Let's Party! Lessons on RA from Ina Garten
I am not ashamed to admit that I LOVE cooking shows. Ever since I was a little kid, hungrily watching The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child, I have been watching people cook on tv. And I also LOVE cooking. I made my first meal at 8, no doubt inspired by the PBS chefs I admired, but with much humbler skills and ingredients. Since then, I have become a rather accomplished home chef. (My neighbors are accustomed to surprise meal deliveries when I cook too much. And my 7-course, themed Christmas dinners have become legendary among family and friends.)
But I must also admit that RA has made it progressively more challenging for me to spend as much time in the kitchen as I like. Until one day, while I was lying on the couch during a flare binge-watching the Food Network, the Barefoot Contessa came to my rescue…
How Ina Garten saved me from RA
No, Ina Garten (the real woman behind the Barefoot Contessa), did not cook up an RA cure in her well-appointed kitchen in the Hamptons. (Although I can see her now: “Just mix your NSAIDs with some really good chocolate, heavy cream, and these magical unicorn salts I got at a specialty shop in France. How bad can that be?”) In fact, it wasn’t her cooking at all that saved me. It was her philosophy: Put simply: Ina doesn’t want you to work very hard to make your party happen. How bad can that be, indeed!
Hear it from Ina
In an interview, Ina explains her approach:
“The most important thing for having a party is that the hostess is having fun… I never have anything that has to be cooked while the guests are there. The only thing I might have to do is take something out of the oven and carve it. When I'm doing a menu for a party, I make sure I have at least one thing done the day before, at least one thing I can do early in the day, and then I only have one thing in the oven when guests arrive. It's the planning—just make sure the menu is doable.”
The queen of the Hamptons elite is telling me to keep it simple and doable? I’m in! And her show offers many practical tips to make everything as doable as possible. Here are a few Ina lifesavers for anyone with RA who entertains.
Practical tips from Ina Garten
Keep it small
The Ina we see on Barefoot Contessa never invites the whole town for dinner. Instead, she focuses on intimate gatherings of two to six guests. “I don't like sitting at a table that's too large, where everyone is too far apart,” says Ina. “That's a party killer.” The small guest list approach keeps things manageable, with the benefit that the host/ess can have time to enjoy each of her guests.
She also never serves a smorgasbord of delicacies: just a few items planned to complement each other not only in flavor but also in the amount of work required for each. (If she is doing anything remotely complicated, the rest of the menu is as simple as it can possibly be.) The key is the planning.
Make only one or two dishes
It often amuses me that Ina’s show involves as much of Ina driving around picking up prepared foods as it does her making recipes. But she is on to something. It isn’t necessary to make every dish from scratch. (Her infinitely memed expression “Store-bought is fine!” should be a mantra, not an insult.)
Here is what Ina does: she selects one or two dishes she will make from scratch, and the rest of the menu consists of foods she has purchased, and platters filled with fruits, cheeses, sliced meats, and other delicacies that require more assembly than cooking. Her extra advice: put something simple on a beautiful platter and your guests will see it as elegant and refined. No cooking for hours, same memorable experience for your guests. Yes, Queen!
Make dishes in advance
Ina highly recommends serving dishes that can be made hours or even days in advance. So do I. For someone with RA, the ability to spread out the work over as long a period as possible aligns perfectly with the need to alternate activity with periods of rest. So, for example, there is a reason I often serve meatballs or short ribs to guests. Because I can prepare them in stages over a couple days, it isn’t a physically draining chore to put them together. And they taste better the next day anyway!
Take help from your friends
Ina has no pretense about doing everything herself. A dinner party is a team task, and Ina enlists her (particularly fabulous) friends all the time to help with an event. Why shouldn’t we do the same? Whether they create flower arrangements, polish the silver, or set the table, Ina’s friends take an important task off her hands. This kind of help means the host/ess gets to enjoy the party without becoming exhausted from all the work. (I also say yes to friends who iron napkins, do cleanup, stop for ice, and any other non-cooking task!)
Remember what it’s all about
“I’d like to think that when I invite friends to my house, they know what I’m really saying is, “I love you; come for dinner.” – Ina Garten.
It really is that simple. It’s not about the perfect soufflé, or the complex “tablescape” or the dessert buffet. It’s about love. And remembering this reason above all makes it doable. Even for those of us with RA.
Oh, and Ina, if you are reading this piece, I’d love to host you for dinner. Really, how bad could that be?
Right now, what RA tips would most be helpful for you?