Thursday, March 15, 2007


While there are certain cookbook authors whose recipes I have come to trust and love (Jack Bishop for vegetables, Carole Walters for cookies), and boy do I love to watch cooking shows on PBS on Saturday afternoons while I’m dusting the living room, I’ve never been drawn into the celebrity chef phenomenon. Maybe if I had cable and could become addicted to the Food Network, I’d be singing a different tune, but for now I don’t know my Alton from my Emeril, and what’s more, I don’t really care. Thus, I’m not sure I’ve been fully exposed to the perky, all-pervasive annoyance of Rachael Ray. Sure, I know about the whole sexy-photos-in-FHM kerfuffle, I’ve heard the “EVOO” catchphrase, and I’ve noticed her showing up on my Wheat Thins boxes for some time now. But I’ve never seen her talking and cooking on TV, and if her mannerisms are really as grating as some people seem to find them, I apologize for the following defense of Rachael Ray.

Foodies (I use the word derisively, like “hipsters”) love to bash Rachael Ray. I suppose it was from them that I absorbed the general impression that her cooking is lowbrow. I can’t believe I bought into this, considering I’m a pretty lowbrow cooker myself; I’m scared of all the really gourmet foods, like offal and truffles and fava beans, and I’m too poor or too frugal to buy the fanciest ingredients and kitchen tools, and everything I really like is just one form or another of comfort food. But I can be snobby about certain things (making as much from scratch as possible, using fresh ingredients, and avoiding prepacked convenience foods), and I guess I assumed Rachael Ray was one of those people who write lame “quick and easy” recipes that make me a little sad, calling for bottled garlic and touting their ability to make food with six ingredients or fewer. Then I got Ray’s original 30-Minute Meals book for Christmas. I didn’t have high hopes for it, but that changed once I started paging through it. Sure, it wasn’t the style of cookbook I would buy for myself. But you know? A lot of the stuff sounded appealing, and soon I was folding over some page corners.

Because here’s the thing I respect: Rachael Ray wants you to cook good, fresh, reasonably healthy food, on weeknights after a long day of work even, and she doesn’t want you to be scared and uptight about it. She wants you to know that when you get ready to sauté something, you don’t have to carefully measure out your olive oil with white knuckles; you can just open the bottle and turn it over and twirl it “once around the pan” or “twice around the pan” like the pros do. You can measure spices with pinches and palmfuls and nothing bad will happen to you. For a lot of cooks, this is common sense, but I’ve met a lot of people who seem petrified of cooking and are convinced they’re not good at it, and they need someone fun and friendly to convince them that making home-cooked food is no big deal. Rachael Ray wants to make cooking part of your life, but it doesn’t need to become your life, or even a hobby. What’s more, the recipes don’t sacrifice flavor in favor of simplicity; they’re easy and straightforward without being bland or lazy or prefab the way so many things geared at non-cooks seem to be. It’s bourgeois cuisine and there’s nothing wrong with that. It tastes good and it doesn’t come from a can.

Case in point: this recipe from Ray’s second 30-Minute Meals book, which is packed with zesty, complex flavor and still a cinch to pull together. It comes to me courtesy of Editor A, who generously cooked it for me and Editor M and brought it to one of our habitual Friday lunches in which we all sit around and pretend we’re still coworkers (A and M left my company for greener pastures late last year). I was impressed by the chicken, wolfed down several pitas full, and resolved to make it myself as soon as possible. When I did so, on Monday night, it turned out just as well, with not too much effort on my part: mix up the spice rub and slather it on chicken, mix up the tomato relish, grill the chicken in the George Foreman, tear it up, throw everything into pitas. I even made a side dish of sautéed zucchini with garlic and mint, which Ray included in her original recipe, but I’m not bothering to include it here because although perfectly tasty and acceptable, it definitely was not the main event, nor was it really needed to make a satisfying meal. You can hunt it down on Epicurious if you must. We ate, I was pleased, A was enthusiastic, Rachael Ray was vindicated.

I’m not saying I’m going to become a huge Rachael Ray fan or anything, or go out of my way to seek out more of her recipes, or champion her to everyone I meet, or even ever mention her again on my blog. But I don’t think she’s so bad*, and I’m definitely a fan of this chicken, and I think you should make it.

*I could sure live without her cutesy use of the word "glug" as a unit of liquid measurement, though.

Israeli spice rub:
1½ tablespoons sweet paprika
1½ tablespoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1½ teaspoons coarse kosher salt

Tomato relish:
3 small ripe red tomatoes
2 orange or yellow tomatoes
1 small sweet onion, thinly sliced
½ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1½ to 2 pounds)
olive oil
pocket pita bread

1. Combine the spice rub ingredients in a bowl.

2. Cut each chicken breast in half horizontally to form a total of 8 thin filets. Place chicken in a shallow dish and drizzle with olive oil to barely coat the meat. Rub chicken liberally on all sides with 4 tablespoons of the spice blend. Let stand 10 minutes.

3. While chicken is marinating, seed and chop the tomatoes and combine them with the onion and parsley in a medium bowl. Combine oil, lemon juice, cumin, coriander, and red pepper flakes in a small jar with a lid. Shake dressing to mix, and pour over salad. Season with salt to taste and toss well. Let stand 10 minutes.

4. Grill chicken 6–7 minutes on each side or until juices run clear. (I believe Editor A said she sautés hers in a pan with a little oil, so give that a shot if you don’t have a grill.) When cool enough to handle, shred chicken into small pieces.

5. To serve, pile chicken and tomato relish in warmed pita pockets.

Serves: 4
Time: Well, maybe not 30 minutes unless you move very quickly, but under an hour anyway

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