NEW YORK - Eating well without spending hours in the kitchen is Rachael Ray's specialty, and she's more than ready to encourage everyone to enjoy it as much as she does.
"I'm always trying to figure out, what do people really want, what can they really do," she said on a recent visit to Manhattan.
To further her mission to make good, streamlined cooking accessible, besides extolling it on her popular TV food shows on the Food Network, she has a new cookbook: Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals 2 (Lake Isle Press, 2003, $16.95 paperback).
She had written an earlier book, Rachael Ray 30-Minute Meals but points out, "This is the first book in full menus."
Why 30 minutes?
She answers her own question: "It's like the Goldilocks of time. Fifteen minutes is too little, an hour is too much."
She doesn't want anyone to imagine this speedy cuisine is difficult, that her level of cooking is beyond ordinary folks' reach. "I don't wear a chef coat; I'm not a chef," she says.
"The recipes are set out freestyle. I don't measure a thing; I think it's much more fun to cook that way."
With characteristic energy and high spirits, she runs through reasons why the 30-minute thing should be a breeze for anyone.
Easy shopping, first off, before any cooking begins.
"The book's very practical. You'll see a lot of the same flavors overlap across menus. I always try to think of the customer, what they they can use again."
Ray lives in upstate New York and has her own routine.
"In the country I tend to do one big shopping day, getting the pantry staples, and sturdy things like onions and durable herbs like parsley. Then a couple of times a week you can get fresh supplies, like basil."
Fresh herbs, including parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and bay leaves are very important, and they all keep for about a week, she says, but basil is more delicate.
She always keeps a supply of basics: pasta, olive oil, anchovy, canned tuna, beef and vegetable stock.
Here she interjects a tip: "These stocks are such a great thing. If you add stock and crushed tomato, something tastes like it has been cooking all day. And fresh herbs make all the difference if you're cooking with canned items."
You can tailor the basics, she says, and build a pantry to your individual taste.
"Using adventurous foods is the way I've always eaten. . . . I think it's important to invest in the cuisine you love the most. If I loved Tex-Mex, I'd make sure I always have the cumin, coriander and chilies. I love Mediterranean, so I always have those things on hand. If I was a meat-and-potato man, I'd have the Worcestershire."
She describes Mediterranean cuisine as "peasant food, really simple food."
Many of her recipes are rooted in her family's cooking, often going back a generation or two.
"I try to come up with a new twist, but I still try to honor the tradition. I try to read up on it, figure out what spice or seasoning is at its center, and then I try to make it into what you can do in 30 minutes in real time."
The fast food you cook at home can be healthful, too, she says. It can be good for you, the way she learned to make it.
"I write about what I eat in real life and I eat healthy," she says. "That's why I call for things like the extra-virgin olive oil, boneless, skinless chicken, ground sirloin, not ground chuck.
"Every recipe I write is on that principle. I'm a size 4, and I want to stay that way," she adds, laughing.
About budgeting: Processed food may be inexpensive, "but I want to show people that it's still economically sound, and better for you, to make things fresh. You can get more for your money buying a bunch of fresh broccoli or whatever."
Note her kitchen style, too.
"I don't spend a lot on gadgets; I don't have fancy kitchen equipment," she says. "I have a processor I bought for about $28 at Kmart." She suggests a couple of heavy-bottomed pots, a huge slab of wood for a cutting board, a very sharp knife "and one big garbage container for all the bits. That's a real time saver."
A tangent to budgeting is her book's "special dinner" category, she explains. Cooking lobster or tenderloin steak at home can make a level of dining accessible to people who can't afford to eat out at restaurants.
"I hope to empower people to eat at home, but to have getaway experiences doing it. That's important to the day-to-day quality of life."
It gratifies her when her recipes work for people, she says, because "my success is when they say, "Oh, my gosh, I made that great food; I'm so great!' "