Bertrand and Remy come upstairs and rouse me around 9am this morning.
“Honey, do you know the Barefoot Contessa?”
“You mean, oh, what’s her name? The woman on TV?”
“I don’t know,” he answers. “But she’s at the Store. They’re filming the Barefoot Contessa there. Rose is all excited. She said she has to make 20 coffees.”
“Did she still give Remy cheese?” I ask, always putting my child’s needs before anyone else’s.
“Yes,” he smiles as Remy licks my face. “Is the Contessa blonde?”
That slows down my resolve to get dressed and run over to check out the action.
“She’s brunette,” I answer. “Bangs, shoulder length hair. Twinkly smile.”
Okay, I didn’t actually say “twinkly smile” but it is, so I’m adding.
We get to the Southfield Store and see this.
We walk right past the crew, jaded and disinterested New Yorkers, but with our phones set on camera mode as they swing at our sides, hoping our thumbs will deliver something in focus as they discreetly but busily click away.
There was Ina, sitting in a gray Mercedes, window down, taking direction from a man with a British accent.
On the off chance that you are as fraudulent as I am and have no idea who Ina Garten is, she is the host of the Emmy-award winning Barefoot Contessa TV show, which has been on the Food Network since 2002. According to Wikipedia, “each episode features Garten assembling dishes of varying complexity. Though her specialty is French cuisine, she occasionally prepares American, Asian, British and Italian foods. Her show also gives tips on decorating and entertaining.” (She was also a nuclear policy analyst under the Nixon administration, so she had me at Nixon.)
My Barefoot Contessa connections are more old school. I remember the fancy food store she owned in West Hampton, the Long Island beach town in which I was part of a Summer beach house share in the late Eighties. I first tasted parmesan crisps at the Barefoot Contessa, as well as potato salad with dill and gourmet ice cream. I remember it all tasting very delicious, costing more money than I was used to paying for food, so, therefore, a daunting encounter for my $17k salary.
But back to the Contessa. As much as we love cooking, other than a few “Top Chef” episodes, our TV watching time isn’t food-related. “House of Cards,” “The Good Wife,” and the comedy news Johns Stewart and Oliver take up our viewing time. I first heard about Ina from Jamie Rosen, who worked for me at W and is now beauty director of Town & Country magazine. She occasionally mentioned Ina, or about a dish or pie she’d found in one of her cookbooks, and from there I’d begun to recognize her when she appeared on various morning shows.
Because of Jamie; I spotted Ina and a friend heading toward me on Madison Avenue one morning about five years ago. “Big fan,” I lied, as we passed each other. “Big fan by association” would have sounded weird. Better to lie and be nice. But after she smiled and said, “Thank you!” I added “My colleague at work will be so jealous that I saw you.” (I actually said My colleague at work. I couldn’t have just said, ‘my friend’?)
“Oh!” she laughed. “Well, that’s very sweet!” (My colleague at work was jealous.)
When the cameras began to roll, Ina stepped out of her car and walked in to the store, where we tried to act cool as we waited for our almond lattes. I took about a dozen pictures of her back, then slipped my phone in my pocket when she turned around to head back outside. She smiled when our eyes met, but clearly, our Madison Avenue moment hadn’t meant as much to her.
“They’re shooting back in the kitchen next,” Rose, the Store manager explained, in excited sotto voce, as the camera man followed Ina back outside. “She’s watching them make french toast.”
We didn’t stay for the toast. We had skiing to do.
“The Barefoot Contessa was filming at the Southfield Store,” we bragged to our friends at Butternut.
“Wow!” said Tom, while Ann said, “She’s up here.”
“I thought she lived in East Hampton,” I said. That much–from either Jamie or her TV show–I knew.
“She has a place up here, too,” Ann confirmed. I forgot where Ann said, but, unless she says so on her show, I won’t divulge. We Berkshirians respect each others’ privacy up here.
In honor of the sighting, we decided it was high time to make something from the Barefoot Contessa, but if there was one thing I know about Ina, it’s that she loves her butter. And if there’s one thing I know about Bertrand, it’s that he doesn’t. In our household, butter hasn’t yet become healthy again.
I first googled “barefoot contessa healthy recipes” but the word “healthy” was completely ignored. So I googled Ina’s name, found her blog and picked the recipe from her latest post : Onion & Fennel Soup Gratin. http://barefootcontessa.com/recipes.aspx?RecipeID=1051&S=0
Granted, the first ingredient listed was butter, but it was the unsalted kind, which at least sounds more healthy.
Moreover, when I told Bertrand the recipe called for fennel, his healthy eyes lit up. While he was over in the produce section at Guido’s (http://www.guidosfreshmarketplace.com/) hunting around for ripe avocados, I slipped the required gruyere into the cart beneath the cashews and the red onions. The only salubrious compromise we ended up making dividing the eight cups of broth between beef and vegetable instead of all beef.
After cooking the onions and fennel, then stirring in the cognac, sherry, white wine and broth, we heated the gruyere toast-laden soup in our new Heath Ceramics bowls and paired it with Bertrand’s kale salad (recipe below)
Back over Christmas break, word had spread through the area that the Real Housewives of New York were filming up around the Berks. There goes the neighborhood, I thought, rolling my eyes so much, I gave myself a headache. But how could we feel that way with twinkly Ina? Her presence elevated our little hamlet. And, if this soup is any indication, I think we’re adding something to the Tivo lineup.
For dressing (not that he ever measures…)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup aged balsamic vinegar (the syrupy aged, such as Tondo)
1 garlic clove, minced
2 pinches of sea salt
1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
1/4 parmesan cheese, grated
Finely chop (“Felix Ungar chopped,” says Bertrand) and place in salad bowl.
In small Mason jar, pour olive oil, vinegar, sea salt and garlic. Cover with lid and shake roughly, then pour over kale and mix in thoroughly. Sprinkle hazelnuts into salad, mixing well. Sprinkle with parmesan.