Thursday, April 19, 2007

As Bechamel is Mother Sauce To Mornay: Ina Is Mother Cook To Us All

Barefoot Contessa - Ina Garten

Comforting and Elegant Dinner

Mac and Cheese
Peach Raspberry Shortcakes
Radishes with Butter and Salt

To get the recipes:
Click here

Ina's making a casual informal meal for Greg who's moving. I hope he got his exercise hauling furniture around, before he eats what she has planned for him. The menu comprises everyday dishes "with the volume turned up". In the Contessa's case, that usually means so much butter and cheese that the Southampton cows are thinking of going on strike.

She teaches us how to make a bechamel sauce. I'm reminded of when I instructed (or thought I had) my then youngish daughter and her friend to finish the bechamel I was making. It was for a deluxe version of Macaroni and Cheese (sort of like Ina's recipe in this show). I had cooked the flour and butter (always 3 minutes on the lowest heat possible - no matter what any recipe tells you) and I had added the milk. I just needed the girls to bring it to the boil and cook it until thick and add the cheese. Then they had the simple task of mixing it with the cooked pasta and putting in the greased dish and into the oven.

I came home less than an hour later and looked in the oven. I've never seen anything like it. I saw cooked pasta swimming in a quart of milk with grated cheese on top. They apparently had not bothered to cook the bechamel at all and just threw the ingredients together. I can't remember what happened to that meal, but I can't imagine it was eaten. What really struck me was how little people know about cooking, even my own daughter who lived in a house where all I do is cook all day and she still had no clue how to make a bechamel. (I guess it's not that different from my own mother, who could sew, knit or crochet anything. I can sew buttons on, but that's about it.)

Ina makes her white sauce with "lots of good cheese" - OVER ONE POUND of cheddar and Swiss gruyere! I love gruyere. So nutty. She grates it instantly in the processor. The amount she's using completely fills her industrial-sized food processor! I didn't really think she needed to spend the time telling us how quickly the food processor grates cheese. I wish she had talked about the bechamel longer and I could have hoped that my now-grown daughter was listening. She adds the cheese to the white sauce, (thus turning the bechamel into a mornay sauce...that's for my daughter's benefit). Ina shares with us, "In my experience, everyone loves it and eats alot. So it really is just macaroni and cheese, but for a party." Yowza!!

She tops it with slices of tomato (very attractive touch) and bread crumbs, which have been saut├ęd in butter. Here's a useful tip - cut tomatoes with a bread knife. That's a good idea, because most of us aren't disciplined enough to sharpen our knives before each and every time we use them. Into the oven at 375 deg. F for 30 minutes.

For the shortcakes, Ina points out that the butter must be COLD, when you mix it with the dry ingredients. You should still see large pea-sized pieces of butter. Ina adds eggs and cream to make a beautiful, but wet and sticky dough. Flour (alot) a board or counter (stone is best, she tells us). She remarks that the shortcakes should be made early to give you time to clean the flour off yourself...and every kitchen surface. I love Ina.

She pats the dough (not even rolls it) into a 3/4 inch thickness and then cuts it into rounds with a fluted cutter. Hers is the standard 2 3/4 inch size. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment. You know me, I never vote for parchment. Foil gets my support. She paints them with an egg wash. Remember this proportion - l egg to 1 tablespoon of liquid. In all of her experience, she's never found a difference in whatever liquid you use. Water, milk or cream are all fine. I always use milk or cream in the egg wash for the top crust of a fruit pie, but use whatever you wish here. They're baked for 20 to 25 minutes at 400 deg. F.

Allison - I don't know her, but she seems nice enough - is dispatched to get the fruit and arugula and apparently the olive oil. Ina told her to squeeze and sniff the peaches for the best ones. I hope Ina doesn't get her friend arrested for mistreating the fruit.

Ina moves on to the radish course. She tells us that radishes and butter on bread are a classic French schoolchild's after-school snack. (Frankly, I'd rather come from a family that serves pain au chocolat, but maybe that's just me. Who wouldn't want a nice radish after a hard day at school?)

She bakes slices of bread. Here's a tiny tip, but one that is all Barefoot. Place the bread on a rack. Why is that so smart? Because both sides of the bread will get toasted evenly !!! Michael never told us that. Giada never mentioned it. (Did they? If they did, I'd like the opportunity to apologize in person...especially to MC.)

Our warm hostess mixes unsalted butter (she wants to control the level of salt) with scallions, parsley, celery and salt, and a squeeze of lemon juice. The recipe also says dill, but I don't recall her adding that. Whatever. She looks at her radishes with full bushy tops and ponders how to serve them. "How about radishes sprinkled with salt on a platter with the bread slices spread with butter?" Ok, but how about a little suggestion? How about slicing most of the radishes and putting them ON the buttered bread, leaving a few for garnish. I just don't see how they can get eaten together with the bread, while the tops are still attached. You'd keep tickling yourself every time you took a bite. I guess her idea is that you grab a radish (by the top), dip it in salt (fancy French Fleur de Sel), bite it and then cram a piece of buttered toast in. You know your own crowd. Pick how to plate it best for them.

The friends have arrived at peripatetic Greg's house. Ina's in the kitchen readying "peppery" arugula to serve with the mac and cheese. That gets dressed with a simple olive oil and Champagne vinegar. I was kind of hoping she was going to what zee Frensh do. Coat the leaves gently with olive oil and salt and then toss with the vinegar. Ah, but she has a plan. She mixes the vinaigrette in the bottom of the salad bowl. Then she places the arugula on top to await its final tossing. Smart. Allison gets instructions for putting together the shortcakes.

They love dinner. Who wouldn't? And Ina kindly gives Allison, who did nothing other than assemble the shortcakes, the credit for dessert. Our Contessa is nothing, if not gracious.

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