Friday, January 25, 2008

Food for Thought from The Barefoot Contessa

I had the TV in the office lunch room to myself today. Normally I don't turn on the Food Network when that happens because my lunch hour tends to coincide with Semi-Homemade. I had an early lunch today and was able to watch the Barefoot Contessa. I put aside the anti-Hamptons thing and took notes.

As always, Ina was cooking dinner for her fabulous Hampton friends. (Okay, maybe I didn't completely put aside the Hamptons thing). She made cream of mushroom soup, blinis with smoked salmon, and, to make sure she didn't offend her mystery guest, parmesan chicken.

The chicken breasts were no different from the regular breaded chicken cutlets all of us make except for the fact that she added fresh parmesan cheese to the (pre-seasoned and store bought) bread crumbs. Well, we all like our chicken cutlets, but is this something you want to be served if you're going to a dinner party at the home of a world-class caterer? She served just a simple salad (lettuce and a lemony dressing) on top of it.

Then for dessert she went into her upscale Hamptons cheese shop (there it goes again) and bought a wedge of stilton (I would have much preferred she went with the aged gouda). She served with pears. She never turned on the oven to make dessert.

I started thinking about how I make dinner parties. I feel a need to go all out. I have to make everything myself. If I serve pre-dinner nibbles, it's often homemade dips. Then I put together a soup, a salad or a pasta. Dinner is always protein, veggie, and starch. Dessert MUST be homemade.

While there is nothing wrong with how either Ina or I do our dinner parties, she made me consider whether or not my meals are a bit too baroque. How often have I had to scrape uneaten food off of plates because it's just more than one person can handle? How many desserts have been only partitally eaten? How did it feel when I decided I should have extra dessert and bought cannoli from the bakery and have a guest snarf a couple of them and ignore my homemade turtle pie? Do I need to be this excessive with my dinner parties? Of course I don't!

I guess I do this because I want to be admired. I want people to be impressed. There is part of me that does it because I do love to cook and I love to feed people. Making this much food feeds into both my creative and nurturing sides. I still have to wonder if someone who cooks by the seat of her pants and has no formal training and rather unusual taste buds (They're often not very discerning unless you feed me seafood, peas, olives, lima beans, blue cheese or grapefruit) is simply is covering up her lack of skills by cooking everything from scratch and making tons of food so people will be so impressed that they won't notice all of the faults. I would be afraid to have a professional chef eat at my home for fear I'd be exposed as as fraud.

(Although I can still brag that a few years ago I went to a party at my brother's house and his stepson had a friend with him and that friend had just started working at La Panetierre who complimented me quite a bit on the cookies I brought.)

Ina shows again and again that simple foods, prepared well are just as big of a crowd pleaser. She doesn't aim to impress people. People like chicken cutlets. Who doesn't like chicken cutlets? She served food people like! What a concept. What is the need to go overboard? Make something and make it well. It's a simple idea I seem to forget. Maybe instead of cooking the biggest dinner possible, I should just make some well-executed chicken cutlets and salad with lemon dressing and let the food speak for itself.

Then again, did guests rave over Ina's food because she does such an exceptionally good job over it, or did they simply gush because Ina made it? A lesser cook might have received fewer kudos for doing the exact same thing.

I do know Ina is really going overboard with smoked salmon. While looking through past shows on the Food Network website, I saw it show up an awful lot. Maybe that's another reason I don't watch her show that much (aside from that Hamptons thing) is that she cooks too often with ingredients I don't like. Ina, there are other appetizer foods out there.

On a side note, I wish she, and most of the other female cooks on FN, would tie back her hair. Sara Moulton wore a ponytail. Giada wears one about half the time. Ina, Rachael, Sandra and Ingrid are always cooking with their hair hanging in their faces. Yuck! I know Ina's hair isn't that long, but she could at least clip back the strands that hang down in the front. Despite what you see in my Thanksgiving photo, I always tie my hair back when I doing the actually cooking.

I do know that if I could get my picky husband to eat mud if Mel Brooks were coming to dinner!


Sue said...

I remember that show. I loved it. She DOES know how to entertain, that's one thing you have to say for Ina.

The reason you go overboard is because you're young and have years of entertaining in front of you. That's what we all did, when we started out.

And I don't think of Ina as using alot of smoked salmon, but maybe she does.

I don't blame you for avoiding Sandy during lunchtime. You'd need to make it a liquid lunch to dull the pain.

Emiline said...

Heh heh...Sue cracks me up.

You do sound like you go overboard, but I think that's really cool. If I was at your party, I would appreciate it. My parents are kind of like Ina; they just buy everything, most of the time, or they keep it really simple. That's so boring!

Don't tell anyone this, but, I don't really like salmon that much. It's ok, but not my favorite.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Hee hee hee. The problem with needing a liquid lunch to tolerate Sandra Lee is that you have to watch the show for the drink recipe.

Em, you'll get no argument from me over the salmon thing. I HATE salmon. I have no fondness for any fish at all, but I have a particular loathing for the strong taste of salmon. I can almost tolerate it smoked though, because smoking can make even your shoelace taste better.