“I love you, come for dinner!”
Isn’t that the invitation we all want to hear? It promises an evening of good food, warm conversations, and the chance to share our lives with family and close friends. But to me, “come for dinner” is more than just an invitation to a meal; it’s a celebration of community. Dinner nourishes our bodies, but it’s the connection with people we love that nourishes our souls, and that’s what I actually crave the most.
If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s how satisfying it is to be in the actual—rather than Zoom!—company of people we love. I need that closeness and connection more than anything else in my life; it gives me a reason to live. So when I say “Come for dinner!” it’s really my way of saying “I love you, you matter to me.” And of course you can expect a delicious meal, too!
It wasn’t always that way for me. As a child, I dreaded dinnertime. My mother prepared food without enthusiasm (or much flavor) and my father was a stern taskmaster whose idea of dinner conversation was peppering me with questions about my school work until my stomach was tied in knots. As soon as it was over, I would rush back to the safety of my bedroom.
But that all changed when I married Jeffrey! All of a sudden, I had the freedom to create whatever kind of home I wanted and I knew one key to making that home a happy one was to have lots of good friends. So I threw a lot
of dinner parties. I bought Craig Claiborne’s brilliant The New York Times Cookbook
and spent my days trying out recipes and invited friends for dinner almost every week. I’m not sure my parties were all that great in the beginning (yes, I had a few disasters!) but I was so happy and Jeffrey was so supportive that it all helped me overcome my childhood dinnertime anxieties. I was learning not only how to cook but also how to create an atmosphere where friends could have a wonderful time together.
These days dinnertime has a different kind of importance for me. It’s the end of the day, I’ve accomplished everything I need to get done, and now it’s time to put work aside, relax, and have some fun. It’s my time to connect with Jeffrey and my friends. I love when people walk in the door and the house smells good. I want each person to look forward to having something they love to eat. My idea of heaven is a Roast Chicken with Spring Vegetables (page 128) or Overnight Mac & Cheese (page 157) coming out of the oven and, for dessert, Beatty’s Chocolate Cupcakes (page 233) or Lemon Meringue Squares (page 222) waiting on the counter to make everyone look forward to dessert. They’re delicious, they’re reliable, and they taste even better than you imagine.
Restaurant food is wonderful but there is something soulsatisfying about making and eating a real home-cooked dinner right at your own kitchen table. Cooking a tried-and-true recipe that I know everyone will enjoy, maybe with some great music in the background, is like taking a deep yoga breath at the end of a stressful day. It just makes me feel really calm.
The pandemic has had a huge impact on what I think of as dinner—and what I look for in a “go-to” recipe. When I planned a party before the pandemic, it was always a multicourse extravaganza. But then the pandemic happened and everything seemed like so much more work. I started making simpler dinners for Jeffrey and me. I often made a lighter, easier, all-in-one-dinner like a Warm Vegetable & Grain Bowl (page 98) or Roasted Shrimp Panzanella (page 110). They were delicious, satisfying, and everything we needed and wanted for dinner. I began to question why I had been so rigid about what constituted dinner before—was this how I should be cooking for friends now? If I love eating this way, wouldn’t my friends like it, too?
I also decided to relax my whole concept of what is considered “dinner.” Why wouldn’t the Easy Eggs in Purgatory (page 68) that I would normally make for Sunday brunch be great for dinner with big shards of toasted bread? Well, it turns out, it is! Or a big assembled platter of Provençal Orange Salad (page 113) with a rotisserie chicken that I picked up on the way home? It’s a satisfying winter dinner that involves no cooking at all! A roast beef sandwich from the deli might not feel like “dinner” but an indulgent Lobster & Avocado Sandwich (page 92) does. It’s a bit unconventional but it sure is delicious!
And just because a recipe is easy to make, it shouldn’t skimp on flavor or style. Summer Skillet with Clams, Sausage & Corn (page 145) is a classic summer meal but it’s all made in one pot so there’s almost no cleanup. My Salmon Teriyaki & Broccolini (page 150) takes less than 15 minutes to cook, and it all comes out of the oven together. For dessert, the Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie (page 230) is actually better
with store-bought pie crust (and I’ll tell you why!).
Cooking in the pandemic has also redefined my relationship with “leftovers.” I used to hate leftovers. I just refused to eat them. First of all, eating the same thing two days in a row is boring, but more importantly, it’s almost never as good as it was the first time around. The texture changes, the meat dries out, the flavors just aren’t as bright. And if I don’t look forward to dinner, I’m just not happy all day. But there were also times during the pandemic when I had no idea if we could even buy more groceries. Instead of resigning myself to serving leftovers as is, I tried to think of new ways to be creative with what I had on hand. It became like a game to see how many different meals I could get out of the dinners I was cooking! I would make Chicken in a Pot with Orzo (page 131) one night and then add the shredded leftover chicken to Ravioli en Brodo (page 80) to make the soup even heartier for the next night. On Friday, I would serve Hasselback Kielbasa (page 139), then on Saturday, I’d dice the leftovers and add them to my Tuscan White Bean Soup (page 91) to make a hearty stew. I started planning ahead for these “Two-Fers,” making enough Mussels with Saffron Cream (page 154) to have leftovers to serve as a treat with cocktails the next night. It wasn’t boring; it was actually fun!
Cooking this way gave me the chance to focus on what constitutes a recipe that I turn to over and over again. Some recipes were just really easy to make and totally delicious. Others could be prepped largely in advance and thrown in the oven just before the meal, while still others could be made entirely ahead of time and reheated before serving. English Cream Scones (page 63) can be made in advance, frozen, and baked off for breakfast, tea in the afternoon, or breakfast for dinner. Smoked Salmon Quesadillas (page 34) can be assembled ahead and pan-fried for appetizers while Panettone Bread Pudding (page 212) can be put together early and baked off before dinner. My Chipotle Cheddar Crackers (page 42) can be frozen ahead and baked to serve with drinks. During the pandemic, I stressed about everything: Was it safe to go to the store? Get on a plane? Or meet with friends indoors or outside? The big thing I was looking for in a go-to recipe was less stress at the end of the day when I’m trying to get dinner together.
And because cooking fatigue is a real thing, even for me, I’ve also included lots of simply “assembled” dishes and boards in this book that don’t even require you to turn on the stove. They really take my idea of “store-bought is just fine” to a new level, but you do need to search out really good components for them to be special. A traditional English ploughman’s lunch inspired me to create a glorious board filled with lots of delicious things to eat—honey-baked ham, jammy eggs, a big slice of coarse pâté, aged sharp English Cheddar, sweet fig preserves, celery stalks, plus a big green salad and a basket of breads—none of them cooked by me, but artfully arranged and completely appealing. I’d be very happy to have that for dinner, wouldn’t you? You can even apply this idea to dessert, assembling a board with store-bought fruit plus sweets from a bakery, as I have on page 245. And when my French Bistro Salad (page 102) and Heirloom Tomato & Blue Cheese Salad (page 105) come together with fresh farm-stand ingredients they’re just fabulous, and there’s no cooking at all!
All of these special qualities—Easy, Make Ahead, Prep Ahead, Freeze Ahead, or Assembled—are at the heart of my new list of Go-To Dinners, and you’ll see these features noted throughout the book. I’ve even provided suggestions for using leftovers with notes on “two-fers” when appropriate, and I hope these will inspire you to come up with ideas of your own!
Above all else, though, a go-to recipe should be simple to follow and work every time. It must be easy to prepare and still delicious enough to get everyone to your table so you, too, can create a happy community of family and friends around yourself. We all need that in our lives and I think you’ll agree that it all starts with dinner.
Copyright © 2022 by Ina Garten. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.