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At Home With the Contessa

WWD interviews the Food Network's Ina Garten, star of the "Barefoot Contessa."

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One can’t help but approach Food Network cook Ina Garten’s house with a certain set of expectations: that she’ll welcome you with a smile and probably a laugh, serve you something made with herbs from her garden and graciously invite you to sit and stay a while. (See recipe below for Tagliarelle with Truffle Butter.)

And, upon entering the barn/studio adjacent to her East Hampton home, some of those expectations are fulfilled. She is smiling and there is an appealing coffee cake on the countertop. Only the coffee cake is from a local mom-and-pop bakery. And the sun shines brightly on the garden out back, but look closely and you’ll see its fruit on this autumn day is a tad neglected. What’s going on?

Well first of all, Garten is human. And lately, she has just been too busy. In October she filmed 12 new episodes of her show, “Barefoot Contessa,” and devoted the last six weeks to a nationwide press tour promoting her latest cookbook “Back to Basics” (her sixth). So she can’t really be blamed for a few wrinkled tomatoes.

“I love my life, I love writing books, I love doing TV,” she says, sitting at her rustic wooden dining table. “But sometimes I get so involved in my work I forget how much I enjoy running around and getting flowers, making dinner for [my husband] Jeffrey.”

It’s this running around tony East Hampton, as depicted on “Barefoot Contessa” — Garten zipping around in her convertible black BMW, visiting with friendly florists and butchers — that attracts viewers. But unlike other popular Food Network hosts, you won’t see Garten developing an eponymous line of pots and pans or participating in panels on the food festival circuit. In spite of her aforementioned busy fall schedule, she does the best she can to maintain a life outside of work.

“I could do something every day, but I just pick the things that are important to me,” Garten says. “I always think of myself a little like Scheherazade. I want you to have part of the story, but I want you to be waiting around for the other half. I think it’s good to hold back the reins a little bit. It’s good for me, it’s good for my life; I also think its good for the brand.”

That explains why Garten was reluctant to get into the entertainment business when Food Network producers first approached her eight years ago. By that time, she had sold her successful gourmet foods shop, also called Barefoot Contessa, and was working on her second book. “I said no for years. I don’t want to do it, that’s not who I am,” she recalls. “I think they thought I was negotiating, but I wasn’t.” When executives signed on British production company Pacific Productions, whose work Garten admired, she changed her mind.

Now in its sixth season, “Barefoot Contessa” shows Garten cooking simple but sophisticated fare at home. And like her food, her on-air manner is just as accessible. “Her style is so appealing,” says specialty foods czar Eli Zabar, a longtime friend. “And it’s not an appeal that’s beyond anybody. Anybody who wants to be her could be her it seems.”

Garten credits her popularity with home cooks to her own experience, or lack thereof, in the kitchen. She’s had no formal training — her previous job was working on nuclear energy policy at the Carter White House Office of Management and Budget — so she knows what it’s like to be a novice home cook. And she learned what people like to eat at home when, at her store, the roast chicken in takeout containers sold out long before the fancy veal with prunes and Armagnac. “I’m not a chef by any stretch of the imagination,” she says. “I’m much closer to your experience of cooking than Mario Batali.”

And she recognizes that these days, as the mercury and the Dow fall, dining in has never sounded more appealing. For a recent meal with friends she served a pasta with truffle butter (see recipe) that sounds out of tune with financial times but isn’t, she says. “The truffle butter is, like, $6. You buy it on the Internet. I’ve got four of them in the freezer all the time.”

Which is a good thing, because Garten shows no signs of slowing down. The day after her book tour ended, she celebrated her 40th wedding anniversary by cooking for her husband and a few good friends. As she says, “That’s my idea of relaxing.”

Tagliarelle with Truffle Butter From Ina Garten’s “Back to Basics”

Kosher salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 oz. D’Artagnan white truffle butter
Freshly ground pepper
1 (8.82 oz.) package of Cipriani tagliarelle dried pasta or other egg fettuccine
3 tbsp. chopped fresh chives
3 oz. Parmesan, shaved thin with a vegetable peeler

Add one tablespoon salt to a large pot of water and bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, in a large 12-inch sauté pan, heat the cream over medium heat until it comes to a simmer. Add the truffle butter, one teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, lower the heat to very low and swirl the butter until it melts. Keep warm over very low heat.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook for three minutes exactly (if you’re not using the Cipriani pasta, follow the directions on the package.) When the pasta is cooked, reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the sauté pan and toss it with the truffle-cream mixture. As the drained pasta absorbs the sauce, add as much of the reserved cooking water as necessary to keep the pasta very creamy.

Serve the pasta in shallow bowls and garnish each serving with a generous sprinkling of chives and shaved Parmesan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve at once.

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