In Defense of Rachael Ray

It's funny how culture seems to creep in via osmosis. Take, for example, a dinner I made on the fly the other night. I found myself staring into a near-empty refrigerator at around 7:30 p.m. on a school night, trying to find something to make for dinner. A container of pre-made basil pesto caught my eye, reminding me that I also had pasta in the pantry, and some good parmesan in the cheese drawer.

I'm kind of a stickler when it comes to pesto. I'm not quite the guy who insists on laboring over it in a mortar and pestle, but I am the guy who insists on making it from scratch, with good olive oil, fresh basil, toasted pine-nuts and pungent garlic. I'm really not quite sure how that tub of green stuff made it into my house. I suspect one of my daughters dumped it into the shopping cart thinking it was a dessert.

This is where my search for supper and the invasive nature of pop culture cross paths. Some weeks earlier, as best I can figure, Rachael Ray had come on the Food Network, either immediately before or after a show I actually wanted to watch. She was making pasta sauce; I believe it was destined for meatball subs. The impossibly wide-smiling Ray chalked the sauce up to a similar last-minute deal, wherein she had (actual homemade) pesto in the freezer, and decided to dump it into some basic tomato sauce she had simmering on the stove. It became a family favorite. This time, Ray was short-cutting it a bit, and using (dah dum!) jarred pesto sauce. She said it was Yum-O!

Flash forward again, as I stared at the pesto sauce, and a light bulb went on. It wasn't associated with Rachael Ray yet. I threw together a hasty, extremely plain tomato sauce (a lone garlic clove sautéed in a can of crushed tomatoes), let it cook down for a bit, then tossed in the pesto. I was concerned that the influx of green would render the bright red sauce a muddy brown. It didn't. At least not much.

The pesto lent the sauce an interesting flavor note. Sure, there was tomato, garlic and basil. There was no hint of pine nut, and only a vaguely cheesy taste instead of robust parmesan. The whole family agreed, though, that it tasted as if it had been baked. Perhaps something about the processing, uh, process, contributed that additional flavor note. Either way, it was a hit with my very hungry kids, and allowed me to get dinner on the table, on a school night, in less than 20 minutes. It wasn't my most accomplished dinner, but hey, I'd worked 12 hours and had to get up at four the next morning.

While finishing dinner with a nice glass of Texas red wine, my wife asked me where I'd come up with it. My first response was "from my head." Then I realized: I'd stolen this "recipe" from Rachael Ray! At first I was embarrassed. The Oprah of food had invaded my kitchen, without my knowledge or consent. I consider myself a somewhat serious and accomplished cook, and here I was, cribbing from one of the easiest targets on food T.V.

But my embarrassment gave way to a question: Why do we hate on Rachael so much? Sure she's an easy target, and that's probably most of it. She has somehow gotten stuck with a reputation for laughable food and is held up as an example of what's wrong with the Food Network. But after giving it some thought, I'd say she's one of the few things right with it.

Ray typically cooks dishes that any weeknight home cook should be proud to put on the table. Simple, basic, comforting fare, prepared (largely) from scratch. She's got decent knife skills, she employs fresh meat and produce, and her show is truly designed to show that good food doesn't have to be laborious or complicated. A few ingredients, sound technique, and dinner's done. At its most basic, this is how most chefs would tell you to cook. Keep it simple. There's a lot to be learned from those 30 minutes.

The problem is that people don't view her show as instruction, or use it as a way to become better cooks, or as inspiration to start cooking in the first place. They use it as pure entertainment. The fact that she cooks actual food, taking few shortcuts that most professional kitchens don't often take, and seems clearly interested in demystifying food, gets kind of lost in the shuffle.

Sure, those who already feel comfortable in the kitchen, and can rattle of methods for basics like marinara, meatloaf, pork-roast and grilled vegetables, might not glean much from her show, but for those who don't cook, Ray could serve as a patient, approachable, non-judgmental tele-instructor. Like a pretty-faced home-ec teacher in your living room.

I know how to do what Ray does. I can throw together a decent meal using decent ingredients in less than 30 minutes; it's not that tough. What I've realized -- learned from Ray -- is that it's okay to take the occasional shortcut. I will leave pesto for the summers, when the basil on my deck is threatening to take over like The Day of the Triffids. If I happen to find some in my freezer, on a school night in October, I will not hesitate to throw it in a simmering pot of tomato sauce. Take that one step further; I just might start keeping a tub of the pre-made stuff around on occasion, just in case.

Are you a Rachael Ray detractor? When was the last time you watched her show? Go catch a few episodes, then tell me that I'm wrong, and that Ray is symptomatic of what's wrong with shortcut cooking in America. I dare you.

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