Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta | Image: Laura Messersmith

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: “Eat Like a Local”

The Set-up: Ina and Jeffrey are in Napa looking for inspiration from local foods.

The Menu: Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta, Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Thyme Roasted Marcona Almonds, Napa Spritz, Basil Gimlet

0:25 – Ina and Jeffrey are starting off the trip with a visit to the St. Helena Farmer’s Market. How did I miss this when we were there last month?!?

1:13 – Ina appears to be relatively incognito, but I can see my fellow superfans in the background just barely resisting the urge to ruin the shot and dart over for a convo with the Contessa.

2:36 – Ina has a master plan for their market visit: see what’s really fresh and delicious and let that guide their lunch menu.

3:07 – The resulting recipe is Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta, which sounds A-mazing. My stomach is growling already – I should know better than to watch Ina when I’m hungry.

4:18 – Thankfully tomato high-season is just about here, which means I won’t have to wait 6 months to make this…

5:39 – Ina’s combining the cherry tomatoes and dressing, and I just realized this is essentially a milder version of bruschetta topping - red wine vinegar instead of balsamic, shallots instead of red onion. Brilliant.

9:24 – Finishing touches on the crostini – toasted pine nuts and a sprinkle of julienned basil leaves. Now for the taste test verdict from Jeffrey: he deems it “fantastic.”

10:20 – After that ringing endorsement Ina is off to Addendum, where Thomas Keller’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken is available for take out.

11:15 – Ooh, we’re getting a how-to from Chef David Cruz. Step 1: Brine the chicken overnight. Step 2: Double coat the chicken in seasoned flour and buttermilk. Step 3: Fry!

12:59 – This is how you know you’re the Barefoot Contessa: your fried chicken is already to go when you arrive and it’s hand-delivered by the chef. Oooh la la.

13:28 – Ina delivers the Buttermilk Fried Chicken to Jeffrey who declares it “delicious!” Ina tries to trap him by asking if it’s the best chicken he’s ever eaten, but J is too wily for that. He says it is, except for the one she makes. Well played, sir.

17:34 – The Garten’s are shaking things up (I’m so sorry) with a visit from local mixologist Jon Gasparini for their own private cocktail class.

18:45 – The bar he’s setting up is pretty amazing, more than just a folding table with a tablecloth thrown over it.

19:07 – Ina is making herself right at home in their rental house garden – nipping a few figs here and a sprig of thyme there. But let’s be honest, who wouldn’t contribute an herb or two to Ina’s recipes?

20:42 – Onward to the Thyme Roasted Marcona Almonds. I am officially obsessed with Marcona almonds ever since I sat in the backyard at our friends’ place in San Jose with a silver dish of salt & pepper seasoned almonds and a glass of sparkling wine. Perfect.

21:35 – Ina always cooks so simply, but most of her food has an East Coast vibe to it (natch) and these recipes are so Californian. I love the adaptation.

25:46 – Jeffrey, you’ve been working too hard, so I got you a surprise: a stranger slinging cocktails in the backyard!

26:13 – I realize I’ve lost your trust with that pun a few minutes ago, but I was quite prescient because now the Gartens really are shaking up the Napa Spritz!

27:24 – Don’t get me wrong, I love a fancy drink, but gently clapping a piece of organic lavender between your palms to “release the oils” is where I draw the line. You’re on notice Gasparini.

28:07 – Next, the Basil Gimlet, complete with more herb clapping. PS: Jeffrey is adorably precise with his attention to direction. He’s clearly putting all of his focus on doing everything juuuust riiight.

29:50 – Two strong cocktails down and the night is young! Why do I think things are about to pop off at the Garten manse? Cheers to Napa!

Final Thoughts:
I’ve been trying to cook more seasonally, but I still always have a recipe in mind when I shop. I need to push myself to be inspired from the ingredients first!

Cocktails are pretty much the hotness these days, although I think the “mixologist” trend might be waning. Probably time to up my game in that department.

Was any one else trying to resist talking like the Californians as they watched this episode?

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:
I can’t pretend that Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta requires extensive culinary skills - isn't that part of it's beauty? - but I did learn something from making this recipe.

Balance – I mentioned this before, but there are really minimal ingredients in this recipe, yet the flavor is incredible. I’m sometimes tempted to add more and more to my recipes, but cooking something really simple like this reminds me that the right balance of texture – creamy cheese, crunchy bread – and flavor – fresh tomatoes, salty feta

Knife Skills – The variety of produce and the varied sizes that are ideal in this recipe - minced garlic, small diced shallots, a julienne on the basil leaves – make this a great opportunity to practice your knife cuts.

Read the Recipe – Even with minimal ingredients I still forgot to toast the pine nuts and sprinkle them on top. Thankfully, the pine nuts aren’t as essential as say, baking powder in a cake, but a good reminder to double check everything and make sure nothing is missing! 

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Almost definitely. This recipe hinges mainly on whether you have a food processor. I used a 6 cup food processor, a liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons, a medium mixing bowl, chef’s knife, serrated utility knife, and medium cutting board. A large wooden spoon and rubber spatula will also be helpful. I cheated a little and used the toaster for the bread, but if you’re doing more than a few pieces then a baking sheet will be a good addition. 

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta | Image: Laura Messersmith

The Verdict:
OMG. The ingredients are so minimal, yet the flavors in Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta are off the charts delicious not that you’d expect anything less from Ina. Definitely get the best grape or cherry tomatoes you can – they’re the star here – and ably supported by the salty tang of the feta. These little crostini are delicious on their own, but are transformed into an amazing meal with the addition of a poached egg and a crumble of bacon. Trust me on this – you definitely want to make this recipe.

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tomato Crostini with Whipped Feta | Image: Laura Messersmith

Napa Anniversary Trip

Napa Valley, California  | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Napa Valley, California | Image: Laura Messersmith

Today Mike and I are celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary – five years ago at this moment I was sitting down to a beautiful breakfast in the dining room of the Fontainebleu Inn giddy with excitement and nerves for the day to come. I can’t actually remember what I ate but I think crispy potatoes were involved, maybe waffles? Let’s hope it was waffles.

After a day filled with joy and lots of dancing we re-packed our bags and flew to San Francisco for a honeymoon trip in Napa. It worked out beautifully that we were in Northern California earlier this month and had a chance to revisit one of my favorite places in the world for an anniversary trip.

There were a handful of spots that stood out five years ago and we found some new places on this trip that have become new favorites. If you have a chance to go I highly recommend putting at least a few of these on your itinerary.

Napa Valley, California  | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Napa Valley, California | Image: Laura Messersmith

Frog's Leap   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Frog's Leap | Image: Laura Messersmith

Frog’s Leap – We had fond memories of sipping wine on the back porch here and had to come back. FL takes a lot of pride in growing grapes and making wine with great respect for the environment, and that feeling of communing with the valley carries through to the tasting experience. A perfect spot to relax, watch the bees buzz, and let the magic of Napa fall over you.

Paraduxx – A new find on this trip and we absolutely fell in love with the wines as evidenced by how difficult it was to choose which ones to bring home. A laid back vibe with really warm, friendly guidance from the tasting room hosts. Who doesn’t want to try a glass (or six) while surrounded by rustling vineyards?

Tamber Bey – The excellent wine and location on Sundance Ranch make Tamber Bey unique, as do the pairings: specially prepared miniature cookies. The combinations are developed by local pastry chef Michelle Romaine and it’s amazing to see in action the way a chardonnay is transformed by lemony shortbread spiked with pink peppercorn. But, I bet I had you at cookies, right?

Tamber Bey   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Tamber Bey | Image: Laura Messersmith

Gott's Roadside (aka Taylor's Refresher)   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Gott's Roadside (aka Taylor's Refresher) | Image: Laura Messersmith

Ad Hoc – This was the first place we had dinner on our honeymoon and the memory of that fried chicken has lived on in our dreams. Definitely an auspicious beginning. The atmosphere is casual, but don’t be fooled – this is a Thomas Keller restaurant and the cooking is top-notch. Ice cream sandwiches for dessert don’t hurt anything either!

Gott’s Roadside (neé Taylor’s Refresher) – Classic roadside food of the type popularized by In N Out and Shake Shack on their respective coasts. We kept it old-school with a cheeseburgers and diet coke. The grassy backyard dotted with red picnic tables and shaded by umbrellas combined with the mid-century vibe make it easy to pretend you’ve been transported into a Beach Boys song.

Oakville Grocery – Another re-visit, but when the food is this good it’s hard to blame us. We made this our lunch stop on the biking day and I was grateful for the miles covered when it came time to choose a sandwich. So many great combinations and delicious treats it’s hard to decide where to start, so here’s a hint: roast turkey with apple jam and pickled red onions.

The Restaurant at Meadowood – Probably the most elegant, beautifully prepared and presented meal I’ve ever eaten. The entire tasting menu is full of whimsical touches and the experience feels like an adventure – who knows what delicious and inventive bite will arrive next? I really can’t overstate the attention to detail in every dish and in the service. Definitely a place for a very special occasion.

Oakville Grocery   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Oakville Grocery | Image: Laura Messersmith

Solage Calistoga   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Solage Calistoga | Image: Laura Messersmith

Stay & Do:
Solage – Is it possible for Napa (a little oasis in and of itself) to be more tranquil? Somehow this boutique hotel in Calistoga manages to distill that peace and amplify it with carefully appointed rooms in a gorgeous setting. Case in point: real milk in the fridge to go with a freshly brewed pot of coffee, from actual grounds. In a world where shelf stable creamers and pods seem standard this alone wins my devotion. I wish we had more time to sample the spa and make better use of the pool, but all the more reason to go back!

Napa Valley Bike Tours – There's an almost 0% chance that I'm going to hit the gym while I'm on vacation. A little ambient exercise is more my speed - a long walk, or in this case a bike ride fit the bill. The valley is easy to navigate, so we did a self-guided tour and NVBT makes it simple and stress-free with helpful maps, wine pick-ups, and great recommendations. It's also a cool way to stop and smell the roses along the way, see the valley from a different perspective.

Solage Calistoga  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Solage Calistoga | Image: Laura Messersmith