Ina Garten: Modern Comfort Food

         “When I was a kid my mother would cut up hot dogs to add to canned split pea soup for me to eat,” Ina Garten tells me from the barn in West Hampton, New York where she creates and tests the recipes published in her cookbooks, including the latest Modern Comfort Food and on the her Food Network show Barefoot Contessa.

French Chicken Pot Pie for Barefood Contessa’s Frozen Food Packaging 2013

         I tell her that I ate so much split pea soup when I was a kid that my mother told me I was going to turn green. Garten laughs though it really isn’t very funny. It’s just the way she is. Polite and friendly, as if she and I are good friends rather me interviewing her in a spot where her phone gets very poor reception. That’s for sure. During the course of a 45-minute call, we get disconnected at least five times.

         But back to the split pea soup. When Garten was thinking up recipes for “Modern Comfort Food,” the 12th in her Barefoot Contessa series, it was one of the dishes she wanted to include. But not just any old split pea soup.

“My soup is from scratch and instead of hot dogs, I sauteed kielbasa,” she says. I love the way crispy sausage and the creamy soup contrast with each other.”

         Using her culinary magic, among the 85 recipes in her book she transforms the grilled cheese of childhood into Cheddar & Chutney Grilled Cheese and the frozen pot pies your mom kept in the freezer in case she was late getting home morph into Chicken Pot Pie Soup with Puff Pastry Croutons. Burnt hamburgers made by your dad the one time he tried to grill are now Smashed Hamburgers with Caramelized Onions.

         When I mention that I love her recipes because they always work and that often with celebrity cookbooks it’s just the opposite, she responds with a laugh, saying “ya’think?”

         Her recipes, on the other hand, are strenuously tested. It took her six years to perfect her recipe for Boston Cream Pie. She just couldn’t get it right until she finally found the exact flavor matches for the cake, chocolate glaze and pastry cream layers.

         Some, no make that most, of us would have given up or just said “good enough.” But not Garten which is why the Boston Cream Pie she hoped to put in two cookbooks ago didn’t make it until this one.

         “Sometimes it takes me a day to create a recipe that works just right, sometimes weeks or even months,” she says, noting that she loves getting up in the morning knowing she has a long list of recipes to test.

         She also has advice on how to use her recipes.

         “Do it once the way it’s written using the same ingredients, then you’ll know the way it is supposed to be,” she says, noting that someone once complained about one of her recipes not working and when she drilled down as to why, discovered that out of the seven ingredients called for, they didn’t use three. “It’s like someone saying the chocolate cake didn’t turn out and then they tell you they didn’t use any chocolate in it.”

Recipes courtesy of Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.

Copyright © 2020 by Ina Garten. Photography by Quentin Bacon.

Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Chicken Pot Pie Soup

Serves 6

3 chicken breasts, skin-on, bone-in (2½ to 3 pounds total)

Good olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter

5 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts (3 leeks) (see note)

4 cups chopped fennel, tops and cores removed (2 bulbs)

3 cups (½-inch) diced scrubbed carrots (5 medium)

1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves

¼ cup Wondra flour

¾ cup cream sherry, divided

7 cups good chicken stock, preferably homemade

1 (2 × 3-inch) piece of Italian

Parmesan cheese rind

1 (10-ounce) box frozen peas

1 cup frozen whole pearl onions

¼ cup minced fresh parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the chicken on a sheet pan skin side up, rub the skin with olive oil, and season generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 minutes, until a thermometer registers 130 to 140 degrees. Set aside until cool enough to handle. Remove and discard the skin and bones and cut the chicken in 1-inch dice. Set aside.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium (11 to 12-inch) heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, such as Le Creuset, over medium heat. Add the leeks, fennel, and carrots, and sauté over medium-high heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are tender but not browned.

Stir in the garlic and tarragon and cook for one minute. Sprinkle on the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add ½ cup of the sherry, the chicken stock, 4 teaspoons salt, 1½ teaspoons pepper, and the Parmesan rind. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes.

Add the chicken, peas, and onions and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Off the heat, remove the Parmesan rind and add the remaining ¼ cup of sherry and the parsley. Serve hot in large shallow bowls with two Puff Pastry Croutons on top

Note: To prep the leeks, cut off the dark green leaves at a 45-degree angle and discard. Chop the white and light green parts, wash well in a bowl of water, and spin dry in a salad spinner. Wet leeks will steam rather than sauté.

Puff Pastry Croutons -Makes 12 croutons

All-purpose flour

1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, such as Pepperidge Farm, defrosted (see note)

1 extra-large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon heavy cream, for egg wash

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

Lightly dust a board and rolling pin with flour. Unfold the sheet of puff pastry on the board, dust it lightly with flour, and lightly roll the pastry just to smooth out the folds.

With a star-shaped or fluted round cookie cutters, cut 12 stars, or rounds of pastry and place them on the prepared sheet pan. Brush the tops with the egg wash, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until puffed and golden brown.

Defrost puff pastry overnight in the refrigerator. You want the pastry to be very cold when you bake it. make ahead: Prepare the pastry cutouts and refrigerate. Bake just before serving.

Boston Cream Pie

Makes one 9 – inch cake / serves 8

For the cake:

¾ cup whole milk

6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter

1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

½ teaspoon grated orange zest

1½ cups all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1½ cups sugar

for the soak:

¹⁄₃ cup freshly squeezed orange juice

¹⁄₃ cup sugar

1 tablespoon Grand Marnier

For the chocolate glaze:

¾ cup heavy cream

1¼ cups semisweet chocolate chips, such as Nestlé’s (7½ ounces)

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, such as Lindt, broken in pieces

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

½ teaspoon instant coffee granules, such as Nescafé

Grand Marnier Pastry Cream (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter two 9-inch round baking pans, line them with parchment paper, butter and flour the pans, and tap out the excess flour. Set aside.

For the cake, scald the milk and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat (see note). Off the heat, add the vanilla and orange zest, cover the pan, and set aside. In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs and sugar on medium-high speed for 4 minutes, until thick and light yellow and the mixture falls back on itself in a ribbon. By hand, first whisk in the warm milk mixture and then slowly whisk in the flour mixture. Don’t overmix! Pour the batter evenly into the prepared pans. Bake for 22 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for 15 minutes, then turn them out onto a baking rack, flipping them so the top sides are up. Cool to room temperature.

For the soak, combine the orange juice and sugar in a small (8-inch) sauté pan and heat until the sugar dissolves. Off the heat, add the Grand Marnier and set aside

For the chocolate glaze, combine the heavy cream, semisweet chocolate chips, bittersweet chocolate, corn syrup, vanilla, and coffee in a heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon, just until the chocolates melt. Remove from the heat and set aside for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is thick enough to fall back onto itself in a ribbon.

To assemble, cut both cakes in half horizontally. Place the bottom of one cake on a flat plate, cut side up. Brush it with a third of the soak. Spread a third of the Grand Marnier Pastry Cream on the cake. Place the top of the first cake on top, cut side down, and repeat with the soak and pastry cream. Place the bottom of the second cake on top, cut side up. Repeat with the soak and pastry cream. Place the top of the second cake on top, cut side down. Pour the ganache on the cake, allowing it to drip down the sides. Set aside for one hour, until the chocolate sets. Cut in wedges and serve.

Grand Marnier Pastry Cream

Makes enough for one 9-inch cake

5 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature

¾ cup sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

1½ cups whole milk

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon heavy cream

1 tablespoon Grand Marnier

1 teaspoon Cognac or brandy

½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Beat the egg yolks and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed for 4 minutes, until very thick. Reduce the speed to low and add the cornstarch.

Meanwhile, scald the milk in a medium saucepan. With the mixer on low, slowly pour the hot milk into the egg mixture. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture starts to thicken. When the custard starts to clump on the bottom of the pan, stir constantly with a whisk (don’t beat it!) to keep the custard smooth.

Cook over low heat until the custard is very thick like pudding. If you lift some custard with the whisk, it should fall back onto itself in a ribbon. Off the heat, stir in the butter, heavy cream, Grand Marnier, Cognac, and vanilla. Whisk until smooth and transfer to a bowl. Cool for 15 minutes. Place plastic wrap directly on the custard (not the bowl) and refrigerate until very cold.

Ina Garten is doing a virtual Modern Comfort Food tour.

To find out more visit, https://barefootcontessa.com/events and https://www.williams-sonoma.com (click on events on the upper right hand corner).

Jane Ammeson can be contacted via email at janeammeson@gmail.com

President Obama’s Annual List of Favorites

“As 2020 comes to a close, I wanted to share my annual lists of favorites,” Barack Obama, the 42nd President of the United States, tweeted to his 127.5 million followers. “I’ll start by sharing my favorite books this year, deliberately omitting what I think is a pretty good book – A Promised Land – by a certain 44th president. I hope you enjoy reading these as much as I did.”

Somehow, the President forgot to include adding one of my books to his list again. Well, there’s always next year.

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Luster by Raven Leilani

Sharks in the time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Memorial Drive Natasha Trethewey
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Missionaries by Phil Klay
The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Glass House by Emily St. John Mandel

One by One: Ruth Ware’s Locked Door Mystery

        It sounds idyllic–a lovely ski chalet with stunning views of the French Alps, a highly rated chef preparing all the meals, a full-service housekeeper, heated swimming pool, and a week away from the London office. Sure, it’s a corporate retreat for the eight employees of Snoop and that means tedious brainstorming sessions and a rather bitter debate about the future of the company but then there’s bonding on the ski slopes and sitting in front of a cozy fire after a delicious dinner.

Ruth Ware.

 Snoop, a trendy start up that anonymously connects someone for brief periods of time to their favorite celebrities by being able to tune into what music they’re listening to at the time, is all about cool. So really what’s there not to like even after an avalanche closes off any chance of leaving the chalet until the roads are cleared.

        After all, there’s the wine, food, and luxurious lodging, even if its starting to get a little cold since the electricity has been cut off.  But there’s worse to come, this being a Ruth Ware novel after all. One by One Gallery/Scout Press 2020; $16.14 Amazon price), combines the classic locked door mysteries made famous by Agatha Christie and the latest in social media and our willingness to turn over large amounts of information to our apps and how we use them to snoop on others, a subject Ware finds fascinating and what led to her creation of Snoop and the people who work there.

“All those people snooping their neighbor’s houses via property websites, or exploring strange neighborhoods with Google Earth, or using social media to stalk exes,” says Ware, author of bestsellers such as The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Lying Game.  “An app that lets you snoop on the listening habits of its users, both random stranger and celebrities—the quid pro quo being that in order to snoop on others, you must make your own listening public too. Snoop promises “voyeurism for your ears” which seemed to tick all the boxes.”

But Snoop isn’t harmless voyeurism. It leads to death.

        The first to go missing is Eva who may be laying under a ton of  huge boulders dislodged by the force of the sweeping snow. But even before the avalanche, there was a growing divisiveness, It seems each Snooper (as the Snoop workers call themselves) has a secret or two they don’t want revealed and close proximity is making it difficult keep them hidden. Adding to the tension, the missing Eva, one of the partners, was in favor of selling Snoop and scooping up her part of the millions being offered.  Topher, the other partner, wants to keep control and take the company public. The stock divisions owned by the remaining Snoopers are equally divided between those favoring either Eva or Topher. So the focus then is on Liz, a quiet woman who sees herself as weak and demeans herself for letting others take advantage of her. During the early days of the start-up she was paid in shares instead of cash and now has the controlling vote.

        As the deaths pile up, we find out more about the people who work for Snoop through the voices of both Erin, the housekeeper, and Liz.

“Crime and psychology are inseparable really,” says Ware, explaining the motivations behind her characters’ actions. “Readers have to understand why someone would do something as extreme as killing another person, something that’s totally foreign to most of us, no matter what the stakes. For the novel to work, we readers have to be persuaded that that’s plausible, and in their character, without that aspect sticking out like a sore thumb from page one.”

        For more about Ruth Ware and future virtual author vents, visit www.ruthware.com 

Kate Collins Latest Mystery Series

            Kate Collins, best-selling author of the popular Flower Shop mysteries, is—excuse our pun–branching out with her Goddess of Greene St., a series of cozy mysteries centered around single mom Athena Spencer who after divorcing returns home to work in her family’s garden center.

Kate Collins (Linda Tsoutsouris)

            It was a big change not only for Athena but also for her creator, Valparaiso resident Linda Tsoutsouris who has written 23 Flower Shop novels under the pen name of Kate Collins. Three of those books including “Mum’s the Word” were made into Hallmark Movies & Mysteries starring Brooke Shields in the role of Abby Knight, Tsoutsouris’s flower shop owning sleuth along with actors Brennan Elliott, Beau Bridges and Kate Drummond.

Former attorney-turned-small-town-florist, Abby Knight, has a nose for sleuthing, quickly embroiled in a murder investigation, grateful for the help when she teams with retired private eye, Marco Salvare, who now owns a local bar and grill. Photo: Brennan Elliott, Brooke Shields Credit: Copyright 2015 Crown Media United States, LLC/Photographer: Christos Kalohoridis

            “It was hard to leave the flower shop, Abby, her boyfriend Marco and everyone—they were like family,” says Tsoutsouris whose two Goddess mysteries are “Statue of Limitations” and “A Big Fat Greek Murder,”

            “But now I’m feeling more comfortable and I really like Athena,” she says.

            As she did with her other series, Tsoutsouris has created a cast of quirky, fascinating characters including Athena’s mother, Hera who is, as one would expect of the matriarch of a large Greek family, a fantastic cook. There’s also Maia, the goddess of the field in Greek mythology, is a vegetarian in the series and Delphi, a take on the oracles of Delphi who foretold the future.

            “In my book, she’s always reading tea leaves,” says Tsoutsouris.

            The Flower Shop series takes place in the town of New Chapel, a stand-in for Valparaiso.

            “Goddess of Green St. is a mix of Saugatuck, the Lake Michigan town in southwest Michigan and Key West,” says Tsoutsouris who lives part time in Key West, Florida. “I like to give people a point of reference.”

A Flower Shop Novella

            Before she became a writer, Tsoutsouris, who holds a master’s degree from Purdue University, worked as an elementary school teacher. After taking time off to care for her young son and daughter. Tsoutsouris became somewhat restless despite learning to macrame and so signed up for a correspondence course on how to write children’s books. She took it, wrote one, got it published and went on to write another 20. Her next shot at publication wasn’t quite so successful. Tsoutsouris wrote a romance novel she describes as horrible. The publisher agreed, rejecting her book. Always full of energy, Tsoutsouris immediately began attending as many conferences on the subject as possible and broke into that market as well.

            Now with five of her books having made it on to the New York Times Best-sellers’ list, Tsoutsouris is working on the Goddess of Greene St. series and keeps in touch with Abby and New Chapel by writing Flower Shop novellas such as the just released “A Frond in Need.”

            Asked where she gets her ideas as plots for so many mystery novels, Tsoutsouris that almost anything is a creative spark. 

            “If I see a garden pond,” she says, “I ask myself what if a body turns up in the pond?”

For more information, visit katecollins.com

The Witch Hunter

But is Roger Koponen really dead? A security camera at a passenger station picks up his image. Indeed, he seems to want to be recognized as he boldly stares straight into the lens.

Max Seeck

          When the Helsinki police arrive at the lakeside home of Maria Koponen, they find her dressed in a long black evening gown and high heels at the dining room table, her face contorted into a Joker-like smile. It’s an odd scene that turns eerie when they realize she is dead.

Arriving at the scene, policewoman Jessica Niemi briefly talks to one of the techs processing the scene and then, as he’s leaving, discovers that he isn’t part of the team. She quickly runs after him, but he’s disappeared, seemingly into nowhere.

As for Maria’s husband, Roger, he is hours away in Savonlinna giving a talk about his bestselling books, the Witch Hunt trilogy. The police chief in Savonlinna volunteers to drive him back to Helsinki and though it’s already late, they begin the long drive. At first all seems well, but then the Helsinki police lose contact with them and they never arrive at the station. A search along the road they were traveling turns up their burned bodies in the woods.

          But is Roger Koponen really dead? A security camera at a passenger station picks up his image. Indeed, he seems to want to be recognized as he boldly stares straight into the lens.

          “Basically the book tells a very creepy story about a murderous coven, that go after people they think are witches,” says Max Seeck, author of The Witch Hunter (Berkley 2020; $17), the first of his five books to be translated from Finnish to English. “All the murders are copied from a bestselling author’s trilogy.”

          Creepy indeed. Not only are the victims killed in the same manner as in Koponen’ s books, as Niemi leads the investigative team in trying to stop any further deaths, but she also has to deal with her own dark past. The only survivor of a car accident that killed her parents and brother, she’s inherited a fortune but doesn’t want anyone to know. She has gone so far as to establish a small apartment—commensurate with what a lowly paid policewoman could afford–that has a door leading to the sumptuous living quarters where she really resides. But being wealthy isn’t her only secret. Years earlier she killed her abusive lover and only one person knows. That’s her boss, who is like a father to her. But he now is dying, leaving her vulnerable. That vulnerability increases when the other investigators on the case note that all the dead women–dark haired and beautiful–are similar in looks to Niemi. 

          It looks like the killers may be targeting Niemi and she’s ordered to stay home. But that’s not easy for her as she’s determined to solve the case.

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