Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Uys

Ina Garten is Cooking Up the Happy Jewish Memories She’s Always Wanted

Plus, her secrets for the perfect chicken soup.

Food superstar Ina Garten, with her velvety laugh and ready smile, gives us all the warm and cozy feels. Her recipes are easy to make and hard to mess up. She helps us understand the importance and the joy of a delicious, home-cooked meal. Good food, she writes, makes a house feel like a home. And the kitchen is its heartbeat.

Yet growing up, she was never allowed in the kitchen. And while her mother cooked, she didn’t enjoy it.

At 20 years old, Garten married Jeffrey Garten. “The minute I got married,” said Garten, “I really started cooking. I got Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, and I just started working my way through it and taught myself to cook.” She’s now written 12 cookbooks, the most recent of which is Modern Comfort Food, a compilation of homey recipes for meals that are “not just nourishing but… also emotionally satisfying.”

Born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents, the family moved to Connecticut when Ina was five years old. Her grandparents, who lived in Brooklyn, would visit every other Sunday. “They would bring huge bags of groceries,” she said. “There was a deli around the corner from their home, and they would bring everything from chopped liver, brisket, and corned beef to rye bread and cookies and hot dogs. I think they thought we didn’t have food in Connecticut.”

Ten years after she married, Garten purchased the specialty food store, Barefoot Contessa, in Westhampton on Long Island. Monday morning, Jeffrey would go off to his job, be it in Washington, New York, or an international destination. And every Friday he would return to Ina and what became their Friday night ritual: roast chicken

Why roast chicken? “Jeffrey was always coming from somewhere else on Friday. It’s so nice to walk in the house with a roast chicken in the oven. Just the smell of it feels like home. It’s the easiest dinner to put together when I’m working all day. So it just became a tradition with us.”

Creating a welcoming home is Garten’s trademark, which is all the more noteworthy since she did not have the happiest childhood. “I think a lot of what I do,” she said, “is creating what I always wanted, rather than a memory of something.”

This year, because of Covid-19, Garten will be staying in the Hamptons, and she is determined to keep entertaining all winter long. Garten generally does not entertain outside. Even in the summer, she prepares drinks in the garden and then invites everyone indoors for the meal. Now, because of the pandemic, she said, she entertains outdoors all the time. 

“We bought outdoor heaters and sheepskin covers for each chair. Every guest will have a cashmere blanket to wrap themselves in if they need it. I make big bowls of beef stew so people will have something warm and satisfying to eat. Sitting outside in the cold weather is heaven! It feels like we have gone on vacation.”

Leave it to Ina Garten to make a long, cold, socially distant winter sound inviting. “It’s important,” Garten said, “to put up lights outside so it doesn’t feel like you are sitting in a black hole. That helps the magical feeling.”

Her favorite comfort food is any kind of soup — butternut squash with apple, chicken soup with matzah balls, Italian wedding soup. And her secret to a good soup is to make her own stock.“I have a recipe for chicken stock in every one of my books. It has to cook for four hours. I like to use fresh herbs like dill and thyme. A good rich stock makes all the difference in the world.”

Photo credit: Quentin Bacon

Her favorite Jewish comfort food? Challah French toast. She makes it out of her homemade challah, which she flavors with a pinch of saffron. Favorite Jewish holiday food? “I LOVE potato pancakes. I like to serve them with sour cream or smoked salmon or homemade applesauce, which I make in a Dutch oven.”

Garten is known as being the consummate hostess, but there are still people out there who she has not had at her table. When given the choice of any guest, past or present, to invite, her list included women who she describes as, “really accomplished, yet who have a sense of fun and play, like Julia Child, Meryl Streep, Mrs. Obama, Taylor Swift, Mrs. Biden, and Kamala Harris.”  

All of whom — including even Julia Child — we are certain would jump at the chance to share a meal in the comforting and calming space created by Ina Garten.

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