Entertaining should be easy. You should be able to throw a quick meal together, quickly set the table, and change into some kind of effortless caftan all in an hour’s time…right? Our newest entertaining series, “Weeknight Dinner Party,” was inspired by our team’s want to host more casually. Most of us feel that in order to have people over, our houses must be perfect and the menu must be complicated - and that’s just totally not the case. For our first installment, we turned to none other than Ina Garten’s right-hand, Lidey Heuck. Yes, Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. Lidey has worked with Ina for several years and is obviously a wealth of Contessa knowledge. In addition to her full time gig, Lidey also contributes to New York Times Food and writes for her personal website, Lidey Likes. Lidey shows us how to entertain effortlessly and beautifully. Read on for more.
You live in East Hampton and are Ina Garten’s right-hand woman. Tell us how you got to where you are!
It's an unlikely story, but when I was a senior in college, I wrote Ina a letter introducing myself and basically offering to come help her with social media after I graduated. The father of one of my friend’s knew Ina, so obviously that helped in terms of getting the letter into her hands, but I also happened to write to her at the exact time when she was looking to hire someone to work with her on social media. I'm not big into astrology, but it did feel like the stars aligned in that moment.
Have you always wanted to have a career in food?
Not at all! Both of my parents are writers, and I've always loved writing, too. I began cooking with my friends in college, and I began to really look forward to the cozy dinners we'd make in our college houses. I think without realizing it, I was drawn to the kind of community and closeness a home-cooked meal can foster.
As graduation approached and I still didn't have a job lined up (not wanting to commit to an office job and not really sure what I wanted to do in the slightest), the idea popped into my head that it would be really fun to work for Ina Garten. I realize how crazy that sounds in retrospect, but I just had this good feeling about it. I had grown up watching Ina's show and flipping through my mom's Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, and I loved that she got to cook recipes in her beautiful barn for a living. I decided I'd write her a letter and see what happened. And the rest...was history!
Some of the best get togethers with friends are the casual weeknight ones after a long day at work. What are a few of your best tips for throwing a weeknight dinner party that is simple but has delicious food?
Simplicity is key. Pick something that's easy to make and comes together fairly quickly. This is not the time for homemade pizza dough and fancy cocktails. I stick to simple pastas, a meat or fish with a giant salad and a simple grain on the side, or a "one-pot" dinner that does most of the work on its own the oven. The less time I have to spend cooking when I get home from the work, the better. On that note, ask your friends to help. It takes a lot off your plate if you have one friend bringing something to eat with drinks, and another bringing dessert. In my experience, people really are happy to help, especially when you're the one cooking!
What are a few of your favorite simple recipes that impress a crowd?
In the summer, I make my Grilled Buttermilk Chicken a lot. It's super easy (you can make it on a grill pan if you don't have a grill) and it goes with almost anything. Another staple is my Mustard & Herb Roasted Fingerling Potatoes. They're always a hit, especially with the gluten-free crowd. And because even a weeknight dinner needs a showstopper, I'll make this Tomatoes, Peaches, and Corn with Burrata (see below). It comes together quickly and is a great way to highlight beautiful summer produce. Oh, and I did I mention the burrata?
Let’s talk table setting. What do you do to make the table feel special for guests?
Real napkins! To me, a dinner feels like a dinner party when there are pretty linen napkins on the table. I recently entered full-blown adulthood and bought an ironing board. While I haven't mastered the art of ironing anything with sleeves, I can take down a stack of square napkins in no time. It does take a bit of effort, but graduating from folded paper towels to napkins will really up your dinner party game.
What a few a tracks on your go-to party playlist?
During dinner, The Big Little Lies soundtrack and Spotify's "Sounds of Motown" playlist are two of my standbys. After dinner, all bets are off. I'm a fan of 90s dance jams, Dolly Parton, disco, and the occasional trip down Pop2K memory lane.
What is the best entertaining advice Ina has ever given you?
When planning a menu, don't just think about what sounds delicious. Read through each recipe and think about the process of cooking each dish to make sure you have everything you need, including enough time and oven space. Ina's rule of thumb is to choose one dish that bakes or roasts in the oven, one that cooks on the stovetop, and another that's assembled or served at room temperature. I use this formula every time I have a dinner party and it helps things go a lot more smoothly.
What’s a typical workday like for you?
One of the things I love most about my job is that no two days are the same. But on a fairly typical day, I'll meet with Ina and her other assistant Kristina at the barn first thing in the morning. We go over what's going on that day, and then more than likely Ina and I will work on recipes. She'll work on a new idea she’s playing around with, and I'll retest a recipe that she's already finished. Often, we sit down and eat what we've cooked for lunch, and then I'll spend the afternoon catching up on emails, working on social media and our website.
East Hampton looks so idyllic. What’s your favorite part of living there?
It has to be the beach! Being able to walk on the beach after work, no matter the time of year, is pretty incredible.
You have a blog, ‘Lidey Likes.' Tell us more about that!
After lots of practice testing recipes at work, I began creating my own recipes at home. Starting a blog seemed like the natural next step, and I've fine-tuned my cooking style in the years since then. My recipes are simple, colorful and seasonal with a focus on making crowd-pleasing dishes for causal weeknight and weekend entertaining.
I also do occasional posts on travel and entertaining, including my personal favorite - my "Wines Under 20" column. I host these kind of hilariously amateur wine tastings with my friends, where we sit around tasting wines and eating cheese. The comments and notes I jot down at these tastings - however lacking sophistication or technical wine terminology - help me put together approachable and practical wine guides that I think are really useful for beginning wine drinkers.
You also recently began contributing to the New York Times! What is your recipe development process?
I did! I start by sending a list of recipe ideas to my editor there and then she picks the ones that are a good fit for their audience, the time of year, etc. I work on these recipes at home, experimenting with a few different ideas and then tweaking them until they're just right. I love the challenge of starting with a vague idea. Could you make Classic Potato Salad with chickpeas instead? And fine-tuning it until it's a finished recipe.
If you had to choose, what would your last meal be?
Pizza from Emma Pizzeria in Rome. Roasted butternut squash drizzled with brown butter. Crispy fried Brussels sprouts a la Momofuku. A Mezcal margarita. And an ice cream sundae with a piece of birthday cake on top. None of those things go together, but that's the beauty of a last meal. They don't have to.
Tomatoes, Peaches, and Corn with Burrata
- 3 ripe peaches, pitted and cut into thin slices
- 3 pounds assorted ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into ¼-inch thick slices
- Kernels cut from 3 large ears of corn
- ½ cup julienned fresh basil, plus whole basil leaves for serving
- 3 tablespoons white wine or champagne vinegar
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 (8-ounce) balls fresh burrata cheese
- flaky sea salt, for serving
Combine the tomatoes, peaches, corn, and basil in a large bowl. In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pour enough dressing over the salad to moisten.
Spread the tomatoes, peaches, and corn in an even layer on a large serving platter. Place the balls of burrata on top and using a paring knife, carefully cut an ‘X’ into the top of each ball to cut it into quarters. Sprinkle the salad with basil leaves and flaky salt, drizzle with the remaining dressing, and serve.
Photos by David Benthal Photography