At the beginning of Ina Garten’s new cookbook, ModernComfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (Clarkson Potter), there’s a gorgeous photo of grilled cheese and cream of tomato soup that makes me want to sigh with relief and fall into the book. The queen of easy elegance has done it again, tapping into the id of the American gourmand and dishing up the culinary equivalent of a warm hug.
Modern Comfort Food is the Contessa’s twelfth cookbook — a testament to her popularity and the quality of the delicious recipes she shares. The thing that makes this cookbook unlike any of her others is that it was written during the pandemic and it acknowledges the kind of recipes we need right now. Garten polled friends and family and asked what kind of foods they wanted during the lockdown and the answers were unsurprising — grilled cheese, split pea soup with hotdogs, tuna fish sandwiches with potato chips, pasta, enchiladas, scrambled eggs — but in the cookbook, they get the sophisticated Contessa update. It’s comfort food for grownups that even kids will love. “I wanted each dish in the book to feel familiar but to be so much more delicious than you expected,” Garten writes.
There are lots of shortcuts in the book that don’t skimp on flavor, but that doesn’t mean the food isn’t classy enough for company — when we finally can be with those we love in person. In the meantime, your family will feel like company as you try out such treats as Lobster BLTs or Truffled Mac & Cheese. Yes, this is not a gluten-free, low-carb, low-fat, vegetarian cookbook. Those things have their place, but for these uncertain times, it’s comfort we’re after, and Garten delivers.
If there’s one recipe in the book I can’t wait to make, it’s Chicken Pot Pie Soup with Puff Pastry Croutons. I’ve made attempts at soups that resemble chicken pot pie, and they’ve been yummy. But this one, which adds a splash of cream sherry and all the veggies you expect to find in a chicken pot pie, sounds like the bomb. The addition of croutons made from puff pastry dough, which is easily found in your supermarket, adds the dimension of pie crust without the trouble.
The Seared Tuna & Avocado Rolls (a play on the ubiquitous lobster roll) also had me salivating. Here Garten takes sharper flavors like lime and jalapeno and pairs them with the creamy fattiness of chunks of tuna and avocado. A drizzle of smoky, spicy chipotle mayo topping off this lusciousness on a toasted roll makes for a brighter and bolder version of the old favorite.
Photo credit: Quentin Bacon
The ultimate comfort food pairing might just be the grilled cheese and tomato soup I mentioned earlier, or more correctly Creamy Tomato Bisque with Cheddar and Chutney Grilled Cheese. The sandwiches couldn’t be easier — they just require good bread, a good brand of mango chutney (Garten likes Stonewall Kitchen) and good cheddar. The soup is a bit more complicated, but even that can be done within an hour. Heavy cream smooths the acidic edges of the San Marzano tomatoes and, with the addition of slowly caramelized onions and a zing of crushed red pepper, turns it into a velvety pool of luxuriousness in which to dip your grilled cheese.
My favorite section is the one on breakfast. As Garten so correctly states, nothing is more comforting than breakfast food. In my house, Breakfast for Dinner is an acknowledged treat — absolutely mandatory for really bad days. Garten provides easy recipes for ingenious upgrades that I know I’ll be making again and again. Particularly inviting are her Smashed Eggs on Toast and her Breakfast Tacos.
If I have any qualms about the recipe content, it’s the number of recipes that require bacon. I know that nothing really beats its smoky, savory, umami goodness for those who consume it, but requiring it in so many recipes seems like taking the easy way out. Surely a cookbook writer of Garten’s talent could come up with other ways to kick up the flavor? That doesn’t mean bacon doesn’t have its place. I applaud the use of bacon in the Lobster BLT. It’s a messy, drippy, divine combination of sweet lobster, snappy tomato, crispy lettuce and the savory crunch of bacon all drizzled with a tangy-sweet Thousand Island dressing.
If your kitchen bookshelf is like mine, you probably don’t have room for yet another cookbook. But how can you resist such comforting inspiration? In these difficult times, food and the people we nourish are what shine a light in the darkness. As Garten says, “food can be so much more than simple sustenance.” The Barefoot Contessa is back with the joy and comfort that sustains us, now and, hopefully, in a not-too-distant, brighter future.
Ina Garten is a New York Times bestselling author and the James Beard Award-winning host of Barefoot Contessa, which has won three Emmy Awards and airs on the Food Network. She lives in East Hampton, New York, with her husband, Jeffrey.
is a writer, editor and dabbler in arty stuff. A fourth-generation journalist (on her father’s side) and millionteenth-generation mother (on her mother’s side) she has written, edited, photographed and illustrated for newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, videos and books. Known for her persnicketyness about grammar, she occasionally leaves in an error to delight people of similar inclination.