Ina Garten, Al Roker's very first guest on his new podcast, "Cooking Up a Storm with Al Roker" is the first person we'd call if we wanted to make an outstanding Thanksgiving feast.
Garten, known as "The Barefoot Contessa" is not only the author of a countless cookbooks, she's arguably the person responsible for making classic recipes cool again. And while Al admits to Ina that he doesn't actually like mashed potatoes (what?) her recipe for parmesan smashed potatoes is definitely going to change that. Her secret?
"The key to mashed potatoes is what you add to them to make them have great flavor," she said. "Two things people really miss a lot, in almost every recipe, is the salt. It needs a lot of salt to give it flavor."
The second thing is something to give those otherwise bland potatoes what she calls "an edge." That could be lemon zest, or in this recipe, parmesan cheese.
"It's something that's a little sharp, that kind of wakes up your taste buds."
Ina's recipe calls for Red B potatoes, also known as new potatoes, or baby reds. The great thing about them is that because their skins are thin, you get to skip the peeling, which is a game-changer on Thanksgiving when you've got multiple course to churn out for your guests.
While Ina heats up the butter, and throws everything in the mixer with milk and cream, Al asked her advice on hosting a great Thanksgiving dinner.
What's the one thing as host you need to be cognizant of when it comes to your dinner?
I think — particularly for Thanksgiving, but for every dinner — it's about what everybody likes to eat. You've invited people you love. You want to make sure they all have something they love to eat. So, sometimes there's a vegetarian at the dinner. So I don't make something just for the vegetarian. What I make sure is there's enough for a vegetarian to eat.
And so they can pass up the turkey and have everything else. I just think it's important to make sure everybody's well taken care of without them feeling singled out as in, "This is the meal for all of us, and that's what you're going to have." And so I think that's really true for any dinner, but particularly Thanksgiving.
How do we time Thanksgiving dinner so that everything comes out together?
The way I do it — and I do this for dinner for four, or I do it for Thanksgiving for 12 — is I make a schedule. So I, literally, when I'm doing the menu, I write out a schedule: "At 3:00, turn on the oven. At 3:30, put the turkey in the oven.”
I literally do when I should start making something, and when it should go into the oven, when it should come out. And then I know that everything's done at 7:30, when everybody arrives. Thanksgiving's actually a good one to do, because you can make the turkey early. Very often, you can make the vegetables in advance to reheat. And while the turkey's resting — which is about a half an hour — everything goes back in the oven to be reheated. So there's a timing thing that works really well. And then everything goes on the table.
Is Thanksgiving your favorite holiday?
Absolutely. I just like that, unlike Christmas, which has so much going on — it's just your favorite people invited for dinner, and everything is absolutely delicious. Instead of stuffing for the turkey, I make a savory bread pudding. I mean, stuffing's delicious. But when you make a bread pudding instead, it's creamy on the bottom and crispy on the top, so it's got more texture. And so I make a leek and mushroom bread pudding, or an apple and herb bread pudding. So it's got lots of flavors and textures, and it just goes with everything else.
Once you've got everything cooked: Buffet style or sit-down, pass around the dish?
I like buffet-style, because I think then everybody gets up and gets what they like, and they can pass up what they don't like, and then they can come back, and they can go have seconds, and it's no big deal. I always feel like, if all the bowls are on the table, it's like there are half-empty bowls of who-knows-what. It doesn't look good.
I've always done buffet-style. And usually in the room, you know? So, very often, we'll eat in the kitchen, so I'll do it on the kitchen counter. And sometimes, things can just sit on the stove, just bubbling away.
I can't imagine this would have happened to you. But have you had anything go wrong at Thanksgiving?
Never happens. But I know about other people that have had things go wrong. A friend of mine— actually, the last wedding that I ever catered was hers. And she called me in November and said, “I want to make a Thanksgiving dinner for my new husband but I've never cooked like that."
So I said to her, "OK, so this is what you do. Think of a turkey as, like, a large chicken. You're going to cook it the same way you cook a chicken, just for a little longer." I told her exactly how to make it. And she put the turkey in the oven, and she said to her new husband, "Let's go for a walk. It's going to be an hour, and then I'll come back and baste it." And she came back and couldn't open the oven door. And it turns out, she had set the oven on “clean,” not on the temperature I told her to set it on. So her husband had to literally unscrew the oven door to get the turkey out. And I was like, "What did you do?" And she said, "Well, I served it." She said, "It was very clean!" So I think everybody has a Thanksgiving disaster story. But, you know, you just get through it, and you do the best you can.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity — for the full conversation, listen to "Cooking Up a Storm with Al Roker" wherever you find your podcasts.