I have been scared to write this article. (Seriously, ask my editor—I’ve put it off for months.) For one, Ina Garten’s army runs deep, and I would never want to disrespect them or their leader; and second, she simply has so many books and so much media content—literally decades of content—that it’s hard to even know where to dive in. I feel like this with a lot of things I vaguely know are great, like vermouth, Genesis (but I do know Invisible Touch rules), Pasolini films, and the AeroPress; though I have faith that (hopefully) by the time I’m in my 50s, I will at least sort of grasp them. We’re not here to talk about my insecurities, though—to back up—we’re here to go all in on the cookbooks of Ina Garten, aka the Barefoot Contessa and a truly aspirational figure in the world of cooking and entertaining, and see what I learn in the process.
Fully delving into the Ina-verse is a truly daunting task, but it’s one that’s totally worthwhile. Part of entering this world is accepting that you may never know every cookbook, watch every video, or finish an entire Ina-sized Cosmo. The great thing about Ina Garten, though, is that her love of cooking comes through in everything she touches. For her, it’s all about ease, elegance, togetherness, and, most importantly, having a great time with some dope food and the people you love dining with. Her style is elevated but unpretentious, and she’ll never judge you for doing what seems right according to your own needs (“store-bought is fine” is one of her signature philosophies). The versatility and diversity of her work means you can easily find a recipe to make for any occasion, but you’ll also find entire books dedicated to the aspects of cooking and entertaining you want to know more about, from French food to cooking ahead to partying.
As I’ve concocted a number of dishes from Garten’s assorted cookbooks, I’ve come to understand that each book has a specific vibe and goal, meaning that it’s important to choose the right one for your own life and cooking style. For example, Foolproof was highly recommended to me by a friend, so I just assumed it was a normal cookbook for daily use; but when I started going through it, I realized that it’s really more of an entertaining guide, with rules about setting the table for company, dinner party menu suggestions, and an emphasis on preparing and serving food efficiently to a group. It’s honestly an incredible read for somebody wanting to become a master at hosting a transcendent dinner party while somehow also seeming like they’re barely doing anything at all, but probably not what I’d reach for on a tired Wednesday evening (Barefoot Contessa at Home, on the other hand, is definitely more up that alley). Barefoot Contessa Family Style seems like, well, friend- and family-oriented—dishes to make when the homies are rolling through in droves and you wanna feed ‘em.
All of that said, here are some good places to start with Ina Garten.
Modern Comfort Food
Ina has an incredible ability to sense what people need, and the fact that this book came out in October of 2020, during the height of the pandemic, was an amazing gift to us all (even if it was just a coincidence). There are so many winners here that it’s hard to know where to start. The truffled mac and cheese continues to make a lot of people lose their minds, thanks to its rich, enveloping truffleness, and the Brussels sprout pizza carbonara is a rich and classic ‘00s combo of flavors (naturally, there’s bacon on it). The baked fish chowder is a banger that’s perfect for
one person six people. There are still loads of recipes in this book that I can’t wait to make. (How I forgot to make her crab nachos during the Super Bowl, we’ll never know, but you can bet your ass I’ll be running that one soon.) I made the whole-grain breakfast bowl during a recent cabin vacation with friends, and it was a huge hit—it’s surprisingly complex because of the variety of grains and fruit, but was also easy as hell to put together (though my friends thought I’d slaved over it since dawn, so don’t repeat that).
Back to Basics
“People are always asking me what the new food trends are, but I have to admit that food trends don’t really interest me,” Ina writes in the intro to Back to Basics, her 2008 cookbook focused on keeping it simple but still getting the fundamentals right. “One year, everyone’s cooking with foam. The next year, they’re doing improbable flavor combinations like oyster ice cream.” I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ina [takes bite of truffle pasta sauce-drenched spaghetti, then takes swig of coffee- and protein-filled N/A beer and eats spoonful of ranch dressing ice cream]. Later in the intro, Ina gets into the ethos of this book (and, really, her entire approach to food): creating bangin’ dishes using simple guidelines, like cooking seasonally; not muddling flavors (sorry, ranch ice cream); adding the right amount of brightness from ingredients like salt, Parmesan, vinegar, and lemon; garnishing properly; and pairing dishes together for a stellar menu. She also has a pretty good treatise on what not to serve at a dinner party. Anyway, anything in this book is going to taste good after starting with a Campari orange spritzer (Jesus Christ, is it noon yet or what?), but you really cannot go wrong with soft-shell crab sandwiches, wild mushroom risotto, and Niman Ranch burgers with caramelized onions.
I like to think that Go-To Dinners is a tongue-in-cheek pandemic joke, reversing the “to-go” dinners that we’ve all become obsessed with in the past few years (though I’m sure it’s just my own projection). Truthfully, I very rarely ordered delivery that wasn’t pizza before the pandemic, but by last summer, I could draw my phone and order Chinese or Mexican food with a speed reserved for Clint Eastwood shooting people in Westerns. Why is this book great? Well, first of all, Ina is straight up crushing a bottle of Chablis on the cover and laughing like literally nothing matters—it’s the avatar for how most of us feel every day. I think this one is about finding your way back to cooking after (understandably) stepping away for a bit. The breakfast-for-dinner section alone is super fun (scrambled eggs cacio e pepe is simple but observably lit) and the mussels with saffron cream should be high on your to-make list (on that note, if you don’t have a Staub cast iron mussel pot, go ahead and reassess your dedication to the Ina Garten lifestyle).
Cooking for Jeffrey
The concept of this book alone is absolutely amazing—it’s literally just a whole book about Ina’s relationship with her (much talked-about) husband and how she loves making him things he likes to eat. If getting to the point in your publishing career where you can write that book isn’t one of the highest forms of author clout, I don’t know what is. (“Oh, you won a Pulitzer? That’s nice. I wrote a cookbook about how my husband likes French 75s, roasted chicken, and peach cobbler, and millions of people bought it.”) Not only the intro, but each following dish, is a loving tribute to their relationship and to his unwavering support of her career. “Each [recipe] has been ‘Jeffrey-tested’ again and again, but frankly, I’m not sure that means much, because Jeffrey seems to like everything I make for him, and that’s exactly why I love to cook!” I could talk about the recipes in here, but, honestly, just pick this one up. It’ll rekindle your joy of cooking for the people you care about, and remind you of how fun it is to make somebody something you know they’ll love.
Here’s to great food, fun books, and humongous Cosmos.
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