Monday, October 27, 2008

Perfectly Ina

Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics with Ina Garten

Perfect Dinner Party

Bay Scallop Gratin
Fleur De Sel Caramels
White Chocolate Bark

(The links above were all showing error messages on the wonderful new Food Network website. I hope they sorted it all out.)

Ina is doing a dinner party in three acts. She says there's a reason behind calling a dinner party "entertaining" and that's to keep your guests amused and to keep the gathering moving, so she hosts different courses in different rooms and places.

She also says that people want to believe that you’ve whipped up the meal in the 10 minutes before they get there.

Not I. I want to think that, especially if it’s Ina’s house, that the cook has slaved all week.

Ina starts by making Fleur de Sel Caramels. She says they’ll be fun for dessert. A little too fun for my taste. I was thinking of cake, or a big pie or pudding with chocolates and cookies, and okay, if you want to add a piece of candy or two.

She puts 1½ cups of sugar in a high-sided pot with ¼ cup corn syrup and 1/2 cup of water. She stirs it and will cook it to caramel stage.

In a separate pot, Ina adds 1 cup of heavy cream and 5 tablespoons of butter with 1 teaspoon of fleur de sel. She cooks it to a simmer.

When the caramel is golden brown, Ina carefully pours in the cream and butter mixture. She uses a BIG pot, because it bubbles up furiously. She stirs it with a heavy wooden spoon and adds a teaspoon of vanilla. (Wouldn’t you add that AFTER you’ve cooked it?)

She cooks the mixture to 248°F on a candy thermometer. It will take between 5 to 10 minutes. “Keep your eye on it.” She brushes parchment, which is lining a baking tray, with a bit of vegetable oil. She pours the caramel onto it and into the fridge it goes.

Ina moves on to set the table. She repeats how she likes to keep a party moving and serve different courses in different places. She sets a long trundle table very simply.

The Contessa has removed the chilled caramel from the fridge. She sets it at room temperature to make it easier to cut. She removes the paper and rolls it up like a jelly roll, stopping halfway. She cuts it off and continues to roll the other half. She sprinkles the rolls with fleur de sel and cuts them in eighths. She wraps each caramel in parchment and tests one. She likes it.

Ina is slicing something. What IS that? Oh, it’s white chocolate. Now we’re talking...she’s making white chocolate bark.
She adds ¾ of the white chocolate to a bowl and cooks it for 30 seconds in the microwave. She stirs it and then zaps it again for 30 seconds. She says to keep doing that until it’s just about melted.

She adds in the rest of the chocolate, which lowers the temperature of the already-melted chocolate. Very good point. Very astute observation from Ina. (Over-heated chocolate can seize up.) She says you can always put it back if need be for 10 seconds.

Ina spreads the melted chocolate on a baking tray lined with parchment. It doesn’t have to be perfect. “You want a casual form.”

She toasts walnuts on sheet pan in a 350°F oven for 8 minutes. I would use the microwave for that, too. After cooling, she chops them and sprinkles them on top of the chocolate. The chocolate should still be warm, so that the nuts are “embedded” in it. She chops apricots to the same size as dried cranberries. Ina sprinkles over the apricots and then ¼ cup dried cranberries.

As Ina goes shopping for appetizers, she tells us to break things up. Drink whatever wine you want, but she says she does have one rule. She never cooks more than 2 things for a dinner party.

She buys a trifecta of appetizers: Parmigiana Reggiano to serve in chunks or shards; sweet figs with salty prosciutto wrapped around them and big, meaty olives. She’ll be relaxed because “the appetizers are literally in the bag”.

Back in the kitchen, Ina slices 2 pounds of sea scallops in half, so they cook more quickly. She likes to keep it simple, she reminds us again.

She adds a little white wine to each of 6 gratin dishes. She pats the scallops dry so they brown better. She adds them to each of the dishes. That’s a lot of scallops.

She mixes together unsalted butter, chopped garlic, prosciutto, shallots, lemon juice and parsley with Pernod, kosher salt, black pepper and olive oil. Wow, Ina is a genius. That’s a topping with attitude. She folds in panko and spoons this incredible mixture on top of each dish of scallops. Again, I say wow. This is a flavor-packed addition to simple scallops. One tiny question – doesn’t the wine in the bottom of the dish “cook” the scallops?

Ina puts the caramels in a silver dish. She chops the white chocolate bark into large chunks. Friends arrive. On the porch, they pass around the appetizer goodies and drink and laugh. Where’s Jeffrey?

The Contessa excuses herself to put the scallops in the oven at 425°F for 10 to 12 minutes.

Ina turns on the coffee maker and makes a quick salad. She mixes her vinaigrette in a small bowl – 2 parts olive oil, 1 part lemon juice, a hit of Dijon mustard, plus salt and pepper. She pours it over the salad. I have to say that is ONE thing I would make in advance. I’d throw it all in the blender and make enough for the week.

A squirt of lemon juice goes over the scallops with a sprinkle of parsley. Dinner is served at the long table. I think a round one promotes easier conversation. Ina serves the wine, presumably a sauvignon blanc, which is what she used for the scallops.

Part three of The Perfect Dinner Party is served on the terrace. It actually looks like the porch, but I think it’s different. They polish off the white chocolate bark in no time. I’m not sure they liked the caramels. Oh, maybe they were chewing so much, it was hard to say anything. I have to say this trend of salt with sweets is not really my cup of tea, but they looked beautiful.

The Contessa pulled off an effortless dinner party. Even if you chose a bit more labor intensive appetizer (OR a more elaborate dessert), it would still be an easy-to-accomplish meal.

Note: For a pretty good look at the inside (and outside) of Ina’s barn, watch this FN Dish video with Bruce Seidel, the new host. (I never even knew there WAS a new host.)


Anonymous said...

After watching Saturday's new episode the first thing I thought of was - I have to email Sue! I read your blog everyday and I love it.

I feel like Ina was dumbing down her show. In all the years I've watched her, she has never used a microwave. I could not believe that she was melting chocolate in the microwave. Also, I felt like she was acting as if she was not a great cook. I was super disappointed with the episode. I miss the old Ina and the old show.

Do you know if there is a way for me to leave feedback with the Food Network? I think they should know that some viewers don't like this new format.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

I think I've just dubbed myself the Anti-Ina. Oh, I do agree that there is a performance and entertaining is my middle name (well, I have no actual middle name, so it might as well be), but to not make sure everyone knows I spent all day in the kitchen? Never! I'm a diva and that's part of the show. I also tend to be rather inclined to make all three courses myself. I am such a weird purist that way.

Adam said...

I'm a pretty big fan of microwave usage. If I don't have to watch or stand by anything, I'm all the happier :) I have to say that toasting walnuts with one would surprise me, unless you were kidding Sue :)

Emiline said...

I don't want her to take it too easy. She sounds like she might be getting lazy.

I don't like eating caramels because they get stuck in my teeth, and then I get cranky.

SayGrace said...

I understand your point about the microwave... but in this instance, I say she was right to use it. Tempering chocolate is a "titchy" process, and for white chocolate, a pretty unnecessary one. I kind of liked seeing her use her shortcut appliances so assiduously but would have liked her to offer a caution about using it in this manner for other (especially good/expensive!) varieties.

On the positive side, I'm in an almost inappropriate state of bliss watching her operate in that barn kitchen. The House Beautiful article about it this month has provided me several moments already of perfect "happy place" fodder... it's indescribably delicious!

Sue said...

Hey Anon,
Now that you mention it, my problem wasn't exactly the dumbing down of her show, it was that I thought there just wasn't enough food. Isn't having friends over when you’re SUPPOSED to go overboard? Let's remember she makes 5 pounds of meat for dinner with just her and Jeffrey, but yet when folks are coming over...she just serves olives? I do take her point, though, that it’s kind of annoying when the host or hostess is so exhausted that he or she can’t enjoy the company.

About the microwave, it absolutely has a place in any cook’s kitchen. It’s perfect for melting chocolate or butter. In fact, whenever I see someone melting chocolate over boiling water, I just think about the 2 pans there are to wash, rather than a little bowl.

Barbara Kafka, superb cookbook author, wrote a book, eons ago, called The Microwave Gourmet and she opened my eyes up to all the wonders that can be done with one. Having said that, I use it mostly for melting chocolate and boiling milk for lattes, and yes, Adam, for toasting nuts.

You’re right, I think this was the first we’ve seen her use it on television, but I think it was okay. If she had microwaved a turkey or made a pizza, that might have been upsetting…

Comments (go for it!) can be left for the Food Network here:

Sue said...

The Anti-Ina? Oh no, say it ain’t so.

You’re funny. Your inclination to publicize your all day slaving in the kitchen just shows your youthful exuberance and spirited enthusiasm. When I was young and carefree, I did the same thing. But believe me, after people taste your wonderful food, they’ll know you cooked all day for them without you having to say a word.

And I agree, when you have company IS the time to shine and make everything yourself. I think you can still do that and not feel like a ragdoll when the doorbell rings. Plenty of stuff can be made ahead, so that we can still follow Ina’s rule of not making more than 2 things on the night.

NO! I would never kid about something as serious as that. I learned that trick a long time ago from a student in one of my cooking classes.

Put your walnuts, almonds or whatever on a dinner plate and zap them on high power in the microwave. The time is determined by the amount of nuts you have. You could start 1/2 cup at 1 1/2 minutes. Taste them, stir them around and continue in 30 to 60 second intervals until they taste toasted. They won't brown as well, of course, but they toast beautifully.

And also, ADAM, NEVER cover anything in the microwave with plastic wrap. We just don't know how much leeches out into the food. Use glass covers, wax paper or even paper towels, but not plastic. And I also never cook in any kind of plastic container...

Sue said...

You better be kidding about my Contessa. Maybe she thinks WE want her to give us simpler menus. BUT WE DON'T. Pass that on to her, if you see her, willya?

You're too young to limit certain foods, because of teeth issues. Try spraying your teeth with Pam the next time you eat a caramel.

Hi Grace,
Ditto. Of course, Ina shouldn't use the microwave constantly, but this time it was okay.

Thanks for mentioning House Beautiful. I completely forgot to. It shows the whole barn beautifully, including the little guest room (which we never see on the show), where Ina retreats to during filming.

Anonymous said...

I love Ina to death, but does she always have to say "Now, don't have too much fun until I get back!" or "Don't have fun while I am gone!" She wants everybody to be bored stiff while she is off in the kitchen?

Sue said...

Now hold it just a second Anonymous,
I love that line of Ina's, but I don't think she said it this week. I was listening for it and she just excused herself to go into the kitchen to do a few things.

It's probably true, though... imagine being at Ina's for dinner. Wouldn't you be holding your breath until she emerged from the kitchen? Unless of course, TR or Jeffrey were there to amuse the guests.