Book Review: ‘Modern Comfort Food’

Book Review: ‘Modern Comfort Food’

Just in time for the holidays: Ina Garten’s new cookbook is soul-satisfying

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Ina Garten is best known as the host of the television cooking show Barefoot Contessa. On the air since 2002, it is the Food Network’s longest-running show and features Garten preparing multicourse meals, making them accessible for her viewers to recreate at home.

Modern Comfort Food (Penguin Random House/Clarkson Potter) marks her twelfth cookbook, a series of bestsellers that began in 1999 with The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Subsequent entries included Barefoot Contessa Foolproof, Barefoot Contessa How Easy Is That?, Barefoot Contessa in Paris, among other successful and popular titles.

Now Garten has turned her focus to comfort food. In these times, it is a welcome entry.  “I often say,” she writes, “that you can be miserable before eating a cookie and you can be miserable after eating a cookie, but you can never miserable while you’re eating a cookie.” This tongue-and-cheek remark sets up this collection of 85 all-new soul-satisfying ensuing recipes divided into six sections:  Cocktails (which is actually dominated by hors d’oeuvres); Lunch; Dinner: Vegetables & Sides; Dessert; and Breakfast.

Tomato & Goat Cheese Crostata

Her take is that food can both celebrate and soothe — whether a birthday cake or a gift to someone who is struggling. “Food can be so much more than simple sustenance.”

Garten acknowledges that comfort food is a very individual taste, often rooted in our earliest memories. To this end, she offers new takes on classic favorites. Her chicken soup (often considered physical and emotional nourishment) is a Chicken Pot Pie Soup. She remembers her mother’s canned split pea soup with cut-up hot dogs; she has taken this idea and created a Split Pea Soup with Crispy Kielbasa. She doesn’t ignore the beloved tuna fish sandwich and offers Ultimate Tuna Melts.

There is the Creamy Tomato Bisque, complimented by the Cheddar and Chutney Grilled Cheese, as the response to the often-sought tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich, the go-to of so many childhoods. Other options include a Lobster BLT and Truffled Mac & Cheese.

The “modern” in the book comes from Garten’s research into the roots of the traditional dish and then re-envisioning and often lightening the recipe, facilitating the cooking, and adding new or different flavors. Ultimately, her goal is “true home cooking but with a twist or update that makes it special enough to serve to company.” The cookbook has some international flavors as she notes that immigrants brought many of their tastes of home with them.

Her “good ingredients” list suggests items that are ideal for the recipes as well as brands to which she has an affinity. “I started calling for specific ingredients because they do make a difference … They don’t have to be expensive but they have to be chosen thoughtfully …”  Salt, in particular, is considered the most important.

No recipe is longer than a single page, with many of them shorter. The list of components rarely goes above a dozen and often contains half of that number. Each recipe is proceeded by a short introduction that personalizes what follows. There is something here for everyone’s tastes — sweet and savory, light and hearty, vegetarian and non. From the simple to the more complicated, the book is carefully presented, with clear and straightforward instructions.

In addition, there are informative interludes between sections. “Staying Engaged” advocates for the power of interaction and socializing over meals; eschewing cellphones and enriching your life by “enjoying one-another’s company face-to-face.” “Evolution of a recipe” shares Garten’s odyssey of creating her version of Boston Cream Pie. She writes with warmth and honesty, citing her challenges and successes. She connects to the readers by dispelling the mystery of cooking and the fear that often accompanies it.

Boston Creme Pie

She also suggests alternate ways to approach more difficult tasks. Hollandaise sauce usually demands a double boiler, a blender, and a good deal of focused time; instead, she presents a simpler take with a bowl, a whisk, and the microwave.

Of course, no cookbook is complete without visual support and there are dozens of vivid color photographs by Quentin Bacon, along with party pictures by Jean-Pierre Uys. These delightful illustrations ably function as a guide to the finished products.

Modern Comfort Food is a welcome addition to an already prolific author’s works. As Garten states:  “Whether you’re a beginning or an experienced cook, these recipes will help you feel confident that you can cook wonderful food for you family and friends and that will bring everyone to your table. And if you end up being happier — and healthier! — because of it, so much the better!”

Modern Comfort Food is available at Book Revue in Huntington, penguinrandomhouse.com, amazon.com and barnesand noble.com.

Photos by Quentin Bacon

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