100% pure Rachael Ray

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
June 11, 2003

Petite Rachael Ray looks exactly the way she does on her Food Network shows, “30-Minute Meals” and “$40 a Day.” But even she’s a little surprised when–as she leaves a Starbucks in downtown Chicago–a man stares at her cup of java and shouts, “Hey, Rachael! Is that on your $40 budget?”

It’s not.

Ray was in town recently to promote her latest book, Rachael Ray: 30-Minute Meals 2 (Lake Isle Press, $16.95), which–like her show–shows cooks of every skill level how to make delicious meals in about half an hour. Granted, not everyone is adept enough in the kitchen to duplicate what  she does in 22 minutes–the actual amount of time she has to cook. But even this kitchen-challenged writer can attest to the fact that novice cooks can follow her lead and make meals in about 30 to 40 minutes.

The bubbly cook takes an unorthodox approach to organizing her latest cookbook. Rather than arranging by food type, such as poultry, beef, vegetables and desserts, she sorts her book by mood. So you’ll find sections for such genres as date food, family-style entrees and that oxymoron, homemade take-out food.

Ray’s inspirations spring from family recipes, viewers’ suggestions and her vivid imagination. When a reporter makes an off-the-cuff wish for a cheaper, low-cal substitute for Dove bars, Ray doesn’t hesitate.

“Hmmm, you could buy some ice milk and cut it into squares,” she suggests. “Put in some popsicle sticks and dip them into a quick-freeze ice cream sauce.

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter if it takes you 37 minutes or an hour to cook what I make. Cooking feeds your soul before you ever taste the food. But I really do believe that if you commit yourself to cooking even two or three times a week, you’ll get to know what herbs you like and what goes with what else. Inside of six months, you won’t need my cooking book or anyone else’s to tell you what to do.”

And even though she might phase herself out of a job if her theory proves to be true, Ray doesn’t seem too concerned. Her passion for cooking is surpassed only by the joy she gets when she converts a newbie who is allergic to the kitchen into a lover of good, healthy food.

“All I’m trying to do with my shows and books is to make cooking accessible,” says Ray, 34. “I’m the world’s biggest klutz. At my first day of work on the Food Network, I was telling a story and waving my arms around with a sharp knife. I cut my finger, so I shot that show chopping with one hand.”

Ray shows off her battle scars–a series of cuts and burns dotting both her hands. The unspoken sentiment is she lived through that and so will you.

Though not trained as a chef, Ray comes from a long line of restaurateurs. The Rays owned a restaurant in Cape Cod, Mass. When they relocated to New York, her mother worked as a food supervisor for a chain of upstate restaurants.

Ray, who is still based in upstate New York, parlayed a job as a food buyer for a gourmet grocery store into a TV career almost by accident.

“I was teaching a class called ’30-Minute Meals’ as a way to get customers to buy more groceries in our store,” she says. “The local news did a story on the class, which turned into a weekly segment for me. For some reason, a radio station asked me to do my show for them, which I thought was weird because their listeners obviously weren’t going to be able to see me cook. But I did it and this guy who heard me called his friend at the Food Network, who contacted me about doing a show for them. That was about two years ago.”

No one is more surprised than Ray when chefs leave their kitchens to praise her work when she dines at their restaurants. And for the naysayers who suggest she might not be qualified to teach a cooking class, Ray simply has no time.

“I’m a very happy person who was raised by very happy people, and I don’t pretend to be something I’m not,” Ray says. “All I know is how to make dinner. I do the best I can and I sleep very well at night knowing I’ve done my best. So if someone says something bad about me, that’s OK. I’m like beer out of the bottle compared to those guys, but I’m good at what I do. I sleep well at night knowing I’ve done my best.”

For her “30-Minute” show, Ray has only a few rules. She will not use any processed foods–that means no Velveeta cheese or powdered anything. All the ingredients have to be available at a regular grocery store. And the most complicated cooking utensil she’ll use is a food processor.

“You don’t need expensive knives and every kitchen appliance ever created to cook a good meal,” Ray says. “Everything I use has to be easily obtainable by the person watching the show or reading my books.”

The self-professed food fan says she ultimately lives by her motto, “Eat well, eat more. Life’s too short to do otherwise.”

*****

TIPS TO MAKE COOKING QUICK AND EASY

Sure, Rachael Ray can whip up a meal in 30 minutes or less. But what about the rest of us who may be cooking-challenged? Ray offers these tips on how to making cooking as quick and painless as possible:
* Wash all your produce when you return from the grocery store. Sure, they won’t last as long, but chances are the convenience factor will help you eat them before they have a chance to wilt.
* Keep your kitchen stocked with what you like. Ray is never without extra-virgin olive oil, canned tomatoes, pasta, boneless, skinless meats (in her freezer), herbs, spices, stocks (beef, chicken and vegetable) and cans of tuna, whole baby clams and flat fillets of anchovies.
* If cooking every day isn’t an option, designate one day a week to cook and ration the results out into daily portions. Soup, pasta and sauces are some of Ray’s staples.
* Set yourself up for success by picking simple recipes that appeal to you rather than something out of Gourmet magazine.
* Take advantage of pre-packaged salads and pre-cut, skinned chicken. Just because your mother did everything herself doesn’t mean you have to do likewise.
* Remember that smaller is better when you’re dealing with things that take a long time to cook. Dice those carrots and use tender cuts of meat such as sirloin to ensure everything cooks lickety-split.
* Use a big sharp knife and a huge cutting board so you don’t need a bunch of little bowls cluttering your workspace. Put the cutting board right next to the stove and you can chop and drop in the pan as needed.

*****

Pasta with citrus cream sauce

MAKES 2 SERVINGS
1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons Cognac or dry sherry
Zest of 1 lemon (colored part of peel only)
Zest of 1 large navel orange (colored part of peel only)
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped (about 3 sprigs)
12 leaves fresh basil, shredded or torn
1/2 pound linguini, or 3/4 pound fresh linguini, cooked al dente
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
In a skillet over medium-low heat, warm cream. Add Cognac or dry sherry, zest of lemon and orange, salt. Simmer, 7 to 10 minutes. Add mint and basil. Toss hot, drained pasta with sauce and grated cheese. Transfer to serving dish or dinner plates.

Rachael Ray: 30-Minute Meals 2 (Lake Isle Press, $16.95)

Nutrition facts per serving: 733 calories, 53 g fat, 33 g saturated fat, 184 mg cholesterol, 39 g carbohydrates, 19 g protein, 1,095 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

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