Rachael Ray's make-ahead meals

Save for all those Emmy awards, best-selling cookbooks and million-dollar paycheck, Rachael Ray and I could be twins.

We both sing the praises of extra-virgin olive oil, are fans of Primanti's cap-and-egg sandwiches and love (love!) preparing simple comfort foods for our families. In fact, me and Rach both think cooking is the best way to relax and unwind after a long day at the office.

Huh? America's favorite sweetheart chef actually spends time in front of the stove for fun?

"When I cook at work, it's about storytelling and getting others excited in the kitchen -- it's not about the joy of cooking," the celebrity chef explained on a recent phone call from Austin, Texas, where she was preparing to speak at the 14th annual Texas Conference for Women. Her voice was raspy from exhaustion. "But when I do it at home, it's an emotional thing for me. It's very calming and makes me feel centered. ... I don't have to be talking and can just be quiet and enjoy cooking."

While she'll go out after a lengthy day of filming her TV show if she has to for an event, she'd much rather be in her socks and PJs, listening to music and sipping a glass of wine while she rustles up some dinner for her husband. Even on those days when she makes 10 meals for multiple episodes in front of the camera.

"Then I go home and make number 11," she said.

Then again, she's Rachael Ray -- the woman who taught America how to make tasty home-cooked meals in 30 minutes or less. What about the rest of us non-professionals?

Her latest cookbook, copies of which she'll sign at two Giant Eagle Market District appearances this weekend, aims to take the stress out of answering the perennial question, "What's for dinner?"

"Week in a Day" culls more than 200 of her favorite recipes from her popular cooking show of the same name. But as the title suggests, she takes a different tack in ordering them.

You can cook any or all of the many soups, stews, casseroles and pasta sauces any day of the week, of course. But what she suggests in 43 chapters is taking a day or afternoon (she mega-cooks on Sundays) and preparing enough food for as many as five nights and storing it in the freezer or fridge.

As she writes in the intro, "When the day is especially long or you're feeling extra exhausted, imagine how comforting it is to know that dinner -- your own homemade delicious food -- is waiting for you as soon as you walk in."

To that end, each TV-crew-tested recipe ("We knew if they gobbled it and clapped at the end of the episode to include it," she said) was picked specifically for its "make-ahead-ability."

The poulty-centric menu for Week 27, for example, includes Mulligatawny Soup with Green Raita, Chicken Tetrazzini, BBQ Chicken Burritos, Braised Chicken Thighs and an absolutely terrific Catalan Chicken Stew (see recipe below).

Doesn't sound like your pot of fun? Even if you only commit an hour to making two or three meals, "at least you'd have one in the pocket, an ace in the hole for the freezer or fridge for that day when you just want to go home and not be bothered," she said.

Not to mention, you'll have something great to heat up when people stop by unexpectedly during the holidays.

The book also includes a section that teaches readers how to get three meals out of one bag of groceries (including QR codes for a scannable shopping list), along with "foundation" recipes for basic poached chicken, stock, roasted tomatoes and pulled pork. Sprinkled throughout are storing and serving tips and QR codes for cooking videos.

"You don't have to be able to cook everything all the time," she said, "but there is an emotional benefit to being able to cook a few things well that make you happy."

Rachael Ray will be at the Robinson Market District at 11 a.m. on Sun., Dec. 8, and the Bethel Park Market District at noon on Mon., Dec. 9.

Tickets are free, but limited and available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Register online at marketdistrict.com

Catalan Chicken Stew

This hearty, fragrant stew takes a lot less time than you'd think. It's thickened the traditional Catalan way with picada, a paste made of almonds, bread and olive oil. Perfect for lunch boxes.

For picada

1/4 cup raw unsalted Marcona almonds or blanched almonds

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 slices (1/2-inch thick) baguette

2 cloves garlic, grated of finely chopped

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Generous handful fresh flat-leaf parsley

For stew

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 onions, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 or 3 celery ribs, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 fresh red Fresno or other chile, finely chopped

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

2 rounded tablespoons sweet paprika

Pinch saffron threads

2 fresh bay leaves

Kosher salt and pepper

28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes

2 cups chicken stock

3 to 4 cups shredded poached chicken

1 cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped (I omitted)

Make picada: In a small dry skillet, toast almonds. Transfer to food processor. Pour olive oil into the same skillet and fry bread slices. Chop the bread and add to food processor. Add garlic, a splash of water, lemon juice and parsley. Pulse/chop into a pesto-like consistency. Set aside.

Make stew: In Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrots, celery, bell pepper, chile, thyme, paprika, saffron, bay leaves and salt and pepper. Cook to soften vegetables, 7 to 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, breaking them up with a spoon. Add stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Stir in chicken.

Stir picada and olives into the hot stew. Turn off heat and let stand 5 minutes. Serve in shallow bowls. Serves 4 to 6.

-- "Week in a Day" by Rachael Ray (Atria; Oct. 22, 2013; $24.99)

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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