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30-minute myth
easoned cook puts Rachael Ray to the test
By Laura Bianchi | Daily Herald Correspondent

Chicken Fajita-Tortilla Soup hits the 30-minute mark, but you need a knife to eat it.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Sorta-Soba Bowls are delish even if the time exceeds Rachael Ray's estimate.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/20/2008 12:14 AM

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She may be vivacious, talented and a multimillionaire, but you just cannot trust that Rachael Ray.

For years the darling of the Food Network told us we could make her 30-minute meals in half an hour, and we couldn't.

Now in her latest book, "Just In Time," she promises us 15-, 30- and 60-minute meals that either cannot be made in the time allotted, don't qualify as meals or both.

Let's not even talk yet about the monumental mess you're going to make -- I'm saving that for later.

I'll admit I'm a late-comer to the Rachael Ray culinary school. I always figured, how good could a 30-minute meal be? But I was tempted to give her a try after leafing through a copy of "Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals 2."

Gosh, they looked pretty good -- lots of fresh herbs and interesting condiments like tomatillo salsa. With more than 30 years experience making from-scratch meals, I figured these would be a breeze.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Consider my first attempt from "30-Minute Meals 2": One Great Gumbo with Chicken and Andouille Sausage, served with Shrimp Cocktail with Rach's Quick Remoulade and Tossed Salad with Snap Peas, Radishes and Sweet Red Pepper Relish Dressing.

There are 20 ingredients in the gumbo, 11 in the shrimp cocktail and a dozen in the tossed salad. I start with the gumbo and rice -- nine of the ingredients need prep.

Fortified with some caffeine I set the timer and shift into high gear.

I'm grabbing ingredients by the armful out of the 'fridge, pantry and spice cabinet. Chicken tenders and thighs have to be diced first.

According to Rachael, I have to brown the chicken on all sides in 2 or 3 minutes and in the meantime, wash and chop all the vegetables. Somehow I have to get the sausage diced in that time, too.

I'm cooking like my pants are on fire, trying to avoid slicing off digits while bits of food fly. The family dog is one of Rachael's biggest fans.

Normally I put ingredients away as I use them and clean up the counter as I go, but there's no time for such niceties now.

Over an hour later, only the gumbo is ready and I have thrown together some romaine with bottled dressing instead of her salad. Forget the shrimp, it didn't happen either. I serve it with bottled seafood sauce.

Worse yet, the counter is buried in ingredients, tools, food scraps and dirty pots and pans that I didn't take time to rinse. Ugh.

The good news -- this one is really good, even better if you let it simmer longer.

Inexorably, that frenetic scene played itself out time and again on the pages of "Rachael Ray 30 Minute Meals 2."

Naturally, I couldn't wait to see what she was up to in "Just In Time." For what, I wondered?

The differences are striking. Gone are the ultra-ambitious, multidish meals. Almost every dish has fewer ingredients. In several cases, I got close to the estimated time, in others I blew well past it.

Another gripe: a number of these "meals" are just main courses that need a salad, vegetable or starch to round them out. Beyond that, a couple of the recipes I tried looked unappetizing or had a quirky twist.

And the mess? I call it the "Hurricane Rachael" effect. What good is a 30-minute meal if the kitchen looks like you prepared the Thanksgiving feast.

Try this one, I dare you: Turkey Chili Meatballs, Fire-Roasted BBQ Sauce, Sour Cream Smashed Potatoes and Broccolini. It is indeed a complete meal, and I finish it, amazingly, in 35 minutes, just 5 over the mark.

But the overly sweet barbecue sauce and buttery mashed potatoes are truly odd together, and the clean-up is epic. You'll need three pots with lids, a mixing bowl, baking sheet, colander and an assortment of cooking tools. The grated cheese and molasses for the barbecue sauce ended up everywhere in my rush to beat the clock.

There is no time to rinse anything, so I have potatoes and meatball mixture crusting onto their respective containers at the end.

Repeated attempts to contact Ray for comment proved futile.

One happy note: I tried the leftover meatballs with noodles the next day and they were much better.

Likewise, Sloppy Dude sandwiches are tasty and can be prepared in the 30 minutes allotted. But the ground turkey with tomatillos and jalapeno is a murky greenish-gray color that put off my family, even though the sandwiches are topped with red onion and tomato slices at the table. Rachael recommends serving them with chips, but it needs a vegetable or salad, too.

Creamy Spaghetti and Beans takes 45 minutes instead of 30, though I subtract the time it takes to clean up a pound of spaghetti that dumps onto the floor like pickup sticks.

Unfortunately, this one turns an unappealing beige not much improved by parsley garnish. It's pretty tasty, but again, it needs a side salad or vegetable.

The 15-minute Tomatillo and Chicken Tostadas are a laugh. How did she decide that we could skin and shred an entire rotisserie chicken, wash, chop and cook zucchini, scallions and cilantro, add spices and salsa in 15 minutes?

It takes me twice as long. Most of us enjoy this one, but once again, it is not a meal. One medium zucchini split four ways doesn't constitute a serving of vegetables. Consider adding a side of rice and a marinated vegetable salad and add some time to the clock.

Chicken Fajita Soup is a 15-minute dish that takes me 22, not bad. It tastes great, but the chicken tenders go into the pot whole to save time. You have to eat this "soup" with a knife and fork, and though it is hearty you should add salad at least.

I confess, I started taking a mischievous glee in choosing recipes that looked like they didn't have a prayer of being finished on time. That's the case with the 15-minute Sorta-Soba Bowls.

It calls for six produce items, four herbs or spices and tamari sauce. Just the cooking time alone adds up to 16 minutes, which doesn't include filling a pot with water for the spaghetti or chopping vegetables.

I lose precious seconds searching for toasted sesame seeds in my well-stocked spice cabinet.

Still, this vegetarian dish tastes great, and here's where Rachael is absolutely correct: A lot of her recipes are -- cringe -- "yum-o."

She consistently chooses bold ingredients that build flavor quickly. Among them: fire-roasted tomatoes, earthy mushrooms, cumin, coriander and hot seasonings like chili powder, jalapeno and salsas. She squeezes in fresh lime or lemon juice, shreds in pepper jack cheese and sprinkles on scallions.

Another plus: because she repeats ingredients throughout the book you can always find another use for the rest of your cilantro, white cheddar cheese or bottle of coriander.

Beyond that, her recipes are easy to read -- ingredients are in bold face -- and instructions are generally easy to follow.

So why can't she tell time?

If you've seen her shows you'll notice she never washes any of her produce or meat before using ingredients. Pots, pans and tools are magically at hand -- I have to dig through a jumbled utensil drawer for my zester -- and she has the recipes memorized.

I have to dash between the book, the fridge and the pantry several times to gather up all the ingredients necessary.

The moral of the story? Give yourself twice as long as the estimated time, then relax and enjoy the experience.

You're in for some great eating.

Chicken or Shrimp Fajita-Tortilla Soup

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1½ pounds chicken tenders or 1½ pounds peeled, deveined shrimp, tails removed

1 tablespoon ground coriander, a palmful

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (5 to 6 sprigs, stripped) chopped

Salt and black pepper

1 large onion, quartered and thinly sliced

1 large bell pepper, seeded, quartered and thinly sliced

1 jalapeno, seeded and thinly sliced

1 can (28 ounces) diced fire-roasted tomatoes

1 quart (4 cups) chicken stock

1 bag white corn tortilla chips

1 cup shredded pepper jack or sharp white cheddar cheese, plus more to pass

1 ripe avocado

1 lime, juiced

4 scallions, chopped

Handful of fresh cilantro or flat-leaf parsley, chopped

In a large skillet heat the olive oil over medium-high to high heat. Add chicken or shrimp, season with coriander, thyme, salt and pepper and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. If using shrimp, remove them from the pan and set aside to prevent them from overcooking.

Add the onions, bell pepper and jalapeno to the pan, season with salt and pepper and cook for 6 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently. The veggies should be charred at the edges but still a bit crispy. Add the tomatoes and stock and heat through. (If you removed the shrimp, return to the soup just before dishing it up to reheat briefly.)

While the soup is working lightly crush some tortilla chips and divide among 4 bowls; you'll need a couple of handfuls per bowl. Top the chips with ¼ cup of the cheese per serving. Peel and dice the avocado and toss it with the lime juice.

To serve: Ladle the soup over the chips and cheese, and garnish each serving with avocado, scallions and cilantro or parsley. Pass extra cheese.

Serves four.

Nutrition values per serving: 640 calories, 30 g fat (8 g saturated), 43 g carbohydrates, 9 g fiber, 53 g protein, 135 mg cholesterol, 1380 mg sodium.

"Just In Time" by Rachael Ray (2007, Clarkson Potter, $19.95)

Chicken or Shrimp Fajita-Tortilla Soup

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1½ pounds chicken tenders or 1½ pounds peeled, deveined shrimp, tails removed

1 tablespoon ground coriander, a palmful

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (5 to 6 sprigs, stripped) chopped

Salt and black pepper

1 large onion, quartered and thinly sliced

1 large bell pepper, seeded, quartered and thinly sliced

1 jalapeno, seeded and thinly sliced

1 can (28 ounces) diced fire-roasted tomatoes

1 quart (4 cups) chicken stock

1 bag white corn tortilla chips

1 cup shredded pepper jack or sharp white cheddar cheese, plus more to pass

1 ripe avocado

1 lime, juiced

4 scallions, chopped

Handful of fresh cilantro or flat-leaf parsley, chopped

In a large skillet heat the olive oil over medium-high to high heat. Add chicken or shrimp, season with coriander, thyme, salt and pepper and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. If using shrimp, remove them from the pan and set aside to prevent them from overcooking.

Add the onions, bell pepper and jalapeno to the pan, season with salt and pepper and cook for 6 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently. The veggies should be charred at the edges but still a bit crispy. Add the tomatoes and stock and heat through. (If you removed the shrimp, return to the soup just before dishing it up to reheat briefly.)

While the soup is working lightly crush some tortilla chips and divide among 4 bowls; you'll need a couple of handfuls per bowl. Top the chips with ¼ cup of the cheese per serving. Peel and dice the avocado and toss it with the lime juice.

To serve: Ladle the soup over the chips and cheese, and garnish each serving with avocado, scallions and cilantro or parsley. Pass extra cheese.

Serves four.

Nutrition values per serving: 640 calories, 30 g fat (8 g saturated), 43 g carbohydrates, 9 g fiber, 53 g protein, 135 mg cholesterol, 1380 mg sodium.

"Just In Time" by Rachael Ray (2007, Clarkson Potter, $19.95)

Fish With Ginger-Orange-Onion Sauce

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 portions (6 ounces each) fish fillets such as mahi-mahi, cod or salmon

Salt and black pepper

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 medium-large red onion, quartered and very thinly sliced

1 large garlic clove, grated or finely chopped

2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated or finely chopped

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Zest and juice of 1 orange

1 cup chicken stock

2 tablespoons cold butter

1 small handful fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 pound green beans, pre-trimmed

Crusty whole-grain bread to pass

Place a high-sided skillet over high heat with about 1 inch of water. Cover with lid and bring to a boil for the green beans.

Place a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, twice around the pan. While the skillet heats season the fish with salt, pepper and the coriander. Place in skillet and cook just until done, about 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Remove fish to plate and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm.

Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to the skillet and add the onions, garlic, ginger and red pepper flakes. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes to soften the onions, then add the orange zest and juice and the stock. Bring to a bubble, add the butter and swirl to incorporate. Stir in parsley.

While the fish cooks salt the water in the skillet and drop in green beans. Cook for 3 minutes or until just tender; drain and season with salt. Serve the fish with lots of sauce on top, and a few green beans and bread alongside.

Serves four.

Nutrition values per serving: 360 calories, 21 g fat (6 g saturated), 11 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 32 g protein, 90 mg cholesterol, 250 mg sodium.

"Just In Time" by Rachael Ray (2007, Clarkson Potter, $19.95)

Sorta-Soba Bowls

1 pound whole-wheat spaghetti

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus some for the pasta and some for drizzling

1 large onion, thinly sliced

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 cup shredded carrots

1 medium zucchini, halved and sliced into ½-inch thick half moons

16-20 shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced

1 head bok choy, cored and coarsely chopped

2 quarts (8 cups) chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup fresh bean sprouts

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon chili powder

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Tamari (aged soy sauce)

Place a large pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Liberally salt the water, add pasta and cook al dente. Drain and toss with a little vegetable oil.

While the pasta water is coming to a boil, place a large soup pot over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Add the onion, garlic, carrots and zucchini and cook until onions and zucchini start to get tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and bok choy and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock, bring to a bubble and simmer for 5 minutes. Add bean sprouts and remove from heat.

In a small bowl combine toasted sesame seeds, ground coriander, chili powder and cayenne pepper; reserve for garnishing the soup.

To serve: Use a pair of tongs to twist a portion of pasta into a nest and transfer to a soup bowl. Douse the noodles with some tamari and sprinkle with the sesame-spice mixture. Ladle the vegetables and broth over the noodles and serve with chopsticks and large spoons for slurping.

Serves six.

Nutrition values per serving: 430 calories, 8 g fat (1 g saturated), 78 g carbohydrates, 14 g fiber, 19 g protein, 5 mg cholesterol, 930 mg sodium.

"Just In Time" by Rachael Ray (2007, Clarkson Potter, $19.95)