Rachael Ray is Back and Surprisingly Appetizing

Rachael Ray's new program, Week in a Day, on the equally fresh Cooking Channel, makes for surprisingly pleasant -- and informative -- viewing.

Confession: Despite Ray's vaunted status as one of the original founding chefs, along with Emeril, of the original Food Network, I've always found her to be a singularly grating television presence.

Especially as seen on her original 30-Minute Meals, Ray was always nipping at our viewing heals, daring us not to like her. She put the "grate" in ingratiating, with a show marked by way too many giggles, irrelevant asides and cutesy abbreviations (enough already with the "e.v.o.o."). Gone missing amid all the shtick were solid cooking tips for the harried home chef.

So it was with plenty of arched-brow skepticism that I tuned into Ray's latest offering, Week in a Day, commonly billed as the television chef's first new broadcast concept in years.

Well, as they say in television land: Bingo. Practicality personified, Ray's new show is built on one long morning-into-afternoon of cooking in which you prepare five meals for the coming week. Commandeering a battery of pots, along with everyday ingredients, Ray's theory is that by the occasional recasting of some ingredients from, say meal one to meal four, and refrigerating all five meals until they're ready for reheating and last-minute garnishing, an entire week of a working family's meals can be turned out in one enjoyable, if intense, session in the kitchen.

The revelation of Week in a Day is how it recasts the irksomely perky Ray. Pretty much gone are the incessant giggles, and the "can we tawk" routine that cluttered up her previous shows like a peel-clogged sink.

Instead, Ray rarely cracks wise, let alone that Joker-worthy smile. In Week in a Day, Ray's all business (she even terms her approach to the meals as a "game plan") as she smartly trundles through her kitchen, fashioning each meal in easy-to-follow steps. I particularly enjoy her "starting line-up" segment where she quickly describes the chopping and sweating of classic aromatics, or her unapologetic use of frozen spinach.

In one of her most recent shows, she traveled from meal one, Italian roast beef to a whole-wheat linguini napped by a portobello cream sauce, followed by a friend-inspired recipe for curry lentil soup, veal and spinach-stuffed eggplant, before wrapping up the week's eats with the return of the first meal's roast beef as the star of Italian barbecued beef sandwiches dressed with a hot-sweet Caprese salad.

Even with a full-hour to share all these dishes with us, Ray has thankfully little time for cloying small-talk. Instead, she sprinkles about five or six mini-talking-head segments throughout the show in which she passes on a pearl of cooking wisdom inspired by the dish she is currently preparing. Ray is at her best here, breezily offering up her take on everything from the importance of carmelization of a honking chunk of roast-beef, the deep, tart flavors imparted by of aged balsamic vinegar, to some tricks for cleaning an entire forest of mushrooms.

Not so long ago, I could barely withstand spending 30-minutes making one meal with Ray. With today's subdued and purposeful Ray, her new hour-long show flies by.

New episodes of Week in a Day air 2 p.m. (Central time) on Saturdays on the Cooking Channel.

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Andrew Marton