Ina Garten loves a challenge.
“Jeffrey always says if I found cooking easy, I’d be bored in 10 minutes,” she says. “The fact that it’s hard is why it’s appealing.”
Jeffrey, of course, is Garten's husband of more than 50 years who is as much part of Ina’s public persona as her easygoing charm. In nearly 20 years on the Food Network, Garten will often refer to Jeffrey, and he’ll sometimes make on-camera appearances to check in on her and see what she’s cooking.
Garten, who celebrated her 71st birthday earlier this month, was in Austin last week for an event at the Long Center discussing her latest book, "Cook Like a Pro," which came out in October.
Even after two decades as a recipe developer and cookbook author — "Cook Like a Pro" is her 11th — Garten says testing new recipes is both stressful and exciting.
When reached by phone last week at her Hamptons home, which doubles as her office and TV studio, Garten says she’d been working on a buckwheat crepe recipe for an upcoming cookbook.
“When I’m looking at a recipe, I have an idea in my head and I keep going until I get that ping that says, ‘I did it,’ not just with the flavor, but the texture,” she says. She can work out most recipes in a few days or weeks, but certain dishes take much longer. Up until last week, she had been working on a Boston cream pie recipe for eight years. She wanted to make a version of the dish where the chocolate isn't so overpowering. After making a few final tweaks, “I nailed it.”
Home cooks who grew up watching her on TV are among her most fervent fans. Among them is Taylor Swift, the pop star whom Garten has called “extraordinary.”
When the Food Network launched, millions of viewers, including latchkey kids, young adults in college and newlyweds, could watch 24 hours of programming dedicated to cooking. "The beginning of Food Network (in the mid-1990s) was really important, not just for young girls, but young boys, too, who saw Bobby Flay and Emeril and thought it was cool to be a chef," Garten says.
If you didn’t grow up in a home where people cooked for fun — or cooked anything that didn’t come from a box — this was revolutionary. "If we don't have someone in the kitchen at home cooking for us, we find someone on TV to do it,” she says.
Garten says she designs her TV shows so that they feel like viewers are in the kitchen with her, and over the years that has led to a diverse set of fans, from a New York City truck driver shouting “I love your show!” as he drives by to millennials who are among the first to snap up tickets to her events.
Millennials are also cooking and entertaining in a way that their parents weren't. "We do the opposite of what our parents did," she says, so if you didn’t grow up around home cooking or entertaining, you might be more inclined to try new, challenging recipes or to host a dinner party, even if it’s over a hot plate in a dorm room.
Like her predecessor, Julia Child, Garten got into food as a second career. She left a high-powered career in D.C., where her husband also held notable jobs, to buy a cooking store — almost on a whim — called Barefoot Contessa.
She loved the pace and engagement with her customers, but running the specialty food store was simply the preparation for what came next: selling the store to become a cookbook author. "I did think that there was a good possibility that walking away from (the store) would be the end of my professional life and that I wouldn't find anything as stimulating and rewarding as that," she says. "When I feel too comfortable, I get bored. I don’t like when I’m not scared. I don’t like when I don’t lie awake trying to sort out how something is going to work."
Her debut book became a best-seller, which is what caught the attention of the Food Network. Producers started pursuing her to host a cooking show, and they finally persuaded her to shoot a few episodes, the first few of which aired in 2002 and were an instant hit.
"In 17 years, it hasn't gotten any easier," she says. "That's why I'm still doing it."
She still gets nervous when it's time to record a new episode. She shoots her cooking show one month at a time for two months out of the year, and the rest of the time she's working on recipes for her next book.
But the biggest risk she's ever taken was marrying Jeffrey. They met when she was still in high school and he was at Dartmouth, and by the time they married in 1968, they had been sweethearts for years.
"When you get married, you're believing in someone that they'll support you and your ideas and be fun to be with for the rest of your life," she says.
Her key to a long-lasting and happy marriage: Make sure that the other person knows that they are the most important thing in your life and that they feel the same way about you. Take care of the other person, but don’t keep score.
"People take relationships for granted, and I really value mine," she says. "It's not that I feel responsible to do things that make his life better, or vice versa, but it's because I want to."
Even after all these years hosting dinner parties with Jeffrey, Garten still prefers hosting friends and family at home over going out to eat. "Even using my recipes, it takes me all day to get the house ready, shop for food, get the flowers and food in order," she says, "but I still feel more relaxed and nourished when I host instead of going out."
With a soothing demeanor, Garten isn’t afraid to expose her shortcomings — she has a confident yet self-deprecating style on camera — or let people off the hook if they want to use a store-bought ingredient.
She’s a fan of current cookbook writers Dorie Greenspan, Patricia Wells and David Lebovitz, but when she’s looking for inspiration, she often turns to Julia Child's older books, looking for “complicated and old-fashioned” recipes that she can modernize and streamline.
She’s still on the fence about the Instant Pot, though. “I bought one but haven’t used it,” she says.
Garten says she isn’t anti-gadgets or newfangled cooking appliances but that having high-quality sheet pans, knives, pots and pans is more essential in developing cooking skills. “When things don’t come out right, you can get down on yourself,” she says, but sometimes that’s because you’re using the wrong tools, such as a cast-iron skillet when you need a nonstick or an inexpensive chef’s knife that dulls quickly.
Garten has become an enthusiastic Instagrammer in the past few years, posting everything from photos of the fall colors in her garden to snapshots with Jennifer Garner or Katie Couric. One of her most-liked photos last year was a Halloween costume of two toddlers dressed up like her and Jeffrey. “It’s like sending a postcard home,” she says.
The last time Garten was in Austin, the Barefoot Contessa stopped by La Condesa, the downtown Austin restaurant, where she enjoyed Mexican food. On this stop in Austin, she’s looking forward to hearing audience questions, which she collects throughout her book tour, and then she incorporates the answers into her next cookbook.
At the event last week, Garten regaled the audience with tales of the early days in her Barefoot Contessa store, which she took over the day before Memorial Day. She wasn't prepared for the deluge of customers who would come in that Friday. They bought every single thing in the shop, she said, so she stayed up all night baking and then sent Jeffrey to another bakery a few towns away, where he bought them out of what they had in their case. They eventually figured out how to make enough food — and which kinds of dishes — to keep customers happy. One of the most important lessons she learned during that time, however, was to surround herself with positive people. "I can teach people how to slice smoked salmon or cheese, but I can't teach them how to be happy."
Red Wine-Braised Short Ribs
This may be my favorite recipe ever. In the winter when it’s really cold, a hearty stew of beef short ribs simmered with a whole bottle of red wine, a bottle of Guinness and lots of vegetables, then served over blue cheese grits or mashed potatoes is about the most comforting dinner you can possibly imagine. A tip: Short ribs come in many sizes. Be sure you buy 2-inch ribs with lots of meat on them. Browning them on a sheet pan is so much easier — and less messy! — than in a pot on top of the stove. Also, because garlic burns very easily, I almost never cook it with the onions; instead I add it one minute before adding the liquid.
— Ina Garten
5 pounds very meaty bone-in beef short ribs, cut into 2-inch chunks
Good olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups chopped leeks, white and light-green parts (3 leeks)
3 cups chopped celery (5 to 6 ribs)
2 cups chopped yellow onions (2 onions)
2 cups chopped unpeeled carrots (6 carrots)
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic (5 cloves)
1 (750-ml) bottle Burgundy, Côtes du Rhône, Chianti or other dry red wine
4 cups beef stock, preferably homemade
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes, such as San Marzano
1 (11.2-ounce) bottle Guinness draught stout
6 sprigs fresh thyme, tied with kitchen string
Grits, polenta or mashed potatoes, for serving
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the short ribs on a sheet pan, brush the tops with olive oil and sprinkle with 1½ tablespoons salt and 1½ teaspoons pepper. Roast for 20 minutes and remove from the oven. Reduce the temperature to 325 degrees.
Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large (12-inch) Dutch oven, such as Le Creuset, over medium heat. Add the leeks, celery, onions and carrots and cook over medium to medium-high heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine, bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes, until the liquid is reduced. Add the stock, tomatoes, Guinness, thyme, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.
Place the ribs in the pot, along with the juices and seasonings from the sheet pan. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook in the oven for one hour. Uncover and cook for 1 more hour, until the meat is very tender.
Remove the short ribs to a plate with a slotted spoon and discard the thyme bundle and any bones that have separated from the meat. Simmer the sauce on the stove for 20 minutes, until reduced. Skim some of the fat off the top and discard. Return the ribs to the pot, heat for 5 minutes, and taste for seasonings. Serve hot in shallow bowls spooned over creamy blue cheese grits, with extra sauce on the side. Serves 6.
— From "Cook Like a Pro: Recipes and Tips for Home Cooks" by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter, $35)
Chocolate Pecan Scones
OK, I have a thing about scones. When they’re good, they’re light and flaky and full of flavor. Be sure to use really good chocolate that you dice by hand so there are puddles of melted chocolate when you bite into them. And trust me, four teaspoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt may sound like a lot, but it makes all the difference. A note about the butter: Cold bits of butter in the dough ensure flaky scones. When the heat hits the bits of butter, the water in the butter turns to steam and makes the dough rise.
3 tablespoons plus 4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 1/2 cups medium-diced bittersweet chocolate, such as Lindt (8 ounces)
1 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons sugar, plus additional for sprinkling
2 tablespoons baking powder
4 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 pound cold unsalted butter, 1/2-inch diced
1 cup cold heavy cream
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water or cream, for egg wash
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange two racks evenly spaced in the oven. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper.
In a small bowl, combine the 3 tablespoons flour with the chocolate and pecans and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the 4 cups flour, the sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and, with the mixer on low speed, blend until the butter is the size of peas. Measure the cream in a 2-cup glass measuring cup, add the eggs, and beat until combined. With the mixer still on low, pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and combine just until blended. Add the chocolate and pecan mixture and mix just until combined. The dough will be very sticky.
Dump the dough out onto a very well-floured surface and knead it a few times to be sure the chocolate and pecans are well distributed, adding a little flour so the dough doesn’t stick to the board. Flour your hands and a rolling pin and roll the dough 3/4- to 1-inch thick. You should see lumps of butter in the dough. Cut the dough with a 3-inch plain round cutter and place the scones on the prepared sheet pans. Reroll the scraps and cut out more scones. Brush the tops with the egg wash, sprinkle with sugar, and bake for 20 minutes, switching the pans halfway through, until the tops are lightly browned and the insides are fully baked. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 14 to 16 large scones.
— From "Cook Like a Pro: Recipes and Tips for Home Cooks" by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter, $35)