A few weeks ago I wrote about receiving Ina Garten’s cookbook, Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook as a holiday gift. I mentioned making Ina’s recipe for Pastitsio, a Greek comfort food with ground beef and lamb, pasta, and lots of tasty spices and veggies. The end result was a sensational dish that was even better the next day. I can recommend the cookbook without reservation, but I have a bone to pick with Ina Garten and others – you should admit it when you make a mistake.
What’s the beef? Two different steps in Garten’s Pastitsio recipe call for a tablespoon of kosher salt. With warning bells ringing in my head, my reluctance to modify a recipe the first time around won out, and I made the meat filling and the béchamel topping with a tablespoon of salt apiece. The meat filling turned out briny but acceptable. The béchamel came out tasting like Alka-Seltzer dissolved in heavy cream. I made another batch of béchamel, with 3/4 teaspoon of salt rather than 1 tablespoon, and the finished product was perfection.
A browser search for Pastitsio recipes the next day turned up Garten’s recipe on her own Contessa website as well as on the Food Network’s website. Both recipes asked for 1 teaspoon of kosher salt in both places in the instructions. I understand how an error may happen – a cookbook proofreader could easily miss a substitution of the word “tablespoon” for “teaspoon”, and spell check would not flag it as an incorrect spelling. So I emailed Ms. Garten pointing out that there was a fairly serious typo in her cookbook thinking that she would appreciate knowing that subsequent printings would need a correction. The response I received was rather amazing.
Barbara Libath, Ms. Garten’s personal assistant, wrote me to say: “We were sorry to read that you found the recipe for Pastitsio to be too salty. Since the recipe is correct as published, we wondered what brand of kosher salt you use. Ina uses Diamond Crystal kosher salt in all of her cooking and baking.” I’ve been cooking longer than you have, Ms. Libath, and I know the difference between kosher salts.
Another time, I made Buttercup Squash and Leek Soup using a recipe published in Fine Cooking Magazine. I’ve made this luscious soup many times and it, along with its accompanying herb-butter garnish, is one of my all-time favorites. The first time I made it, however, it tasted like volcanic magma on a spoon. The recipe called for 1 tablespoon of ground white pepper (I think the proofreader’s misreading applies here as well). The magazine’s following issue contained a notation in their Letters section stating, “… we tested this recipe as printed in our kitchen with good results. We’ve heard from a few people, however, that the soup was too peppery, so perhaps there’s a larger variation in the strength of white pepper than we’d realized.” They went on to say, “We recommend starting with 1 teaspoon of pepper instead of 1 tablespoon and adding more to taste if you like.” And that’s how their online version of the recipe reads today. No admission of a mistake here but you can read what you will between the lines. That said, this is a sensational soup, it’s fabulous as a first course, and you will thank me for recommending it.
I’ve concluded that admitting that there is a mistake in a publication is anathema to cookbook authors and their publishers. If it were to get out that Ina Garten’s recipes were not reliable, or Fine Cooking perhaps did not actually try a recipe in their test kitchen prior to publication, it would not look good. I see a lot of recipes in newspapers that were just picked up off of the wire that I suspect were not actually tested. The lesson learned is to read and re-read your recipe. If an ingredient seems suspicious add it a little at a time. Even the famous chefs can get it wrong. With salt and hot spices you can always add more but once added they cannot be removed.