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'Barefoot Contessa' Garten focuses on recipes that can be made ahead, finished at last minute

09/30/2014 11:58 EDT | Updated 11/30/2014 05:59 EST
Ina Garten is a bestselling cookbook author, an Emmy-winning television host and the doyenne of casual elegance. But on a recent afternoon, the so-called "Barefoot Contessa" star looked around her East Hampton, New York, kitchen and realized that she had produced piles of cherry biscotti and tubs of rum-raisin ice cream — but no dinner.

The lifestyle maven then did what millions of Americans do in such a pinch: she called the nearest restaurant.

"On a day that I've been cooking all day, it's very nice to call up and do take-out from them," said Garten, whose ninth cookbook is released in late October and who is already at work on the next. "There's pasta with tomatoes that's on the menu. It's wonderful."

It's that laid-back, I'm-like-you approach that has secured Garten legions of fans who pre-order her books the day they're announced and call her by her first name, just like Martha or Oprah. Whether helping neighbours throw potluck dinners in a farm field, hosting cocktails for the historical society on her terrace or roaming through California's wine country in a Mini Cooper, Garten approaches the task as an adventure that can benefit from her sensibilities.

Hers is a casual approach to home cooking and entertaining, but do not take it for sloppy or indifferent. Even when preparing the do-it-early meals that are the focus of her new book, "Make Ahead Meals," she's exacting.

"I was always interested in science," Garten, who began her career as a nuclear policy analyst in the Ford and Carter White Houses, said in a recent telephone interview.

Then, "out of the blue," she bought a Hamptons specialty food store, the now-shuttered Barefoot Contessa. She now spends her time writing cookbooks, filming her popular Food Network program and living a life her fans envy.

But she's a stickler for details, toiling over recipes until she's confident they're as good as they're going to get in the hands of a home cook. Especially the meals that she prepares ahead of time and then stores in the refrigerator or freezer until she has guests to entertain.

"I find it very scientific," she said of her method of testing recipes — sometimes as many as 25 times before settling on the ratios. "But in the end you end up with cherry biscotti."

Garten is perfectly aware that hers is an aspirational life. Not everyone buys a neighbour's Hamptons home, tears it down and builds a barn to film a television series in, after all.

"There's no such thing as too indulgent. What would be too indulgent?" she deadpans.

During the first episode of the 21st season of her Food Network show, Garten made dog biscuits with producers Rob Marshall ("Chicago," ''Into the Woods") and his partner John DeLuca ("Nine," ''Memoirs of a Geisha") before having cocktails. In another episode, she and food mogul Eli Zabar have a butter tasting to see which is best.

But she also confesses that it looks easier than it actually is.

"I always feel like when people arrive for dinner, you want them to feel like, 'Oh, I just whipped it up in the few minutes before you got there,'" she says with a chuckle. "Of course, any cook knows that it never happens that way."

But in her new book, "Make It Ahead," Garten offers a guide to that feeling.

"There's always a way around it so you're actually doing the last-minute cooking just before it's served," she said.

It's what she's been doing for decades, but now has collected her recipes in one book. But there are limits, she adds.

"People want to make Christmas cookies and bake them in July and then freeze them and defrost them in December, which you clearly can't do," Garten said. "But there's a way to make 90 per cent of it ahead of time and then just bake it off before you serve them. This I know how to do."

And if it doesn't work out, there's always take-out.

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PASTITSIO

"Pastitsio is like a Greek lasagna," Garten explains in her new cookbook, "Make It Ahead." ''It takes a while to make, but you can assemble it a day ahead and refrigerate it. The combination of beef, lamb, red wine, garlic and cinnamon — plus the creamy, cheesy bechamel topping — makes this a really satisfying winter meal."

To prep this ahead, assemble the pastitsio completely and refrigerate for up to 2 days or freeze for up to 3 months. If frozen, thaw before baking.

Start to finish: 2 1/2 hours (40 minutes active)

Servings: 10

Good olive oil

1 large yellow onion, chopped (1 1/2 cups chopped)

1 pound lean ground beef

1 pound lean ground lamb

1/2 cup dry red wine, such as Cotes du Rhone

1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

Pinch of cayenne pepper

28-ounce can crushed tomatoes in thick puree

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese, divided

7 ounces plain Greek yogurt

12 ounces small pasta shells

2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten

In a large pot over medium-high, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion and saute for 5 minutes.

Add the beef and lamb and saute over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, crumbling it with a wooden spoon, until it's no longer pink. Add the wine and cook for 2 minutes. Add the garlic, cinnamon, oregano, thyme and cayenne, and continue cooking over medium heat for 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and their liquid, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the liquid evaporates. Set aside.

Heat the oven to 350 F.

For the bechamel, in a small saucepan over medium-low, heat the milk and cream until simmering. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter, then add the flour and cook, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes. Pour the hot milk mixture into the butter and flour mixture, whisking constantly. Continue whisking over medium heat for 4 to 6 minutes, until thick and smooth. Add the nutmeg, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Stir in 3/4 cup of the Parmesan and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Stir in the yogurt and set aside.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta shells and cook until al dente, according to the package instructions. Don't overcook the pasta; it will be baked later. Drain and set aside.

To assemble, combine the pasta with the meat and tomato sauce, then stir in the eggs. Pour the mixture into an 11-by-15-inch baking dish. Spread the bechamel evenly over the pasta and sprinkle with the remaining 3/4 cup of Parmesan. Bake for 1 hour, until golden brown and bubbly. Set aside for 10 minutes and serve hot.

Nutrition information per serving: 660 calories; 350 calories from fat (53 per cent of total calories); 39 g fat (19 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 170 mg cholesterol; 40 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 35 g protein; 1670 mg sodium.

(Recipe adapted from Ina Garten's "Make It Ahead," Clarkson Potter, 2013)

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