Perky, bubbly Rachael Ray, who talks as fast as she cooks, is the little darling of the Food Network's cooking show lineup.
The hostess of 30 Minute Meals apparently writes as fast as she cooks, because she's just released her sixth cookbook, three more are in the works, and she's been on the air only since 2001.
Her latest, which shot up The New York Times paperback list for advice books, is Gettogethers (Lake Isle Press, 2003, $18.95) and is the perfect companion for America's new cocooning stage.
"Small groups make the best parties," she writes in her introduction. "And if you keep things simple, you will enjoy the party more."
This cookbook includes menus for brunches, tea parties, tailgates and board-game nights, to name a few of her suggested get-together themes. The front of the book includes tips for easy appetizers and for setting a comfortable mood.
The table of contents is no help whatsoever and the menus are all over the map. It is one of those cookbooks you have to take time to read. But the ingredients, highlighted in pink for easy shopping-list making, are easy to find, and the recipes are mix and match.
Ray's motto is, "A great meal is never more than 30 minutes away." Though it may take you a little longer, she offers plenty of shortcuts no one will notice, and she is a big believer in what she calls "store-bought help."
This middle child of a Sicilian mother and a Cajun father grew up in commercial kitchens and worked in one herself. It's where she heard too many customers say they bought her delicious prepared foods because they didn't have the time or skill to cook.
Today, she is one of the hottest things in cable television, a 35-year-old single woman who lives in a cabin by a lake in upstate New York.
She hates to measure (that's why she doesn't bake and suggests purchasing desserts) and she cooks everything in what she calls EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil).
She has a boyfriend, John, and he is mentioned often in this book, including in the introduction to a meal of chicken breasts, ravioli and salad, something she titles her "Express Lane Dinner Date - 10 Items or Less."
It is the perfect recipe for the busy couple determined to squeeze in a romantic Valentine's Day supper at the end of a busy week.
"When you shop and cook together," she writes, "it is still a date."
Express Lane Dinner Date
ROSEMARY CHICKEN BREASTS:
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, just enough to coat chicken lightly (eyeball it)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 stems rosemary, stripped of leaves and chopped (1 tablespoon)
salt and coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
2 cloves garlic, cracked away from skin with a whack against the flat of a knife
BROWN BUTTER AND BALSAMIC RAVIOLI:
1 package (12 to 16 ounces) ravioli, any flavor filling
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 handfuls grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped (a couple of handfuls)
TOMATO AND ONION SALAD:
4 vine-ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/2 small white onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped (a couple of handfuls)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (eyeball it)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Marinate the chicken: Coat the chicken in balsamic vinegar, then olive oil. Season with rosemary, salt and pepper. Let stand 10 minutes.
Start the ravioli: Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt water and drop ravioli in. Cook 6 to 8 minutes, or until ravioli expand and float. Drain.
Heat a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken breasts and cracked garlic to the pan. Cook chicken 10 to 12 minutes, or until juices run clear, turning occasionally. The balsamic vinegar will produce a deep-brown, sweet finish on the chicken as it cooks.
When the chicken is cooked midway, 5 or 6 minutes, start to prepare butter for ravioli. In cold skillet, add butter and turn on moderate heat. Let the butter brown. If you start with a cold pan, the butter should be lightly browned by the time it comes to a bubble. Add cooked ravioli to pan and turn in butter to heat through. Add balsamic vinegar and cook a minute or two longer to reduce vinegar and glaze ravioli. Add cheese, parsley, salt and pepper to pasta and remove pan from heat.
Make the salad: Combine the tomatoes, onions, parsley, extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Adjust seasoning.
Slice cooked chicken on an angle and serve with ravioli and onion salad alongside.
Per serving: 1,056 calories; 58 grams protein; 59 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 75 grams carbohydrate; 201 milligrams cholesterol; 479 milligrams sodium