Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and I’m making these recipes for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and um, challenges, along the way and we’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!
Episode: “Welcome to Town”
The Set-up: Ina is helping her new employee Lidey throw a housewarming party.
0:37 – Ina heard the word “party” and immediately sprang into action, boiling pots of corn on the cob. Has anyone ever had their boss cater a party for them?
1:24 – The corn is for Corn and Avocado Salad, which sounds like a perfect summery side.
2:01 – Ina recommends using fresh corn on the cob instead of frozen and while I’m all for shortcuts, I agree 100% that even the best packaged corn just doesn’t taste the same.
3:25 – Over to Lidey doing some shopping based on Ina’s Pro Tip #1: get props for the buffet table that are multi-functional (ie. a glass pitcher used as a vase, or kitchen towels for napkins.)
4:32 – Because Ina is a mastermind of new employee on-the-job training the theme of the food is “Local.” That way Lidey will familiarize herself with the local purveyors, including Amber Waves Farm. Brilliant.
5:46 – The Corn and Avocado Salad has been assembled and dressed with a spicy lime-based vinaigrette, and I’m getting a mild Tex Mex-ish vibe from the menu.
9:59 – We get a quick overview of the Roasted Summer Vegetables (bell peppers, zucchini, onions, and fennel) before it’s time to plate them up.
10:20 – Pro-Tip #2: Create a more dramatic platter by grouping each kind of vegetable together in big blocks of color.
11:33 – Ina says it’s better to have more than just the three main dishes on a table, so Lidey is deployed to Cavaniola’s cheese shop in Sag Harbor for supplementary items.
12:18 – While Lidey picks up the cheese she also gets a brief lesson in how to put together a well-balanced cheese board. Pro Tip #3: Select a mix of textures, colors and flavors keeping the options to about 3 or 4 cheeses.
13:29 – Pro Tip #4: Fill in the cheese board with complimentary crackers, dried fruit, and garnish with herbs for color. I personally also like a little dish of honey or preserves, and a small pile of toasted almonds or other nuts. Yum!
14:44 – Onward to the main course and Ina is making Tequila Citrus Chicken on the grill. Naturally the chicken is locally raised at Iacono Farms.
15:02 – Ina confirms my suspicions that this is a Tex Mex oriented meal and with the amount of tequila in the marinade I’m surprised this isn’t entitled “Senor Frog’s Chicken” hello spring break!
19:16 – Chicken is such a tricky thing to cook on the grill – too long and it’s a charred lump, too short and face the risk of an unsavory pink center. Ina says skin side down for 5 minutes, turn and then 10 more minutes. Let’s hope she’s right!
20:57 – Over to Lidey’s to set up for the party and I was seriously bracing myself for some sort of ocean front palace; I’m relieved to discover that her “cottage” actually is a teensy little house.
21:40 – We proceed into our crash-course on Catering 101. First Lesson: Tequila Citrus Chicken looks prettier on a platter when it’s placed on hydrangea leaves and layered with thin slices of lemon.
22:35 – Second Lesson: give the table some height variation by putting some of the platters on over turned bowls. Instant “footed” servers!
27:23 – Third Lesson: don’t try to make everything. Suggest abundance by buying the dessert – cookies, bars, biscotti – and layering different shapes and textures on one plate. Fill in with some strawberries and hydrangea leaves.
28:16 – Lidey seems a little overwhelmed by the whirlwind of Ina’s advice, but manages to remember her three final tasks: light candles, chill wine, unwrap cheese. Apparently she’s supposed to pass this all off as her handy work? Cite your sources, Lidey!
29:42 – The party is underway and after a suitable time of hoovering up the buffet and scheming summer plans Lidey’s friends decide that a toast is in order. Success!
We’ve seen a lot of these entertaining tips before, but I still get overly ambitious so a refresher course is probably necessary.
Is anyone else seriously jealous of Lidey landing a job with the Barefoot Contessa? Be still my heart!
Let’s also admit that Ina totally bogarted this housewarming party by turning it into a professional project. Sorry Lidey, no takeout pizza and bowls of chips for you!
Ina’s Tequila Citrus Chicken is a classic and with the number of variations I found online you could make a new version of citrus marinated chicken everyday for months. Here’s what I learned from the original:
Boneless, Skin-On Chicken – This cut doesn’t exist in any grocery store I’ve ever visited. Skinless, boneless chicken breast is ubiquitous. Whole chicken breasts are a little trickier, but still usually available. This presents two options: see if the butcher counter will de-bone the whole pieces, or attempt to do it yourself. I don’t mind being pretty “hands-on” in the kitchen; a little practice and a sharp knife make the second option do-able if you’re not too squeamish. That said it’s a little groady, so to help Future Me, I’ll often do a few extra, put them in ziplock freezer bags, and label with the date and quantity. (ie. 5/30 - 4 boneless, skin on chicken breasts)
Marinating – One of my constant pitfalls in cooking is defrosting. I’ll have chicken in the freezer (see above), but since I forgot to move it to the fridge it’s still a solid block when I’m ready to cook. I can’t tell you how many “replacement” packages of chicken I’ve bought when failure to plan strikes. This recipe doesn’t exactly solve that problem, but it can at least make defrosting work in your favor. I store my frozen meats in plastic ziplock bags, which makes it easy to mix up the ingredients for the marinade in a measuring cup, add them to the bag, and by the time the chicken is fully defrosted it’s been marinated too. Ta-dah! Turn the bag over periodically to make sure the chicken has even contact with the marinade.
Grilling – Since I’m cooking in an apartment I used my cast iron grill pan instead of a Weber. Just like getting the coals hot on a regular grill, I pre-heated the pan over medium-high heat and brushed it generously with vegetable oil before putting the chicken on. Skin side down first, on the diagonal if you want those cool looking grill marks, then turn to the meat side. When it's done it should be fairly easy to turn and won't stick very much when it’s time to come off.
Cooking Time – Ina’s time was about right, but since I had limited space I put the larger pieces on first, then finished them in the oven on 350 degrees while the second batch cooked. Use a meat thermometer to save your sanity.
Small Kitchen Friendly?
Yes, but make sure that kitchen is well ventilated! I used a double-burner cast iron grill pan (specifically this one from Lodge), a chef’s knife, medium cutting board, liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons, and sturdy long-handled tongs. A ziplock bag inside a flat bottomed food storage container, or a non-reactive dish will protect your refrigerator from contamination and make it easy to flip and ensure even marinating.
I made Tequila Citrus Chicken for Mike and I as a weeknight dinner and there’s a lot to recommend it. First, the hands-on cooking time adds up to about 30 minutes if you have to grill in batches, even less if you have plenty of grill space. Second, the flavor is bright and spicy – perfect for summer. Third – it can be served hot, cold, whole, diced in a salad, or sliced in strips for a taco, which makes this the sort of dish where extras are definitely welcome. Despite the heavy dose of cayenne and jalapenos it’s not overly spicy and the base of tequila and lime juice make it bright, which balances nicely against the smoky bitterness the grill adds. A solid base for many many summer dinners.