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Five years ago, after a winter spent binge-watching "Barefoot Contessa" and reading Julia Child's "My Life In France," I was inspired to branch out from my regular diet of frozen meals and late-night disco fries and finally learn how to cook for myself.
That spring and summer, I wasted many hours in the kitchen attempting dishes that were way above my pay grade and making one too many failed recipes from unreliable sources. From that experience, two things became abundantly clear: 1) I needed to go back to basics and learn proper techniques for cooking and baking, and 2) Ina Garten’s recipes were always easy to follow with clear directions, plenty of helpful tips and they didn’t skimp on the flavor — in a word, foolproof.
Just as Garten had learned to cook by working her way through Child’s "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," I would learn by tackling all 1,300 of Ina’s recipes — my own little "Julie & Julia" project. Who would be a better teacher than person who sparked my newfound passion? I soon started the Instagram account @storeboughtisfine and began documenting both my successes and failures.
Little did I know that the cooking skills, ingenuity, tips and perspectives that Garten taught me over the past five years would become so much more important as we faced the coronavirus pandemic and resulting quarantine — when dining out wasn’t an option, we couldn’t socialize in person and grocery store shelves were bare.
Here are some of the lessons I learned from cooking over 1,000 of Garten's recipes (and counting!) that helped me cope.
The kitchen doesn't have to be a source of frustration.
When we first began quarantine, many people panicked at the idea of cooking all of their own meals — whether they thought they were a bad chef, got frustrated easily in the kitchen or simply believed cooking wasn’t for them.
Not long ago, I was that person. But during the pandemic, what was once a source of frustration became my happy place amidst the onslaught of bad news — a place where I could clear my head and focus my excess energy creatively. When everything felt out of control, cracking open a Barefoot Contessa book and following a recipe gave me a needed sense of normalcy.
My love of cooking, however, didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of time in the kitchen cooking and baking and included plenty of failures and, eventually, some successes. Like most things in life, my cooking improved the more I did it, but frustration came often in the early days.
Over time, I found that adopting the habits of the professionals — practicing mise en place and cleaning as I go — made me more comfortable in my small kitchen, learning when to take meat and baked goods out of the oven led to more satisfying meals, and discovering new flavor combinations led to more experimentation, which was extremely helpful when I couldn’t find key ingredients at the store.
Make meals that can be repurposed — aka 'two-fers.'
Doing this project while living alone leads to a refrigerator full of leftovers. In normal times, this issue was mitigated by hosting regularly and taking desserts to work. But without those options, Garten's idea of "two-fers" came in handy. She admittedly doesn’t enjoy leftovers, so in "Cook Like a Pro," she introduced the "twofer" — a dish that can be repurposed as a completely different meal the next day, like her Tomato & Eggplant Soup that she morphs into Baked Pasta with Tomatoes & Eggplant.
Ina Garten's Tomato and Eggplant Soup by Ina Garten
During quarantine, Garten was doing this more often — turning her Ultimate Beef Stew into a Bolognese, for example — and so was I. One of my favorite transformations was repurposing her Herb-Roasted Lamb with Potatoes into a cumin lamb stir-fry.
Store-bought is fine — really.
Cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for weeks on end gets old — even Garten admitted she hit a wall during the pandemic — so it's important to take breaks: order in, make a cheese board with store-bought ingredients in lieu of dinner or pick up a ready-made meal from the grocery store. And remember, as Garten says, "It’s always cocktail hour in a crisis!" I’m not sure what I did before my daily Ina-recommended cosmo!
Cooking isn't just about taste — it's a feeling.
Garten often emphasizes that cooking isn't just about delicious food — sure, that’s a bonus — but for those of us who love to cook, it’s a way to show we care. Cooking for myself never elicits as much joy as preparing a meal for family and friends. These days, all-day brunch feasting on Barefoot Contessa recipes with friends isn’t an option, but the joy emanating from my boyfriend when he tries my latest dessert is all I need in the world.
And in stressful times such as these, food can provide a much-needed balm for the soul. When we first entered lockdown, I was inspired to make easy comfort food from my childhood (like my grandma’s Welsh rarebit) and I’m sure I’m not alone. The nostalgia of those dishes helped to ease my mind — though they never tasted quite as good as when grandma or my mom made it for me.
Ina Garten's Cheddar and Chutney Grilled Cheese by Ina Garten
"Modern Comfort Food," Garten's latest book, could not have come at a better time. Who hasn’t enjoyed a big bowl of tomato soup and grilled cheese when feeling under the weather, or a pot of creamy mashed potatoes while crying on the couch? The book is an ode to the healing nature of food, the care communicated through cooking and bringing people together — and we could all use a little more (OK, a lot more) of that right now.