The last day of shooting for Ina Garten’s 12th cookbook, Modern Comfort Food, was on the first day of lockdown. Though the book had long since been conceived, written and edited, it turns out its theme remains highly fitting for these pandemic times, which she hadn’t anticipated, and an impending U.S. election, which she had.
Like the offerings in her previous 11 books, which include Make it Ahead, Back to Basics and Cooking for Jeffrey, a comfortable familiarity is a huge part of the appeal of the recipes in her newest release, out this month. Ina’d-up risotto, gratins, bourbon apple cake, tuna melts, and warm spinach and artichoke dip aren’t particularly diverse, but are approachable and trustworthy. And though this is traditionally the season for home entertaining, something we won’t be doing much of this year, Garten’s calm reassurance is a needed salve. She arms us with the confidence to feed ourselves, and those around us, well.
The Globe and Mail spoke with Garten on the phone from East Hampton, N.Y., where she and her husband, Jeffrey, have spent the past seven months – Garten writing, cooking and working without her usual team to prep, style and shoot her show, now going into its 27th season, in the adjacent renovated kitchen-barn.
What is modern comfort food?
I think it’s all about taking care of ourselves and the people around us, whether it’s the family that you live with, a roommate, or the people next door you bring a big pot of soup to. Everyone can do it at some level, and everybody is grateful for it – whether you can cook or not, you’re grateful for having someone deliver cookies to your house.
How have you seen people’s cooking habits change throughout the pandemic?
We all got so busy … and we came to appreciate the simpler things, like baking bread, or having dinner with friends outside. I’ve never had a dinner party outside! I’ve bought the local hardware store out of outdoor heaters. In France you can sit outside most of the winter, so I’m hoping we can do that here. If I can’t see my friends, I’m really going to go down a rabbit hole.
People are paying more attention to food waste these days. Rather than look at a recipe and source the ingredients, they’re looking for ways to use what they have.
You know, when the pandemic started and I realized I’d be making three meals a day, plus my work, plus my TV show. … I did that for two months and I almost had a meltdown – no, I actually did have a meltdown! I was on Instagram every day, trying to help people figure out what to do with the white beans in their pantry. And I used to not like leftovers. I always thought it was like a pale version of what I had yesterday, but I have a new-found appreciation for leftovers. I like to make something completely different out of them. I’m using that experience for my next book … it has been really interesting to me.
Yes! There has always been this stigma to leftovers, when really they’re just homemade convenience foods.
Exactly! I come from a specialty food business and I was very aware at the time that everything was leftovers. When you bought something from Barefoot Contessa, it was already made – you bought it, took it home and heated it up. The difference was you hadn’t already eaten it the day before.
We’ve had a lot of family meals on Zoom and FaceTime this year. How do we have gatherings when we can’t be together in real life?
It’s hard. You can do it outside, which is hard to do, or you can say this is going to be really different, and we don’t have to worry about those pesky relatives, and just do something really special with the people who are with you. I think it’s important to celebrate the holidays, so you have a sense of the year, and it’s nice to have that moment when everybody takes the day off and cooks a meal together, and eats something special and traditional.
We do Zoom cocktails, which is not the same by any stretch … but everyone makes the same thing, so with our friends in Wyoming, we all made the hummus in my next book, we made the same cocktails, so at least we felt like we were at the same party. It’s great because everyone is rethinking everything. There’s a way to do it that’s different, and in some ways it’s actually better.
What have you realized about yourself through this pandemic?
I’m filming my TV show by myself. I mean by myself. I don’t have anyone else here, so I’m the hair stylist, I’m the makeup person, I’m the camera person, I’m the sound guy … I’m the food stylist and the prop stylist, and when I’m done with that, I’m the presenter. And I always do one of them wrong.
What about all the dishes?
Oh my god, if I unload one more dishwasher. Isn’t it unbelievable how many dishes you make? I have two dishwashers at my house, and I have two at the barn, and they’re 100 yards apart. So I finish doing the dishes, working on TV or a book, and I go home and there’s a pile of dishes in the sink. It’s like, not more dishes!
Does Jeffrey help?
Ummm, no. He clears. His idea of doing dishes is putting everything into the sink, which I’m very grateful for.
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