RAY, RACHEL. Rachel Ray's Look + Cook. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-307-59050-3. Pp. 320. $24.99.
Rachel Ray is best known for her 30-minutes meals and that reassuring mantra "Good food and fine living are not reserved for the rich". Which does not really explain why she is selling a paperback cookbook at a hard cover price. But never mind.
Ray's newest book is special because (and I think I've got this right) it has 600 photographs. I guess seeing the process on the page is reassuring to a less experienced cook, but I've never trusted glamor shots of food and I wouldn't normally buy a cookbook for the pictures. In this case I didn't really pay much attention to the images while I was cooking because I was too busy following the instructions, but I did find them extremely distracting and unattractive. On any given page you'll find three separate pictures of raw chicken and ground beef, usually strategically place where page numbers would have been useful. Again, never mind the book's appearance. What matters is that the recipes yielded something delicious.
Look + Cook is actually two books slapped together for some indeterminate reason. The first is the legitimate product, with the 600 photographs and glossy paper. The second book (entitled "More Recipes!"), which makes up almost a third of the actual tome, is more like an unfortunate afterthought. No photographs. Orange ink. Matte paper. The superior section is comprised of three chapters; the second of eight. Because I was following the same protocol as with Ina Garten's How Easy Is That?, I made one recipe from each chapter, which puts the glossier section in a secondary position in this review.
Chapter One: Cozy Food. I'd already made a bolognese recipe from How Easy Is That? and thought I would compare and contrast it with Ray's Bolognese with Pappardelle. Papparedelle is not an exotic secret ingredient, unfortunately. It's just a kind of long flat pasta. I couldn't find any at the grocery store and substituted it with fettuccine. I hope it didn't compromise the taste... Ray has the very annoying tendency to call for "2 tablespoons EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil)," therefore defeating the purpose of condensing extra-virgin olive oil. She does this, I've noticed, in every since recipe that contains EVOO, which is to say, every recipe in the book. Except for the dessert recipes. Anyway, the outcome was good, but I preferred Garten's version. Especially since her's tasted better and took half the time to make. (This one involves simmering the sauce for an hour to an hour and a half).
Chapter 2: Make Your Own Takeout. I guess it's no secret that this cookbook is an alternative to takeout. That is to say, you don't usually think of people alternating Rachel Ray recipes with Julia Child or Mark Bittman, but with Pei Wei and Pizza Hut. Now she's making it even more obvious with her chapter of takeout menu recipes. We made As You Like It Citrus Soy Stir-Fry, which wasn't as Shakespearean as I would have liked. Unless Shakespeare liked having a jar of marmalade in his soy glaze. When I was dumping this ingredient in with the rest, I reassured myself that it would get drowned out by the others, and all that would be left was a faint aroma of orange rind. Oddly enough when we sat down to eat, Koch, who hates marmalade, found its pervading presence acceptable. I, on the other hand, who sacrificed a jar of my own personal marmalade to make this recipe, did not.
Chapter 3: Fancy Fake-Outs. Did I mention that Rachel Ray's favorite words are Fake-Out and Yum-O? I really shouldn't make fun, since I probably chose one of the silliest recipes in the whole chapter, a risotto without the rice called "Wild Mushroom broken spaghetti 'risotto'". The recipe was not bad, and it gave me an excuse to buy delicious porcini mushrooms and hazelnuts. Still, next time I think I'll spare myself the humiliation of breaking half a pound of spaghetti into little pieces and use rice. I'm also unsure of the point of topping it off with arugula (which I couldn't find at the grocery store, again).
Chapter 4: 30-minutes meals. It's what made Ray famous, so of course there are going to be some 30-minutes meals included here. I made the Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup with Smoky Caprese Panini for lunch on a rainy Sunday. It hit the spot, but then again, one can never go wrong with combining fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil. The soup was quite good, too. This is the recipe I most highly recommend, even if its name is too long.
Chapter 5: Yes! The Kids Will Eat It. This is where I learned that Rachel Ray loves the word Yum-O and that it is also what she has called her nonprofit organization for "empower[ing] kids and their families to develop healthy relationships with food and cooking". I don't really know what this means. I didn't even know families could have unfortunate relationships with food. I'm assuming this is a veiled reference to child obesity. Anyway, I happened to make the Turkey Meat Loaves with Smashed Sweet Potatoes & Peas & Radishes on a night earlier this week when Koch was in Canada, so I ended up dividing all the ingredients by six. This including dividing an egg by six. I threw caution to the wind and assumed a splash of Eggbeaters would do. And it did. What is interesting about this recipe (and, assumedly, the other recipes in this chapter) is that it makes up an entire meal, and not just one dish. I'd never encountered that before. It leaves nothing to the imagination.
Chapter 6: Sides & Starters. I just tried the Spinach Salad with Slumped Mushrooms. I took two bites and threw it out. Too much red onion. Also, I don't like salads whose dressings consist of nothing but lemon juice.
I skipped chapter 7, which may actually be the most useful chapter. I just didn't need any "Simple Sauces & Bottom-of-the-jar tips". These recipes involve using up the last tablespoons of peanut butter or the cereal crumbs and the bottom of the box. A very clever idea.
Finally, Chapter 8: Desserts. Ray starts off on less than a strong note: "I do not bake, because I am competitive and I know baking is just not my forte. Plus, baking is more of a science than a purely creative art, and I stink at science!" This rings false to me. How is Rachel Ray competitive, exactly? She does not boast being the best cook around. Far from it. So why not try her hand at baking? I would guess laziness. But she's already gone through the trouble of writing all these cookbooks and starring in her own cooking show. So, I guess it has something to do with the mob. Still, I found a cake recipe in this skeletal chapter and made it for my birthday, which I celebrated alone with my cats like a Tom Waits song. Did I say it was a cake recipe? That's not exactly true. It involves making a cake from a box of yellow cake-mix and substituting apple cider for water. The Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting is what makes it kind of unique, though. And it tasted like a cinnamon bun. Not a bad thing at all.