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The Contessa's Secret: Keep On Being Barefoot

April 11, 2001|RUSS PARSONS

Barefoot Contessa is a chic deli in the Hamptons that specializes in building a dish from familiar elements, polishing it to a high sheen and selling it to an eager clientele. Last year, owner Ina Garten took that formula to the cookbook world with astonishing results. "The Barefoot Contessa'-a combination of popular "urban rustic" dishes, the James McNair "picture with every recipe" page format and the Martha Stewart style-was one of the best-selling books of the year.

The newly released "Barefoot Contessa Parties!" (Clarkson Potter, $32.50) is sure to meet similar success. It made Amazon.com's Top 10 Cookbooks on advance orders alone a full three weeks before it went on sale. If you saw the first book, you know what to expect from this one: Great glossy pictures, printed on heavy stock, of basic dishes like rack of lamb and garlic-roasted potatoes.

Not that that's a bad thing, as the gang on Seinfeld used to say. What Garten brings to the book isn't a groundbreaking food aesthetic but a highly developed sense of how to take stuff people "like" and then turn it into things that they "need." There are few dishes in this book that you couldn't find someplace else. But what you probably can't find is the casual elegance with which Garten presents them.

The theme of the book is, obviously, entertaining, and the book is organized around 16 party menus (things like "Canoe Trip" and "Fireside Dinner'). But it's what's behind the menus that is most interesting and is probably the key to Garten's success. Every dish is photographed in golden natural light-or at least a very skillful studio reproduction of it-and that gives the impression that these dishes are, really, just something she threw together in a couple of minutes (given the simplicity of the food, that's probably not far off). Further, the recipe notes are replete with chummy references to her many foodie friends (indeed, it sometimes seems half the recipes come from somebody else).

Appropriately for a book on entertaining, you end up feeling that you've stumbled into one of the hottest backyard parties in the Hamptons-and, hey! You can do that too!

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