Sometimes I think ambivalence is the worst feeling in the world. Ambivalence suggests an inability to decide between caring and not caring, loving and hating, yes or no. Being the optimist/pessimist that I am, ambivalence strikes frequently. I wrestle with it, struggling to resolve my conflicting feelings. I have, at times, felt ambivalent about dairy, my career in science, dogs, motherhood, and sausage. On the other hand, I have never felt ambivalent about the importance of education, cats, my niece, oatmeal, pillows, independence, and correct spelling.
I am deeply ambivalent about Rachael Ray.
I suspect my encounters with Rachael Ray and her empire are rather unique. I have never watched any of her shows, not because I’m not curious, but because I don’t have cable television, so no Food Network for me at home. I also don’t watch her new daytime talk show. My Rachael experience is limited to her printed work: cookbooks, her magazine, and the magazine’s website. I find myself strangely, almost hypnotically, drawn to her books and magazines. I flip through the pages, reading recipe titles and skimming ingredient lists, while chanting in my head, “I WILL not buy this. I will NOT buy this.” Can you see that even my chanting is ambivalent? Move a few words around, change the emphasis, and you get, “I will not BUY THIS. I WILL not BUY THIS!” BUY THIS BUY THIS! The whole thing makes me hyperventilate and reach for my credit card.
Besides the fact that I own too many cookbooks already, Rachael’s offerings for me are limited. First and foremost, my vegetarianism seriously limits the number of her dishes that I can make without modification. Yes, she does offer some veggie eats, but I’ve had mixed success with them. Vegetarian cooking deserves as much love as meat-based cooking! Should a woman who confesses to knowing little about tofu be writing recipes that contain it? I was too scared to try her tofu recipes after that confession! Furthermore, her veggie recipes often feature mushrooms, which I don’t use in my cooking. But the detail that troubles me the most is very simple: too much fat. Rachael uses olive oil, butter, heavy cream, cheese, and eggs like there’s no tomorrow. I just don’t think you can eat her food, her way, every day without gaining weight, which I believe no one wants to do. And because her books, heck, even her magazine (Everyday with Rachael Ray) are marketed as everyday cooking references, I am deeply troubled by her vast influence over people’s eating.
That being said, why do I find myself drawn time and again to her books? Perhaps I’m a sucker for a beautiful book: as my friend Elizabeth says, there’s a certain panache to Rachael Ray. The books are fun to read, with delicious-looking recipes and snazzy menus laid out right in front of you. The desserts (all of which I can eat if I pretend I don’t know the fat gram count in heavy cream) look super-simple and lusciously good. Rachael’s cooking style is stylishly down to earth: she uses lots of fresh herbs and the occasional gourmet ingredient, but she admits to loving a great burger and urges us to use her speedy tricks if they help us get food on the table easily. And I LOVE how enthusiastic she is about cooking and food! If her enthusiasm has encouraged the non-cooks among us to step into a kitchen to prepare a meal, that is a movement I wholeheartedly support.
In practice, I have found a few gems in her books, recipes I adore and have presented to you here at Life, Love, and Food. Granted, I have adapted these recipes to suit my tastes, but the inspiration is all Rachael Ray. Among the hits are Mexican Coffee, Black Bean Soup with Rice, and my Spinach and Zucchini Calzones. True to form, each of these recipes comes together quickly and easily if you follow the time-saving advice. The real shocker among this trio was the Black Bean Soup with Rice, which was absolutely delicious and an instant calmer for me.
And so it is that I find myself the happy owner of Express Lane Meals and a binder full of select recipes from other books and the Everyday website. I use Rachael’s ideas as just that: ideas. I modify and tweak them to my heart’s content, leaving out the bacon here and halving the olive oil there. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I take the failures in stride and delight in the successes. Thanks to my local library, I get free peaks at all her books, which is a tremendous blessing to the curious vegetarian who wants to see if she can pick up a new idea or two from the queen of 30-minute meals.
Slightly Modified Ricotta Pasta with Tomatoes al Forno
Adapted from Ricotta Pasta with Tomatoes al Forno in 365: No Repeats by Rachael Ray
Makes ~4 servings
No matter what people say about Rachael Ray, this much is undeniable: the girl knows her pasta. I wouldn’t expect anything less of an Italian woman! And this pasta bake is really good stuff: a savory tomato sauce tossed with penne pasta and ricotta cheese, and then the whole thing is spread in a baking dish, covered with slices of fresh mozzarella, and baked. This dish is wonderfully comforting: melted cheese, soothing carbs, and tangy sauce, all hot and perfectly seasoned. This pasta is one of my all-time favorites.
Rachael’s recipes often make enough to feed an army, but my version here makes ~4 servings, which works well if you are cooking for a few others or if you are cooking for yourself and plan to eat the rest as leftovers. The leftovers reheat well in the microwave.
2 c. dried penne pasta
½ lg. onion, chopped
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 c. canned crushed tomatoes*
A generous handful of fresh parsley leaves
1 tsp. dried basil
½ c. ricotta cheese
2 tbsp. Parmesan cheese
4 oz. fresh mozzarella**, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Cook pasta according to package directions.
2) While the pasta is going, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet. Add the onion and garlic. Saute until the onion is soft, stirring frequently.
3) Stir the crushed tomatoes, parsley, and basil into the onion/garlic saute. Simmer for 5 min. and then turn off the heat.
4) Place the ricotta and Parmesan in a large mixing bowl. Add the cooked pasta and toss to coat with cheeses. Add about 2 ½ ladles*** of the tomato sauce and toss again. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
5) Transfer pasta to an 8-in. square baking dish. Lay slices of fresh mozzarella over the pasta. Bake at 400 degrees F for ~10 min. to melt the cheese. Serve hot.
*At my grocery store, I can only find crushed tomatoes in 28-oz. cans, which is highly annoying. For this recipe, I use about half the can and then freeze the remainder.
**For this recipe, it’s easiest to buy a ball of mozzarella from which you can slice. The smallest ball I can find is 8 ounces, so I buy it, use half for this recipe, and eat the remainder in sandwiches or just with good crusty bread. It’s important not to waste fresh mozzarella, as it is one of those foods that makes life worth living.
***My apologies for the leftovers here. As with the crushed tomatoes, I freeze the leftover sauce for another day.