this lunch for six people I’d ask if just the two of us could have three lunches instead. Maybe one with Jeffrey and one with T.R.? #envelopepusher
Raise your hand if you also want a show where Alec Baldwin runs errands for other famous people. Sarah Jessica Parker’s dry cleaning, library book returns for Bob DeNiro - think about it…
Full disclosure: I spotted the recipe for Lobster and Shells in my copy of How Easy Is That? earlier this summer and but then promptly forgot I wanted to make it until this episode came along and the light bulb went back on. Since I knew my access to sweet corn and good cherry tomatoes was dwindling I finally got my act together and actually tested this dish out.
One Important Note: I cut the recipe detailed here in half since I was only making it for two people and definitely did not need 16 servings. This is an easy one to do that with though since the ingredient amounts can be easily divided in half – one pepper instead of two, etc.
I also made one substitution and used Chobani Greek yogurt (lemon) in the dressing. It’s quickly become one of my favorite tricks when a recipe calls for sour cream and for lemon juice because it lightens up the calories a little and compliment the flavors. Definitely worth trying.
The main skills for this recipe are prepping the vegetables and coordinating the timing of everything. I’m a little slow when it comes to cutting up produce, mainly because I’m really focused on keeping the sizes consistent and also because it’s a little therapeutic (weird I know) so I tend to get in the zone, which doesn’t really lend itself to quickness. That was a long way of saying, do your veggie prep as the water is coming to a boil and try to finish before you add the pasta so that you can work on the sauce while the shells are cooking.
Small Kitchen Friendly?
Mmmm, kinda. For a half-recipe I used a large pot, large cutting board, a medium sized mixing bowl, one small bowl, a chef’s knife, measuring spoons, a liquid measuring cup, a whisk and a large spoon. If you’re making the full recipe then a very large bowl is necessary and everything else is pretty much the same.
I made Lobster and Shells on a warm for mid-September Friday and it was so good. All the flavors of a summer meal on the beach whirled together in a dish that manages to combine all four food groups. We tried it again later in the weekend and the flavors do meld together even better with a little more time in the refrigerator. I’m a little sorry that the season for corn and tomatoes is coming to a close since this is a recipe that makes the most of them, but definitely pin this one for next summer’s picnic ideas – it will be something to look forward to!