Cooking the Books – Ina Garten’s Make It Ahead

Oh, Ina, if there was a way to live your life.

Zucchini tart

For April, we picked the Barefoot Contessa Make It Ahead cookbook. Let me say first that there’s a reason Ina’s built the reputation she has–her recipes work, and they are delicious. They may not test the bounds of kitchen creativity, but there’s definitely value in a recipe for perfectly cooked beef tenderloin or a not-watery vegetable lasagna, especially if you’re looking for a centerpiece dish for a party. If you have a house in the Hamptons, friends coming over to play bridge, and just stepped out to get a bouquet of freshly cut flowers from your best friend the florist, so much the better.

Sangria is served

Jeffrey approves
Jeffrey’s going to love this!

That said, I–we–definitely had some gripes with this book. First, the majority of the recipes seem to have been repurposed from other Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. This wouldn’t a big issue except these recipes were so obviously shoehorned into the “make ahead” concept and not always in a way that made sense.

The one I kept shaking my head at was her version of bouillabaisse. The recipe instructs you to make stock (which can be refrigerated up to a day, though the recipe isn’t exactly clear at which step your stock is done) and then, 30 minutes before serving, reheating the stock and adding all of the other ingredients. That’s just…making soup.

When I’m looking for a “make ahead” recipe, I want one that can be made completely a day or more ahead (or only needs a simple garnish or a component like rice or noodles) and is either as good or better the next day. This book has those kind of recipes–the noodle pudding she describes as “a mash-up of kugel and spanikopita,” which I could have eaten a pan of by myself, chicken pot pies, even the herb-roasted fish that you can assemble completely in single-serving packets a day in advance.

Noodle pudding
Chicken liver mousse

But the oddest recipes were ones like the roasted cauliflower snowflakes where the make ahead component is just cutting up a head of cauliflower, or the cream of wheat that has you combine milk, sugar, and maple syrup, refrigerate it, then reheat it when you’re ready to actually make cream of wheat. It’s not that these recipes don’t sound good–I adore roasted cauliflower and cream of wheat is one of my favorite winter Sunday breakfasts–they just seem forced into the make ahead concept.

Someone's waiting for a treat
Lemon-ginger molasses cake

Several of the recipes also bordered on too salty. This is a difficult critique since I think most people (including me) under-season their food, but there is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour on a recipe, filling a sink full of dishes, taking a bite of your creation…and needing to follow it with a glass of water. Just watch the salt in her recipes.

Happy group

There are some great recipes, though, as long as you ignore that they’re supposed to be “make ahead.” And you’re not on a diet–more power to her, Ina does not cower in the face of butter, eggs, or cheese.

This is what we made:

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Chive Blossom Vinegar

I’m going to be ruthless with my garden this year. One of my biggest mistakes last year was hesitating to cut back and thin out a lot of what I planted. It felt so heartless to pluck out perfectly good little lettuces (they just want to live up to their full lettuce-y potential!) or hack off the better part of my basil plant. What I’m learning is that both thinning out and cutting back is better for my plants in the long run–the plants I leave get bigger, cutting them back encourages more growth.

All that is why that big bushy chive plant from three weeks ago got a major haircut and is now about 5 inches tall. It’s also why I have a jar of chive flower vinegar on my counter rapidly turning a spectacular shade of magenta and a double batch of chive biscuits in my freezer (more on those next week).

And still more chives Ready for its close-up

Vinegar will definitely be one of my go-tos for my extra herbs this summer. I’ve certainly planted enough, both in pots on my porch and in my garden, to keep pretty much everyone I know well stocked and still have enough left over to play with. I’ve got chives (of course), garlic chives, oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil, bay, thyme, cilantro, epazote, lemon verbena, pineapple mint, and strawberry mint.

Infused vinegar is about as easy as it gets. Use white vinegar in the giant industrial bottle or go fancy with white wine or champagne vinegar. Light colored vinegars are my favorite purely for aesthetics, but you can infuse red wine, apple cider, or even balsamic vinegar (finally a use for the white balsamic I keep buying from Trader Joe’s and never, ever use). Use one herb or a combination; I’m interested in making infused vinegars with basil, lemon verbena, and the mints for some great vinaigrettes this summer.

Rinsed v 2 Blossoms in a jar

Throw a few mashed berries, zest, or peppers in the mix (strawberry basil vinegar? cilantro, lime zest, and jalapeno infused vinegar added to salsa or guacamole?). The big trick is patience–you have to let it sit at least two weeks before the vinegar really well-flavored.

Mashed and infused Glowing jar of vinegar

And when I still have more herbs to use (as I know I will), chopping them up, mixing with a little bit of olive oil and freezing in ice-cube trays will be an easy way to keep them handy all year. In the meantime, I’ll try not to keep holding this up to the window to see how pretty it looks.

48 hours later. Still 12 days to go.

Chive Flower Vinegar
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Final thoughts – The Cooking Lab, Part 4

So we come to the end. As a wrap-up, last week’s class had a great concept and was fun to execute–come to class and cook. That’s all. No recipes, just some ideas of what we’d like to try based on what we’ve learned the past three weeks.

What to choose...

Ok, there was a bit more to it than that, it wasn’t just an Iron Chef-style free-for-all. Shelley and Mario talked with each of us about our ideas during class, how to turn them into complete well-balanced meals; went over the importance of preparation, timing, and planning (I do love a good plan), concepts of plating and presentation (like a painting, white space on a plate is important). One of the best things I’ve taken away from this series, though, is that a single dish doesn’t need to be perfectly balanced with all flavors as long as the entire meal has balance: a rich, savory main course and a simple salad lightly dressed with an acidic vinaigrette can be perfect.

Shrimp salad with toasted mustard seeds

The two things I knew I wanted to try were making mayonnaise and a butter-based pan sauce, two things I haven’t gotten quite right at home. Since I love shrimp, Shelley helped me come up with two meals: a shrimp salad in an avocado half, topped with toasted mustard seeds (one of my favorite flavors from week one) and a few herbs; and shrimp sauteed with garlic, deglazed with chicken stock and lemon juice, finished with butter, and topped with an herb salad.

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Feeling saucy–The Cooking Lab, Part 3

What do cream of potato soup, mayonnaise, and a delicious, buttery pan sauce have in common? More than I realized after last week’s class, it turns out. (Also, we got to play with fire.)
It's like a Rorscach test in fire. I see a pterodactyl.In some ways, this session of Cooking Lab has been the most challenging to recap. We covered a lot, but (if you’ll excuse the pun) it boiled down to two simple words: fat and fond.

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Greens ‘n things

So I hear the east coast is having some weather (much weather! 30 Rock fans? Shall we conversation? No?) Has anyone else heard this? Rain and wind, I think they said. Maybe the news will spend a minute discussing it or I’ll see if I can find it mentioned on the Internets somewhere, we’ll see.

Sarcasm aside, I hope all resolves itself soon, bad weather sucks and is making me dread thinking about the other four-letter “s” word that’s coming sooner than I’d like. But in the meantime, I’m making salad with the last of the really beautiful lettuce I picked up over the weekend.

Greens and purples

Lettuce seems like such an insignificant thing to get excited about. It’s usually relegated to the ubiquitous side salad, pale green and lacking flavor, or added as an afterthought to a burger just to get peeled off after it’s warm and soggy. What a sin. Continue reading

Fall in five senses

I’m not ashamed to admit it–this time of year, I will let out my inner five-year-old and happily high-kick my way through a pile of leaves as they crunch under my feet. Out of all four seasons, the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of fall are my favorites. I’ve made it pretty clear that I love summer, but there is something about the way fall hits all of my senses at once that gets me every time.

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The sound of dry leaves skipping down the street in the wind is so unique and only comes this time of year for a few short weeks. The colors make me want to climb a tree and live in the sun-bright yellow, pumpkin-orange, cranberry-red leaves clinging to nut-brown branches, which match the colors flooding the market during its last few weeks outdoors. The smells–burning leaf piles (not as much in the city, but something I remember distinctly growing up), the earthy scent of wet leaves as they start to decompose back into the soil, getting ready for spring–fill the air.

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Cheese and crackers

The last weekend of August is about to kick off, and I still haven’t accepted that September is only a few days away. Although rain and cool weather are forecast for most of the weekend, that won’t stop me from getting as much outdoors-y time as I can, maybe even at the beach, and trying to get in as many last-minute summer dishes as I have time to make and space in my stomach for before I give in to fall, apples, sweaters, squash, spices, tea.IMG_0032 (1)

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Salad for a heat wave

I love summer, and I declare it proudly. After the winters that I’ve lived with all my life in Rochester and now Chicago, I have no complaints when the temperature goes above 80, 90, even 100. I leave my air conditioning off for as long as I can possibly stand it; I hate wearing weather-appropriate clothes and then freezing as soon as I go inside a building.
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