I wasn’t interested in cooking until my early twenties. The women in my family have mostly been reluctant cooks, and the men have certain dishes they can cook really well, like biscuits and breakfast. And truthfully I always associated cooking with the outdated gender roles I wished to avoid. But things started to turn around when in my early twenties I began watching the Food Network on a regular basis.
My favorites were Giada and Ina Garten. Sandra Lee sent me into fist-shaking rages, even then, before I’d ever heard of Anthony Bourdain or knew the word “foodie.” But I was always on the fence about Rachael Ray. I found her cooking moderately appealing, her catch phrases and general dumbed-down cuteness irritating. But I also felt a little sorry for her at times. Sometimes, in her older episodes, I could swear there was a sort of dead-eyed self loathing about her, barely masked by cheerful utterances of “Yum-O!” (I cringe every time I hear that word.)
So I forgive her for the annoyances, because she helped teach me to cook. But we haven’t had cable TV in years and while I wasn’t paying attention, she spawned a brightly colored, EVOO-drenched empire. Last week, after reading a few harsh criticisms of her recipes, I decided to give some a try. I was already planning the blog post in my head: a general 30-minute meal, something vegetarian, and maybe a dessert. And I set out to find the recipes.
The official Rachael Ray website has a vast and searchable recipe catalog. The Food Network website also has a huge collection of her recipes. But the more I perused them, the more I realized none of them were appealing to me. Nothing struck me as something I’d want to make. Desserts in particular were lacking: so many recipes consisted of simply assembling store-bought ingredients. Meals were more likely to contain whole foods, but still nothing was standing out to me. Many were simplified versions of classic ethnic dishes, or tortured “fusion” combinations. Maybe I’ve become a victim (or benefactor?) of foodie hipsterdom? Perhaps all the hours spent watching Anthony Bourdain have altered my food world view.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Can I even put my finger on what’s bothering me? I’m not a fan of processed foods, so their inclusion in some of the recipes bothers me. But I can also cut busy people some slack. I don’t judge a busy mom or dad who gets their family to the table with a can of biscuit dough or store-bought pound cake. The important thing is just getting them all around the table at the same time.
I guess what I’m left with after this little experiment, is a question. How can we raise the quality of home cooking in our society without getting bogged down in the pretentious, judgmental criticism of the convenient? Quality home cooking doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming to be good. But we should recognize the joy to be found in taking on a tricky technique or a classic recipe, and savoring its hard-won success.
Diamond in the Rough
In the end, I did find a dish from her repertoire that spoke to me. I’m pleased to say it turned out quite well: Rachael Ray’s Grainy Mustard Chicken Thighs. The potatoes and green beans cooked to precisely the right texture. And chicken thighs are always delicious, far preferable to the boring boneless skinless tasteless chicken breast. The mustard flavor was pretty strong, but it mellowed by the next day, so this could also be a nice make ahead dish. I followed the recipe exactly, so I won’t repost it here. But I don’t think it could hurt to experiment with a few embellishments. A little white wine in the sauce? Homemade chicken stock instead of store-bought? Some minced garlic? Couldn’t hurt.
Apple Crisp Controversy
Here is a recipe that offended me on a couple levels. It’s an apple crisp recipe that originates from Rachael’s sister. Where it goes wrong is using crushed graham crackers instead of oats for the crisp. Heresy! I simply can’t abide an apple crisp recipe with no oats in the crisp. Also, if you have a dessert recipe that is delicious and also just happens to contain something nutritious, why in seven hells would you exchange that ingredient for something less nutritious, and less delicious??
In search of a proper apple crisp recipe, I turned to the domestic arts/media mogul next to whom our friend Rach pales in comparison: Martha Stewart. Say what you want about Martha, her recipes are where it’s at. Here’s my version, adapted from Martha Stewart’s Apple Crisp.
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
- 1/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
- 1/2 heaping teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 8 tablespoons (one stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (not the quick cooking kind)
- 3 pounds of apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2 inch chunks*
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon of ground nutmeg, or to taste
- *Martha recommends Empire, Gala, or Braeburn. I used half Granny Smith and half Honeycrisp. If you use Granny Smith and are sensitive to tart flavors, omit the lemon juice. The combination worked out well since the Granny Smiths held their shape and texture while the Honey Crisps disintegrated into a sauce.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, brown sugar, salt, and two tablespoons granulated sugar. Alternatively, add these ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Then cut the butter into to the flour mixture, using a pastry cutter, a knife and fork, or the food processor. Stop when the mixture is the texture of course meal. Add the oats, mix by hand, tossing and squeezing the mixture until large moist clumps form. Put the mixture in the freezer to chill while you prepare the apples.
- In another bowl, toss the apple slices with lemon juice (if using), cinnamon, and 1/2 cup sugar. Transfer to a 2-quart shallow baking dish and sprinkle the topping over the apples. (Keep in mind that the apples will cook down, so your dish may appear alarmingly full before it’s baked.) Place the dish on a rimmed baking sheet, in case it bubbles over, and bake until golden and bubbling, 55 to 65 minutes. Check it at 30 minutes, or when you begin to smell it baking. If it’s browning too quickly lay a piece of aluminum foil over the dish while it finishes. Allow to cool 10 minutes before serving.
- A note: one thing I’ll probably do next time is add the lemon juice to the apples immediately after slicing them. That way they’re safe from oxidation while waiting for the other ingredients.
- A second note: many people are inclined to top their apple crisp with vanilla ice cream. I wouldn’t turn down ice cream, but I don’t care for it melting into my apple crisp, or apple pie for that matter. So I’ll take my ice cream on the side. And if that causes you to question my status as an American, so be it.
Thanks for reading!