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"Thirty-Minute Meals" with Rachael Ray -- the best in made-on-TV recipes.

By 9.22.06

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When I started dialysis again, I had one of my sessions mid-day Saturday. It went the fastest of any of the three treatments because Saturday is cooking show day on public TV. Supplement it with channel-switching capability to The Food Network, and I could pass three hours without too much difficulty.

My family loved it because, as I began to feel better, I'd come home and start to cook. I found out rapidly that not all TV cooks are created equal. They can all dazzle you with their on-screen and in-kitchen techniques. It's a treat just to watch Jacques Pepin mince garlic.

But quite often, made-on-TV recipes simply aren't good. Some foodies are more equipment freaks than gourmands. Some lose sight of what a home cook can do, constrained by time, money, space, and children's tastes. ("Arrange layers of parchment..." "Prepare herbal steaming water...") And some just outright make poor food.

NOT SO RACHAEL RAY, THE PINT-SIZED DYNAMO of "Thirty-Minute Meals" fame, and now the hostess of a full seven half-hour broadcasts a day (three discrete shows, with repeats) on The Food Network: 30 Minute Meals, the original; $40 a Day, and Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels. She has nearly a dozen books on the market.

You may well find Ray unbearable onscreen. You think Katie Couric does perky? Ray makes Couric look somatic. She mugs so broadly and compulsively you almost cover your eyes. As I told my wife, Ray is the kind of woman who women think is cute, but men turn away from. No matter. She makes very good food.

We have been lately been cooking our way through a Rachael Ray mini-manual called Guy Food. I mean "we" literally. Son Bud cooks on Saturdays, and his first was a Rachael Ray pasta with cream, tomato, and vodka sauce.

Guy Food, which I bought on impulse at the front counter while checking out at Border's, is a small format hardcover billed as the "top 30 30-minute meals." Rachael Ray's greatest hits, in other words.

THE RAY STYLE FEATURES STRONG FLAVORS built around a no-nonsense fundamental base. The names of the dishes tell all: blue cheese and walnut spinach salad with maple dressing; John's haddock with bacon, onions, and tomatoes; tenderloin steaks with gorgonzola (three-quarters of a pound!). She displays a nice touch for sauces and garnishes.

The first dish we made was a subtle one, however, triple-A pasta, spinach pasta with asparagus, artichoke, and arugula. The subtle "a" flavors are set off with two tablespoons of grated lemon zest and fresh cracked pepper. Halfway through dinner, my wife and I looked at each other, and said, almost simultaneously, "This is fabulous." A bit dense, though. I would cut down the amounts of the three key ingredients and let the pasta itself play a bit stronger role.

Encouraged, Bud tackled the aforementioned vodka cream pasta, dubbed "You won't be single for long vodka cream pasta." This dish required some tinkering first time around. Made with a wealth of flavorful ingredients -- cream, tomatoes, garlic, shallots, basil --, it calls for a cup of vodka (reduced by half), a cup of chicken stock, a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes, and half a cup of heavy cream. All that liquid over a mere 12 ounces of penne would make soup, not pasta. So Bud and I cut down most liquids by half and still got a dish that looked just like the photograph in the book -- and tasted superb.

Ray's enthusiasm for extras does sometimes get the better of her, as in Delmonico steaks with balsamic onions and steak sauce. The balsamic onion recipe is exquisite, but powerful. Top the steaks with those onions and a strong tomato-based steak sauce, and you overwhelm the meat. A steak can speak for itself. It is best subtly accompanied.

I have, however, made the balsamic onions again for burgers and other dishes. And it was a roasted green onion mayonnaise that sold me on Ray's sauces and will always cause me to give her recipes the benefit of a try. Formerly I would no more put mayonnaise than pine tar on a burger, but, for her outside-in bacon cheeseburgers, Ray recommends the mayo as a topping. It is exquisite.

RAY GUARANTEES THAT ANYONE can make her recipes. That's true. And you mostly won't put a foot wrong, except as noted with the soupy pasta above. They really do take about 30 minutes to fix. As with any set of recipes, Guy Food can be improved by some prior knowledge and enhanced by personal cooking experience.

Guy Food is, however, one of the best and most valuable small cookbooks I've ever seen. Page after page of delicious recipes follow, one after the other, and there is scarcely a one you wouldn't like to try. In contrast to books with hundreds of recipes, where you end up learning and using two or three, with Guy Food you're likely to try them all. And it will be well worth it.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.