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April 12-18, 2006

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Rachael Ray

Hello, Rachael!: When she's not going all Tess d'Urbervilles on us, Rachael Ray's food mag is surprisingly good.

I'll Subscribe to That

Cooking magazines abound. Which young upstarts make life easier in the kitchen?

By Sara Bir

There's a food magazine for every persuasion of eater. Old stalwarts like Gourmet, Food & Wine and Bon Appétit are going as strong as ever, but every year a gaggle of new startups hope to make a dent in the newsstands. There are politicized guides to vegan living, lusty volumes of food porn slicked with goose fat, titles devoted to the speedy assembly of canned crap and journals promoting the time-intensive crafting of slow food.

Are any of these magazines useful? I decided to road-test five mags, all launched within the last three years. Their target audiences vary widely, as do their styles, and so I judged them not on personal preference, but on clarity and consistency. Do the pictures draw you to the recipes? Are the recipes easy to understand, and do they work? Does the magazine offer something that can't be found elsewhere?

'Everyday Food'

Its compact size mimics the pre-enlarged Reader's Digest, but its aesthetic smacks of its parentage; Everyday Food is a publication of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. However, Martha's face appears on none of its pages.

Target audience Working parents and busy professionals who want to serve homemade meals but are short on time.

Word value This monthly offers straightforward recipes and menu suggestions; in lieu of full-length articles, we get quickly digestible clusters of blurbs about ingredients and nutrition. The recipes in Everyday Food have a subtle but palpable lightness, a plus for many cooks.

Eye value The palate takes a cue from Martha Stewart Living, but the photographs tend to be more about the foreground and less about the setting--no recently renovated weekend homes in the Hamptons here, just ingredients and finished dishes.

Mouth value I made the celery and apple salad with pecans, a tasty little number reminiscent of Waldorf salad. With only seven ingredients, it was a snap to make, and the results were fresh and tasty. The classic tomato soup, from the magazine's regular "Freeze It" feature, was also a winner.

Worth the $2.95 cover price? For people who buy magazines for practicality and not escape, Everyday Food's brevity and unassuming simplicity will hit the spot.

'Cook's Country'

From the reliable perfectionists of Cook's Illustrated comes this attempt to get in step with the common American cook. While maintaining Cook's Illustrated's deeply methodical approach to recipe development, Cook's Country welcomes readers' cutesy anecdotes and offers monthly themed recipe contests. There's an abundance of hearty home-style fare and a cautious sprinkling of international flavor.

Target audience Home cooks who prefer traditional comfort food but are willing to branch out and try new flavors.

Word value The staff-generated articles are well-written, but their tone clashes with the down-home chattiness of content submitted by readers. Cook's Country suffers from the same anal-retentive streak that Cook's Illustrated does, and part of me fears that its insistence on "only one right way every time" smacks down potential sparks of spontaneity in the kitchen.

Eye value There's an understated 1950s kitsch thing going on with the design, which comes off a bit like the laminated menu of a neo-diner, but the photos entice and the layout is easily navigable.

Mouth value Sugar-glazed roasted carrots utilize a clever, time-saving technique to achieve caramelization with little effort, but it resulted in more than a little smoke billowing from the super-hot oven. I like to be alerted beforehand if there's a likelihood a recipe will set off my smoke detector. Skillet flank steak with spicy red pepper sauce went together quickly and offered lots of flavor. Both recipes were good enough to merit revisiting in the future.

Worth the $4.95 cover price? Cook's Country contains plenty of trustworthy recipes, but it's essentially a more colorful and lighthearted version of Cook's Illustrated.

'Every Day with Rachael Ray'

The cult of personality finds its happy apex at the intersection of mass-market magazines and Food Network programs. Love her or hate her, Rachael Ray is a fierce force in pop culture today. Is she a flash in the pan, or will her perkalicious appeal reveal staying power? Every Day with Rachael Ray indicates the latter.

Target audience Food Network devotees who want variety, not depth.

Word value Even people who can't stand Rachael Ray can find at least one thing to like about this magazine. There's a substantial amount of recipes, but also some engaging lifestyle spreads, wine-pairing suggestions and fluffy/fun celebrity profiles (the April/May issue finds Ray cooking in Jeff Daniels' RV). There's a confident, approachable tone that encourages winging it in the kitchen--especially refreshing after the dictatorship of Cook's Country. Ray's touch is present throughout the magazine without laying it on too thick.

Eye value The layout isn't terribly distinctive, but it's clean and easy on the eye. The food styling makes the dishes look tasty without seeming impossible to reproduce at home.

Mouth value Chicken sausages with warm red slaw-kraut were ready in less than 30 minutes and very tasty, even though the slaw-kraut amounted to eating braised red cabbage on sausage. The recipe said it served four, but I wound up with tons of extra slaw-kraut.

Worth the $4.99 cover price? Full of easy ideas and nifty bits of culinary inspiration, Every Day with Rachael Ray is surprisingly well-rounded.

'Cooking with Paula Deen'

Restaurateur Paula Deen, star of the Food Network's Paula's Home Cooking, now has her own magazine. Butter, cream, sugar and bacon are signature staples of Paula Deen's larder, and it shows in the recipes, which are typically on the heavy side.

Target audience Rabid fans of Paula Deen.

Word value The breezy articles in Cooking with Paula Deen are more like conversational asides from Paula, whose easygoing charm is this title's biggest plus. Nonfood features include Paula's favorite travel destinations and the décor of Paula's bedroom and bathroom.

Eye value Not an ugly magazine, though there's room for improvement. The food, shot competently, fails to invite; in other words, I didn't look at any of the photos and think, "I have to make that!"

Mouth value The recipes hold little regard for seasonality. The corn, tomato and avocado salad calls for fresh corn kernels in early spring. Paula's Ultimate Oatmeal Cookies baked up soft, chewy and a little overspiced for my taste. The brown-butter icing seemed like a lily-gilding touch, but it turned out to be a tasty foil to the cookies' bounty of allspice and nutmeg. They were eminently edible nevertheless.

Worth the $4.99 cover price? Despite 60 recipes, there aren't many stories with Paula directly in the kitchen, which is where she shines brightest. Without Paula's voice and cheery smile, this is just another run-of-the-mill cooking magazine.

'Sweets Magazine'

A Knoxville, Tennessee-based quarterly, Sweets is a strange little magazine; outside of its focus on sugar-laden food, it feels thematically flaccid. Any magazine listing its editor as "Kandi Cain" is, in my book, a bit suspect.

Target audience Home cooks with a big sweet tooth who aren't above doctoring up a cake mix and calling it their own.

Word value Though the articles in Sweets are good-natured, Ms. Cain needs to step up to the editorial plate. The writing is choppy and the terminology used in recipes throughout the magazine lacks consistency. And what is a recipe for cranberry turkey and brie quesadillas doing in a magazine devoted to desserts?

Eye value Most recipes have accompanying photos, which is helpful. But the layout is clunky and the lighting and prop styling are the caliber of a community newsletter.

Mouth value Chocolate chip banana flax muffins were easy to make, fairly nutritious and really yummy, but I had to go through the magazine a number of times before a recipe caught my eye.

Worth the $3.95 cover price? A lot of these recipes could easily be found in online recipe forums, community cookbooks and AP wire stories.

How many of these magazines will be around in five years? Probably not all; it's tough to gain readership in a fickle market. The ultimate mission of a cooking magazine, whatever its life span, is to get readers excited about the kitchen. But their subliminal mission is to give readers a temporary escape to a world where sinks harbor no mildew, invisible hands chop all of the onions and garlic, and fashionable, vapidly smiling guests cradle elegant Champagne flutes and mingle over beautifully arranged hors d'oeuvres. And for that, a cover price of a couple dollars and some change isn't much to ask for.

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