It’s Ina Garten’s birthday! Although we celebrate her every day by cooking her famous Outrageous Brownies, Vanilla Brioche Pudding (not a bad option for a birthday dessert, I might add), Tomato Tart, and a Skillet-Roasted Lemon Chicken, today is special. Ina appeared by our side in our home kitchens nearly twenty years ago when her show, Barefoot Contessa, premiered on Food Network. With it, she introduced her easy-going style, effortless flair for entertaining, and unfussy approach to cooking and baking.
Yes, everything Ina does is practically perfect. But her signature catchphrase, “how easy is that?,” which later became the title of one of her 12 (soon to be 13) bestselling cookbooks, made it seem like anyone could easily make a three-course dinner of warm goat cheese in phyllo, classic beef stew, and coffee granita—and why would you not?
Ina’s approach is the basic formula for many hosted cooking programs. At the end of each show, the host’s guests appear by their side with a bottle of wine or maybe a bouquet of flowers and laugh, passing compliments back and forth like a platter of parmesan-roasted cauliflower. Ina and her friends have a late night playing bridge while consuming more than a few bottles of what I can only assume are very good bottles of wine. She invites the audience in, whether or not they’ve ever played bridge or can afford to own property in the Hamptons. She makes us feel like we all deserve a seat at the table. In celebration of Ina’s birthday, we’re looking back on some of the most important lessons she has taught us over the course of her career.
Use Good Vanilla
There’s a few important things Ina reminds us to do when cooking—preheat the oven, wash your hands after touching raw chicken, and always, always use good vanilla. Yes, Ina wants us to use good everything—good chocolate, good coffee, good olive oil, good buttermilk, good wine—but good vanilla is very important. “Her love for good vanilla cannot be matched. I'm still not 100 percent sure what good vanilla is vs. just vanilla, but when I do bake, I make sure to get the vanilla she uses,” says Sam Cowit, Food52’s email marketing manager. For the record, Ina uses Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract, a yellow-labeled bottle that I can only assume has had skyrocketing sales since 2002 when Barefoot Contessa premiered. If it’s good enough of her, it’s good enough for me.
Roast Chicken Will Make You Fall in Love
Ina has had a number of recipes go viral, well before “going viral” was even a phrase people used colloquially to describe something wildly popular. But perhaps one of her most famous recipes is Engagement Roast Chicken, which calls for a handful of basic ingredients that you should have if you stock your pantry as well as Ina—a roasting chicken, kosher salt and pepper (always kosher salt), lemons, garlic, good olive oil, Spanish onions, white wine, chicken stock, and all-purpose flour. “Ina Garten's roast chicken is the only roast chicken I ever make or need to make! And I make it constantly!” says Food52’s senior SEO strategist Alex Egan.
While there’s no evidence to suggest that Ina cooked this for her husband Jeffrey when he proposed (we actually know this to not be the case, as she has said she didn’t learn to cook until well after she was married), but their 50+ year marriage is proof that love exists…and we have this chicken recipe to thank for that. “Now who wouldn’t want to marry you if you made them this?” asked Ina, rhetorically of course.
Clean Hands Are a Cook’s Best Tools
Ina’s unfussy approach to cooking is what makes her so lovable. She never convinces you that you need a crock of fancy utensils and overpriced gadgets to make her recipes. If you have clean hands, you can do anything that she does—like tossing roasted potatoes together with herbs or rubbing a chicken with softened butter and good olive oil before popping it in the oven.
Flowers Complete Any Tablescape
On Ina’s table, you can almost guarantee there will be plump shrimp cocktail with remoulade sauce, a flourless chocolate cake swaddled in a rich chocolate ganache, and a big, friendly green salad. But at the heart of each of Ina’s dinner tables is a plump, vibrant flower arrangement—it’s often hydrangeas (if you don’t grow them yourself in your multi-acre garden, just use store-bought!), but it’s just as likely to be an arrangement from Michael Grim, Ina’s friend and owner of The Bridgehampton Florist. What do you mean you aren’t best friends with your local florist?
Everyone Looks Good in Denim
Somewhere along the way, an oversized chambray shirt, a pair of black trousers, and black slippers became Ina’s signature look. It’s not fashionable, per se, but it’s dependable and homey, just like Ina. This iconic look was picked up as the ultimate Halloween costume, worn by children and young adults alike—with a partner dressed like Jeffrey by their side, of course. Her favorite slippers are, naturally, Italian cashmere and cost $710.
Fans were reminded again why Ina is the best. After actress Reese Witherspoon posted a list of ideas on Instagram for how to survive the pandemic, such as starting the day with a big glass of water and being in bed by 10 p.m., Ina came in with an iconic rebuttal. Her list of survival techniques included drinking more large cosmos, staying up late watching addictive streaming series, staying in bed in the morning playing Sudoku instead of reading a good book and spending more time (safely) with people you love. “In a pandemic, I do what I can,” added Ina. “Ina’s Garten’s response to Reese Witherspoon was the voice we didn’t know we needed,” said Sarah Yaffa, a data analyst for Food52.
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