There are those people in our culture who are so iconic that we need only hear their first name to know exactly we are talking about--politicians like Barack, Mitt, or Hillary, musicians like Neil or Bruce, Jimi or Joni, movie stars like Leonardo or Angelina, chefs like Emeril or Mario or Julia.
If there is a true American hero in the kitchen, I would argue that hero is Ina Garten. Some know her as "The Barefoot Contessa." But if you use professional cookbooks and recipes at all, and someone says, "I'm making Ina's recipe for ________, " then everyone will know who you are talking about.
I don't know that much about Ina. The conceit of her show, which I have watched perhaps about a dozen times, is that she is always cooking for some guest who is coming over, whet here it is her husband, Jeffery, home from work, or Eli Zabar, or her agent or a group of girlfriends. Because Ina does what most of us who cook like to do--cook for others. And for her, that means coming over to her house in the Hamptons, where the kitchen is always sunny and clean.
I also have one of her cookbooks, which I don't use all that often, even though it is a terrific book.
I have no idea if Ina is a chef. I kind of don't think so. She doesn't act like one. Instead, she seems to be that "hostess with the mostest," the woman whose invite you crave because you know the food will be great, the drinks fresh and plentiful, and the entertaining so confident that everyone will be at ease.
She also doesn't strike me as a chef because her dishes are never that complicated. And that's why I encounter her most on the Internet. You see, Ina's name and recipes come up when you want to make a dish that is pretty well known--brownies, say, or potato salad, or boeuf Bourginon ( beef with wine). When homes cooks like me search for ideas on dishes that are staples, at least, of our entertaining culture, a Google search may yield dozens or hundreds of hits. My point, indeed the whole point of this blogpost, is that when that happens, you want to find Ina's version.
Here's what Ina Garten brings to the table (pun intended):
1. She has an exquisite sense of taste, meaning her take on the dish will taste really good.
2. Her ingredients and techniques are typically not difficult, exotic, or precious.
3. She will offer some technique or tweak that makes the dish better than other versions of the recipes.
Case in point: I served her potato salad the other night to my friend who makes the best local potato salad I know. He said, praising mine, "The key to great potato salad is getting the consistency of the potatoes just right."
I responded, "I made Ina Garten's version. She boiled the potatoes until they are just tender, then drains them in a colander,chick she covers and lets steam for 15-20 minutes."
Now who thinks of that? Not me. I try to get the exact perfect potato while boiling and usually come up short (or overlooked and more like mashed).
The other great thing about Ina is that she goes "all in." Sure, she has plenty of healthier meals, but if she is going to make a batch of brownies, they are going to have all of the fat, sugar, and calories to make hem the best brownies you've made.
America is full of celebrity chefs trying to dumb themselves down and connect with everyday cooks like you and me. No thanks. I'll take Ina's version any day of the week.