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Seasons by the Sea: Barefoot Comfort, Just When We Need It

Wed, 10/21/2020 - 21:32
Ina Garten's latest book was in the works before the pandemic, but was rushed to publication to help people looking for comforting recipes during Covid-19.
Clarkson Potter

With the certainty and reliability of staghorn corals' release of gametes on the Great Barrier reef in November, the migration of swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano, and the horseshoe crabs spawning under a full June moon, Ina Garten has released a new cookbook, her 12th (!), titled "Modern Comfort Food."

There is no doubt this book was started before a worldwide pandemic, but the publication was sped up because of it, and Ina addresses our current situation in the book. Whether it was intuitive on her part or not, the release of the book at this particular time could not be more welcome. After all, what could be more comforting than a grilled cheddar-chutney sandwich with creamy tomato bisque, fresh crab and pea risotto, or coffee chocolate chip sandwiches?

One of the pleasures of "reviewing" a new Ina Garten cookbook is that her cookbooks are pretty much flawless. I can scour every page looking for typos or a recipe mistake and find nary a one. So it's not a chore or a review, it's just me with a cup of tea or fancy cocktail, making notes and muttering to myself "THAT sounds good!"

Something I just noticed is that the last four books, including this one, are not exactly "Barefoot Contessa" books, they are Ina Garten: "Cooking for Jeffrey," "Cook Like a Pro," "Make It Ahead," and now "Modern Comfort Food," with a little itty bitty "A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook" at the bottom of the cover.

Some of the features that are most enjoyable in Ina Garten's books are her cozy and upbeat writing style, an illustrated list of essential ingredients, a list of sources, a regular index, AND a recipe index. The photos by Quentin Bacon are always tantalizing and dare I say I noticed a whisper of "wabi-sabi" creeping into their compositions? The dishes are not perfect, you may spy a little crumb here or a berry stain there, reminiscent of Robert Fresson's beautiful books on the foods of France.

There are never any particularly challenging recipes, although having to grate potatoes for a galette and hash browns comes close. The recipes in this book are reliable, understandable, not exotic, easily executed with ingredients one can find anywhere in the U. S. of A., trustworthy, comfortable, relaxing, and enjoyable. I know, I know, I could be describing a golden retriever or the missionary position, but I mean these descriptives as a compliment.

The best recipes are the ones with a creative twist, such as chicken pot pie soup, a rich soup with leeks, pearl onions, fennel, tarragon, sherry, and white meat chicken. The recipe was inspired by an airport restaurant's menu but Ina elevates the concept by making puff pastry croutons to top the soup. To use one of her expressions: "most astonishing!"

A lesson that can be learned from this cookbook, along with many of her previous cookbooks, is the importance of layering seasoning. For example, the recipe for roasted butternut squash has the cook adding salt three times: once at the beginning, again for the browned butter sauce, and finally when finishing the dish before serving. The sprinkling of lemon zest at the end is another splendid touch.

There are headnotes and lagniappes galore in "Modern Comfort Food," which also makes it fun to read. Don't we all want to know that Ms. Garten likes shortcuts, less dishes to wash, and just plain old having fun with her friends around the dinner table? She will also be the first to admit to struggling with a recipe, such as when she was attempting to perfect that old school dessert, Boston cream pie. The pastry chef Christina Tosi of Milk Bar fame came to the rescue with the suggestion of brushing simple syrup on the layers of cake before filling with pastry cream and topping with chocolate glaze. As she is wont to do, Ina boosts the flavor of the syrup with Grand Marnier and fresh orange juice.

Admittedly, this book probably has more Pepperidge Farm bread, white cheddar, Ritz crackers, and Hellman's mayo than the Congressional and Knickerbocker country clubs combined, but they are simply included as the familiar comfort food ingredients of yore. They're more deja vu than "moo."

The oeuvre of Ina is no doubt not yet finished, but it feels complete with this 12th volume. This may be the first and perhaps only cookbook to discuss how we are all feeing at this point in history.

One other thing I noticed: All of the previous books have a little Sharpie pen Ina autograph with three Xs. This one has four. Thanks, Ina, we all needed that extra kiss . . . along with some cheddar scallion creamed corn and pomegranate gimlets and seared salmon with spicy red pepper aioli and applesauce cake with bourbon raisins and. . . .

Fresh Corn Polenta
This recipe from Ina Garten's newest book, "Modern Comfort Food," would be delicious with some late season corn. She suggests serving it with roasted sausages, peppers, and onions or a simple roast chicken.
Serves six.

3 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 1/2 tsp. minced garlic (2 cloves)
3/4 cup fine cornmeal, such as Indian Head
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3 cups fresh corn kernels cut off the cobs (4 large ears)
1/2 cup freshly grated Italian Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. creme fraiche

Combine chicken stock, half a cup of water, and the garlic in a large saucepan and bring to a full boil over high heat.

Slowly add the cornmeal while whisking constantly to ensure there are no lumps. Switch to a wooden spoon, add one and a half teaspoons salt and one teaspoon pepper, and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring often, until the polenta is thick but still creamy. (The timing will depend on the cornmeal that you choose.) Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan with the wooden spoon so the bottom doesn't burn.

Meanwhile, heat the butter in a large (12-inch) sauté pan over medium heat. Add the corn and cook for five to eight minutes, depending on the starchiness of the corn, until the corn is cooked through and starting to brown around the edge of the pan.

Off the heat, stir the corn, Parmesan, and creme fraiche into the polenta. Taste for seasonings and serve hot.
This recipe can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to a few days. Spoon into a saucepan with extra chicken stock or water and reheat over low heat until creamy and hot.

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