Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Rare Rant Against The Contessa (Well, Sort Of)

I caught a bonus episode of Ina this week. It was an old one, where she makes lunch for a windmill crew in exchange for a tour of the windmill. The food was classic Ina, but there were other aspects of the show that could be described as, well, campy. And, no, it wasn't because she and Jeffrey were rockin' it in a tent.

Lunch for the Boys

Brownie Tart

Brussels Sprouts Lardons

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes

Individual Meat Loaves

Here are a few highlights:

Ina starts with a brownie tart, which brings up the whole extra large egg issue. I wrote about that here.

Here’s an excerpt:

"Very few food writers use extra large eggs in their recipes, the standard is large. I almost think Ina's doing it as a way to stand out and make it harder for anyone to copy her.

THIS is the problem: a large egg is 2 ounces. An extra large egg is 2 1/4 ounces. Obviously, this matters when you're baking, not making omelets.

What to do? I have NEVER used extra large eggs. EVER. After great thought, this is what I've come up with. When I crack open an egg, I make sure to get every drop of egginess from the inside of the shell. That could be an extra teaspoon or so. I may not be using the size she specifies, but at least I'm getting every last bit of the egg that I AM using into the recipe. AND when I'm adding liquid to her baked recipes, I intentionally add perhaps a teaspoon more.

Even though I've baked plenty of Barefoot Contessa recipes, I've never used the correct size egg and it doesn't seem to matter (although theory says it should).

However, if you have a recipe that uses A LOT of eggs, 8 extra-large for example, that WILL make a difference - a 2 ounce difference to be exact, which conveniently is the size of a large egg. So that one is easy...8 extra-large eggs equal 9 large eggs exactly. It's when it's less than that that you have the issue.

Here's a rather confusing chart that seems to say that if the recipe calls for 4 extra-large eggs, do what you want, use 4 OR 5 large eggs. After that, use one more large egg than extra-large. Thus, if the recipe says 5 extra-large eggs, use 6 large and so on."

The leader of the Windmill repair group is a very cool-looking dude, who seems to know Ina. But I have a feeling that the other two carpenter guys were saying to themselves, “Who’s Ina and why is she inviting us for lunch?”

Okay, here’s the weird, very weird part…when Ina sets the table. OMG! It is just too funny.

She starts with a brand new DROP CLOTH. Whatever, that’s fine. Ina remarks that it’s actually nice linen. But THEN, she puts all this crap in the middle of the table – stuff that belongs more in a garage than on a luncheon table. She calls it “a bouquet of construction materials”.

It’s actually a singular lapse for an extraordinary tastemaker. Plus, wouldn’t you think they’d be a little offended not to have the usual Contessa vase of home-grown, gorgeous, similar-colored flowers? Of course, since they may not know who Ina is, they may not miss the normal Barefoot treatment that we’re accustomed to seeing.

Ina continues with the arrangement. The center of it consists of brushes and rollers, string and paint stirrers. Oh, and some paint chip cards. Lots of them. Luckily, she uses normal (white) plates and doesn’t make them eat off paint can lids. Normal silverware and linen napkins finish each setting.

I hope the glasses aren’t some skeevy cylinders from the hardware store. Wait, there’s more. More HUGE balls of string and MASKING TAPE go on next. I actually think Ina has flipped her lid.

Aside from being 100% inappropriate as a meal setting, she has put so much clutter on the table that there’s no room for anything else AND you can’t see across the sea of huge brushes and tools to the other side of the table. It’s really odd. AND she keeps going.

I’m not kidding that there is so much on this table that, first of all, it must have cost a thousand dollars, secondly, it’s too crowded and thirdly, IT DOESN’T BELONG ON A DINING TABLE!

I really have no idea what she was thinking. THERE’S STILL MORE! A hammer!!! The Contessa has actually put a hammer in the middle of the table. Nothing says fine dining like the tool you use for pounding nails into a wall…I guess we should be grateful that she hasn’t strewn nails all over the “tablecloth” to accent her theme.

This got me to thinking about how you would set the table based on your guests' occupations. The best would be a car mechanic. You could put greasy rotors (or whatever’s inside a car) around an old tire in the middle of the table. An Olympic athlete (summer games) could have dirty running shoes and athlete’s foot spray in the center, not to mention socks as napkins. Or maybe if you were entertaining an officer of the law, there could be some weaponry as a centerpiece, surrounded by handcuffs and a holster or two. Absurd. Right?

Listen, I have no problem with inventive table settings. I know I throw in the towel before I even begin and let the food BE the table setting. When I had tiny kids, I used to put their silver baby cups and silver framed pictures in the center of the table, but that kind of went along with the silver candlesticks. Paint brushes and huge balls of twine are another thing altogether.

Back in the kitchen (THANK GOODNESS!) Ina takes the brownie pie out of the oven.

She says she’s just going to make sure it’s cooked okay. I'm imagining her helping herself to a huge slice “just to see if it’s done”.

No, she only uses a skewer. But THIS is funny. The skewer comes out with completely raw batter sticking to it and Ina pronounces it done.

Dick is giving Ina a tour of the windmill. The episode gets more daffy from here. Ina is excited that they’re restoring the windmill that she’s looked at for years. She goes in. (Dick is cute. He’s got great hair and he’s wearing a Cape Cod looking thick ribbed turtleneck. He could be a sailor too.)

This is where it gets a little dicey. She goes up the first set of steep steps. She’s interested in what the windmill was used for – grain - and she wants to see the drive-wheel at the very top. Did they tell her that she’d have to mount a teeny tiny, skinny ladder to get there? I’m getting worried that Ina will break a foot or half her body and not be able to finish lunch to serve on the hardware tablescape.

Happily, she gets to the top okay, but we don’t see how she gets down. (I have a feeling it would be the same way I got down the last mountain I was forced to climb - using a well-padded body part to help me.)

Ina’s lunch for these “real guys” is individual meat loaves and buttermilk mashed potatoes. Nothing too earth shattering, but a nice hearty lunch. Actually, REALLY hearty. She’s using 2½ pounds of meat for four people.

Would you be shocked if I told you that I try to get away with a pound of meat in a meatloaf for four people? But I supplement it with grated carrots and zucchini and homemade breadcrumbs and sometimes leftover brown rice. Ina DOES make SIX individual meatloaves, though. Maybe she’s saving some for dinner.

Ina makes a nice Brussels sprout recipe by frying up some pancetta. She takes that out and saut├ęs the Brussels sprouts until brown. Then she adds some chicken stock and raisins and simmers the whole thing for 15 minutes. That sounds good. In fact, it was. I tried it and my only addition was a bit of diced red pepper for color.

Back to the show, we see the guys hard at work at the windmill.

Ina cooks 3 pounds of potatoes (for 4 people, although the recipe says it makes 5 or 6 servings). For 4 people, I use the equivalent of 1 large potato per person and then perhaps one more. Ina has a good tip for keeping the mashed potatoes warm – put them over simmering water.

The guys finish up their latest task and head over to Ina’s.

The next scene is the carpenters being served by Ina amidst a heap of building supplies. Unhappily, we don’t see the guys' reaction to the table. (Maybe they didn’t even notice, but that’s pretty unlikely.)

Ina and Dick chat affably, while the other two eat happily. Oh, Dick does say something. He sees the cleanup supplies on the table and says that he won’t need any of those to help him clean his plate. Good one, Dick. (Although, they weren’t exactly CLEANING supplies.)

Ina excuses herself to garnish the brownie pie with squiggles of melted chocolate. She serves it and they eat it with gusto, while Ina offers to bring them lunch any day.

That was something. We got to see Ina go nuts in her literal translation of a table setting theme. We saw her dangerous climb in honor of preserving local history. And we saw her usual abundant food service. I know which one I hope to see again.


Emily said...

I have watched part of this. Do you know where I started watching? When Ina climbs up the tiny ladder. I thought the same thing! It seemed dangerous to me.

I'm sorry I missed the table setting! Hahah. That sounds gawd awful. If I were coming to your house for dinner, how would you decorate the table for me? Trays? Notepads and pens? Maybe some wadded up one dollar bills..

My favorite part of this post (or this episode) - Ina sticking the toothpick into the raw brownie batter and pronouncing it done. Hilarious.

Sue said...

Hmm Em,
No, your table setting would be a basket of tossed rolls, a shiny KitchenAid, a pan of browned butter, a bowl of curly hair (in keeping with Ina's really strange choices) and a mile-high pile of brownies, biscotti, cupcakes and candy bars. I'm sure I've forgotten something, but the great thing is that Ina just kept adding more unlikely items to the table. So would I.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Years ago I checked a book devoted to brownie recipes out of the library and the authors were adamant that all recipes use extra-large eggs. I was still a beginner, so I did what I was told. Almost all recipes required a combination of cake flour and AP flour too. I look back on that book and think, "It's BROWNIES. You're not supposed to get so nitpicky about them."

It really sounds as if Ina was channeling Sandra Lee. That's a total theme "tablescape" if ever there was one.

I'm imagining a tablescape about me. Perhaps a saddle in the middle surrounded by a pair of tap shoes, a huge bar of chocolate, an ice cream machine, a plate of garlic and onions, some sheet music, and every place setting would have a copy of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" as a favor.

Sue said...

You're so right about the brownies.

Your "tablescape" sounds perfect, but I'd add a horse (yes, a REAL horse) standing outside with his head in the window, able to receive special treats from you. And don't forget the bakeware filled with thank you notes from your coworkers and friends for every time (millions of them) that you've baked for them.

DebCarol said...

What I got from reading this whole post is . . . that I would love your meatloaf recipe ~ love that you stretch the meat with grated veggies and brown rice!

Sue said...

Hi DC,
Sorry, but if you want my meatloaf recipe, you'll have to wade through this post:

Oh, alright, for YOU DC, here it is...a tiny bit different from that one. Here's what I make today - Mix together 1 pound of ground meat, 1 grated zucchini, 2 grated carrots, 1 grated onion, 3 slices of whole wheat bread made into crumbs, 1 egg and a huge squirt of ketchup. (Throw in a handful of cooked rice, if you have it.) Form it into a rectangle in a greased roasting pan. Surround it with peeled sliced potatoes and don't breathe a word, spoon over some condensed tomato soup. (That comes from my husband's mother, so I HAVE to do it.) Bake at 350 for an hour, or until the potatoes are done.

That Silver Palate meatloaf I referred to in that post is REALLY amazing. But to make life easier, just add some sausage to my or your recipe. Pat the whole thing out flat and thin. Cover with fresh basil, sun dried tomatoes and sliced smoked mozzarella. Roll it up like a jellyroll and bake on a baking sheet. AMAZING! You can cover it with a bit of diced or stewed tomatoes as it cooks. Too good!

Sue said...

YOUR tablescape would include sports paraphernalia from all the Phillie teams, cookbooks from olden times, especially the one you made from your mom's recipes. Oh, and a big jello mold in the middle of the table. ;-)

DebCarol said...

Thank you SO much!! I am putting the ingredients on my weekend shopping list & will make next week. You're the best.

Cynthia said...

Sometimes these hosts just put too much stuff. Really, a hammer in the middle of the table, whatever!

With regards to the eggs, eggs in the Caribbean are sold simply as is, all of the times I would say we get large and extra large eggs (by US standards). Everyone now and then you may find a small one among the set.

Sue said...


Cyn, that's kind of funny.

In my store (and just about any other) I can't even count the different kinds of eggs. Jumbo, extra large, medium; a dozen, a half dozen, TWO dozen; cage free but not organic; organic AND cage free; oh, and I think there's an egg with more protein or less fat or something AND some that keep longer. I'm not even counting the egg "substitute" products that are on the shelf, as well.

Don't tell me that right next your ONE choice of eggs is ONE choice of butter. That's a whole other ball of wax here.