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Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012

Barefoot Contessa and the Art of the Cookbook

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Though most people know Ina Garten as the contented, reassuringly soft-spoken host of the Food Network’s long-running “Barefoot Contessa,” she considers her television gig secondary to her true career as a cookbook author. “I think a lot of chefs define themselves as TV people, and then they’ll write cookbooks based on their TV show, but I do it differently,” Garten says. “Cookbooks are where my heart is. For me, the cookbooks always come first, and then we’ll use the recipes for the show.”

It’s not surprising that Garten feels so passionately about cookbooks, considering the impact she’s had on the medium. When she published her inaugural The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook in 1999, cookbooks tended to be big, blocky things, compendiums of more recipes than all but the most compulsive chefs could ever use. “All the books that were popular then were How to Cook Everything, or ‘500 Recipes,’ or The Cake Bible,” Garten says. “I didn’t think anybody needed 500 recipes. You need 75 or 100 recipes you know have been tested over and over again that work. So I thought of myself as the customer. I thought, ‘What cookbook would I want?’ I wanted something you could trust, where you know the recipes would work every time.”

With its roomy layouts and large, full-page photos, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook helped lay the foundation for the coffee-table-style cookbooks that now dominate the market. Her latest, Barefoot Contessa Foolproof, continues in that mold, while adding a small twist in the form of extra instructions to walk readers through steps that could confuse or surprise them the first time they attempt a dish. “I’m right there with them so when they get to a point where they go, ‘Oh, my god: Is that right?’ I can say, ‘Yes, it is supposed to bubble up violently at that point,’” Garten explains. “I really walk the reader through the recipe. One of the things I feel strongly about is some recipes say ‘season to taste.’ Nobody knows what that means. Salt is sometimes the most important ingredient. You can have delicious chicken stock, but if you don’t salt it, it’ll taste like dishwater. So I always make sure to specify one-half teaspoons of salt, or however much a recipe calls for.”

Since recipes of all stripes are now widely available online, Garten says establishing trust with cookbook readers is more important than ever. “The difference between getting a recipe from the Internet and getting a recipe from a cook you trust is you know the recipes will work, will have a certain style and a certain process,” she says. “This book gives me the chance to talk a little bit about my process and really explain to the reader what makes the recipes foolproof.”

Ina Garten speaks at The Riverside Theater on Friday, Nov. 2. Tickets include an autographed copy of Barefoot Contessa Foolproof.