Monday, September 17, 2007

It's No Mystery Why We Love Ina

The Barefoot Contessa with Ina Garten

Mystery Guest
Blini with Smoked Salmon
Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup
Parmesan Chicken

To get the recipes:
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Wow, Susan Stroman, the director, is coming to dinner. "My first rule of entertaining is to get as much done (in advance) as possible." To that end, Ina is making a cream of mushroom soup, that can be made completely in advance.

She removes the stems from crimini, shitake and portabellos mushrooms and is going to use them to make stock for her soup. She chops the stems and adds them to the pot with onions, carrots and fresh thyme. Ina cooks them for 10 to 15 minutes in butter and oil or until nicely caramelized. This is a good way to clean out your vegetable drawer, she says. Just use whatever you have, as long as it will go well in the stock. Don't use broccoli, she laughs. Yeah, Contessa, I agree. That would be a real giggle.

Ina prepares her leeks properly, which means cutting the tops off at an angle in the shape of a pencil point. Then she cuts them in half lengthwise and rinses them really well under running water to get out any dirt trapped between the layers.

She chops them and cooks them in butter and oil (in a separate pot from the mushrooms) for 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, she adds 6 cups of water to the mushrooms and brings it up to a simmer. That will cook uncovered for about 20 minutes. (In general, vegetable stocks cook for a much shorter time than chicken or beef, because after 20 to 30 minutes, you've gotten all there is to get out of the vegetables.)

Ina sets about arranging her table. She likes to keep things simple to let the food speak for itself. She puts LOTS of pears on a platter to serve with cheese after the meal.

Back in the kitchen, she slices up the mushroom caps and adds them to the pan with the leeks and butter to cook for 10 minutes. The stock is ready to be strained and she presses every last bit of goodness from it.

Ina stirs in 1/4 cup of flour to the mushrooms and cooks for a minute. (In keeping with my spice rule, I also cook flour on the lowest heat possible for 3 minutes.) She pours in 1 cup of white wine, which is so clever, to get up all those delicious bits on the bottom of the pan. Then she adds fresh chopped thyme and the stock, made up to 4 1/2 cups of liquid with water. She brings it to a simmer and cooks it for 15 minutes. The final additions are some chopped parsley and, because this is the Barefoot Contessa, after all, 1 cup of cream AND 1 cup of half and half.

We Barefoot Aficionados know exactly what to do when we see that kind of richness in her recipes. We defend her right to write that in, but NEVER would we actually add that much cream and half and half.

For the 7 1/2 cups of liquid in the recipe, I would keep the wine to one cup, but increase the stock to 6 cups (just make a bit more in the beginning) and add 1/2 cup cream at the end.

I think of Ina's original recipes like haute couture on a runway. The original is awe-inspiring, somewhat shocking and often totally over the top, but, for everyday wear, the clothes are lengthened, simplified and, in general, made more user-friendly. So too with Ina's recipes. They are so well written, so tasty and so luxurious that we can afford to cut down on the richness a bit (or A LOT) and still be left with something exceedingly toothsome.

On to the blinis, and Ina heats one stick of butter to clarify it. She removes the foam from the top. Separately she mixes 1/3 cup buckwheat flour, 2/3 cup white flour, baking powder, 1 egg (extra large, of course...don't tell Ina but I'm going to use 1 large egg) plus 3/4 cup milk. Then she stirs in 2 tablespoonfuls of the clarified butter.

She adds some clarified butter to a frying pan. She pours in a small amount of blini batter and cooks five at a time. She turns them when the first side is nice and bubbly. She cooks them until they are browned.

Ina is serving them at room temperature today, so she can arrange them on a platter when they're cooked to await their finishing. She lays a piece of smoked salmon over each one, and then dots it with crème fraîche and finally a sprig of fresh dill. She places a bunch of dill in the middle of the platter. Gorgeous and completely ready for company.

Next she goes to one of her favorite shops to get some cheese to serve with her pears. She asks the gentleman’s advice on which to buy. He first suggests a 5 year old gouda. It looks positively ancient and crumbly and old-tasting (in a good way). Ina tries it. She likes it, but she isn't sure...then he suggests a Stilton (which is what she had in mind all along) and she quickly agrees. Generally, I like a cheese platter where people have a choice, but when there's one great cheese, that's all you need." I'm down with that, Contessa.

She goes home to get the Parmesan chicken ready. She adds salt and pepper to the flour. (I like the idea of salting and peppering the chicken BEFORE it goes into the flour. That way you know it's really well-seasoned.) She beats 2 eggs (guess what size?) with water and gets the breadcrumbs ready. Store-bought are fine, she says, just be sure you haven't had them forever. She adds finely grated Parmesan cheese to the crumbs. Ina whacks the chicken with a rolling pin to tenderize it and even it out. Now she's ready to coat the chicken.

This is the same basic technique that I learned, lo those many years ago, at the Cordon Bleu. You always say it like a chant - Flour, Egg, Crumb; Flour, Egg, Crumb; Flour...oh, you get the idea. It is handy in remembering the order, even if it is somewhat obvious. Ina also does something I do; she's using only one hand, keeping the other one pristine for answering the phone or emergencies. You certainly don't want your flour, egg and crumb coated fingers touching anything but the chicken, and after they've touched the chicken you don't want them touching ANYTHING ELSE at all. So that is something to keep in mind.

The beautifully coated chicken gets browned in oil and butter for 2 minutes on each side. (Say it with me! We use butter for its flavor, oil for its high smoking temperature.) Ina tells us, “If the chicken bounces back, it’s perfectly done.” She puts them on a parchment lined baking sheet pan and into a 200 degree Fahrenheit oven to keep warm.

Susan has arrived and is having drinks with Ina and Jeffrey in the living room. That would be exciting enough for me, but they await the mystery guest. We see his shoes walking up the path to the door. Ina runs (well, as much as Ina runs) to see who it is. Mel Brooks! Well, THAT is exciting! Susan worked with him on The Producers on Broadway, so I guess they're great friends. I can’t tell if Mel and Ina have ever met before, because Ina always puts her guests at ease and he's just thrilled by the free meal. He loves everything.

Ina tells Susan, “Most people bring hostess gifts. You bring MEL BROOKS.” He LOVES the soup. I think he would dive into it if he could. She promises to bring him more as she clears the bowls. But she puts them all in the sink. Ina, I don’t think he was kidding about wanting more soup. I’m afraid he’s going to run into the kitchen and drink from the pot.

The Contessa is unfazed by her famous guest and quickly whips up a lemon vinaigrette. (THAT is definitely something she could have done in advance.) Twice as much olive oil as fresh lemon juice goes in, plus salt and pepper. That’s it. She pours it over the salad. The salad goes on top of the Parmesan chicken, which has been plated individually. She finishes each serving off with shavings of fresh Parmesan. Mel holds up his plate and says, “Put this in my car.” He is entranced.

After the main course, Ina brings out the wedge of Stilton, which is the size of Brooklyn. Mel says, “What are the others having?” He adores the cheese with the pears. I adore the Contessa. Everyone is happy.


Anonymous said...

I love Mel Brooks! Oh man, I missed a great episode.

Wanna hear how weenie I am? I use a fork to move my chicken from flour to egg to crumb. And then I still wash my hands well...just in case.

Cynthia said...

Sue, you know the thing: We Barefoot Aficionados know exactly what to do when we see that kind of richness in her recipes. We defend her right to write that in, but NEVER would we actually add that much cream and half and half. (lol)

Sue said...

Hi Lori,
Are you really getting every inch of real estate on that chicken coated when you use a fork? I'm proud of myself because not only do I use only one hand, as I said, BUT I only get it dirty up to the second knuckle. C'mon, that's pretty good, isn't it?

Hi Cyn,
I LOVE hearing from you. I knew you'd understand.

"Joe" who is constantly craving said...

thanks for dropping by!..for info i got terribly shaky hands..haha if anything it is the camera..i use a Canon DSLR..

Emilie said...

Holy cow! Mel Brooks! I love that guy. I love Ina, too. I read "Barefoot in Paris" like a novel.

Lisa said...

I loved it when Mel pulled out his cash and offered to pay for his meal because it was so good. My husband and I cracked up at that! What a great episode! I'm looking forward to making the soup sometime soon, when our weather cools down.

Sue said...

I can't believe you have shaky hands. Your pix are beautiful.

You're funny. Have you seen any of Ina's shows when she's in Paris? They are to die for.

Hi Lisa,
Welcome. Mel Brooks is great. He has the same jolly sense of humor as our Contessa.