Friday, October 12, 2007

Rachel Ray Isn't The Absolute Worst

I feel bad (well, almost) for making fun of Rachel Ray. She tries so hard! She (clearly) drinks so much coffee! Non-snarkily, I agree with the spirit of her whole "30 minute meal" shtick. Day in and day out, getting dinner on the table for everyone in the household to share is not an easy thing to do, whatever occupation you may list on your tax return. And I don't think that a cookbook that aims to help people do that should be considered lesser, or lowbrow.
My mom, a while back, bought one of Rachel Ray’s cookbooks (365: No Repeats). The idea was that maybe we could both look through it a bit and see if it was worthwhile. I stuck my nose up in the air and said “ick.” Because I am charming and tactful and not at all snobbish. In my defense, sometimes Rachel Ray can be tough to take (and, at the same time, she's hard not to admire, because she very clearly works her ass off). All that enthusiasm, all those nicknames and abbreviations, and all the damn exclamation points. And also: HOT DOG SALAD.

I should admit here, that having spent most of my childhood growing up in the Chicago suburbs (and look, we’re not going to talk about the Cubs right now, because… we’re not. Just, no.), I really, really like a good hot dog. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a chardog with at least ketchup, mustard, pickles, tomatoes and a side of cheese fries (you can decide for yourself if you want grilled onions and hot peppers). Hot dogs in most of the rest of the country suck. Chicago all beef red hots? Hard to argue with. I am already looking forward to having one when we head to Chicago for the holidays. Still, "Chicago hot dog salad"? Revolting.

However, I felt that if I am going to scorn Rachel Ray, I should at least try a recipe of hers. Obviously, the hot dog salad did not top (or make) the list of things I might be willing to try. The “stoups” (a cross between a soup and a stew, get it?! Fun!) were also crossed off. Eggs-traordinary anything? No. Anything called a sammie? No. “Curry in a hurry”? No.

I finally settled on lamb chops with couscous (I like lamb, I like couscous, and the recipe didn't appear to be actively off-putting), and, I have to admit: it was okay. Nice, even. She called for a green bell pepper, which made me raise my eyebrows a little. Although green bell peppers have their place in cooking, it seems to me that in American cooking they are frequently used in a clumsy way, and I didn't have a ton of faith in someone who has a recipe for Salsa Stoup (maybe it tastes best with the hot dog salad. And a bottle of vodka.) would use a green bell pepper in a way that melded and provided contrast instead of sticking out jarringly. The bell pepper was... okay. Not great, but not bad.

However, I didn’t really make the recipe that was on the page. I used Israeli couscous and cooked it a bit like risotto (with hot broth). I rubbed the lamb with ras el hanout and smoked paprika instead of cumin, coriander and paprika. And I deglazed the pan a little. And... well, I used the recipe as a guideline, and I'm pretty sure that was a good thing for my dinner. If I was making it again, well, I would make it my way and not bother looking at her recipe. Which means: I wouldn't make her recipe again.

The problem that I have is that it’s essentially a cookbook meant for someone who isn’t that confident in their cooking abilities but has to cook regularly and needs a cookbook that acknowledges and accepts the divide between ability and aspiration, and does its best to bridge it. Ray appears to be versed in a number of different cuisines, but she doesn't really do much to pass on information about, say, how changing a few seasonings in a basic dish can help change the culinary inflection of the dish or noting which of the ingredients she's used make it characteristic. Making notes that might help educate the reader and improve their cooking doesn't seem to be of a great deal of interest to her, which just doesn't make sense to me. Adding to my frustration with her approach is that in order to go through the cookbook and make the recipes in it work well, being able to edit and alter and understand where she's going with a recipe appears to be key. Otherwise it’s going to be 365 days of seriously mediocre meals.

Also, if you cook your way through it, you are going to have some serious EVOO and exclamation point fatigue. So... Rachel Ray doesn't suck. That's not exactly the endorsement of the century, though.


chris said...

She's frightening and her voice used to make the twins cry when they were newborns. I'm not kidding.

Meg said...

Is it wrong that I think that's kind of funny? Probably a little bit. Hopefully the mere sound of her voice doesn't make them cry any longer. Maybe I should have called the post "Rachel Ray Makes Babies Cry." Oy.