Like many chefs who came up in the heyday of the Food Network, Sara Moulton's career was forged in front of television cameras.
She was one of the 24-hour cooking channel's original stars when it began in the 1990s. Her Cooking Live, in which she prepared recipes and took calls from viewers, started the same year as Emeril Lagasse's Emeril Live, early bastions of prime-time food programming.
Her food TV experience didn't start there. Before the Food Network, Moulton was learning how to cook on camera as a protege of Julia Child. And she's still at it: Her PBS show Sara's Weeknight Meals is in its eighth season, and she also appears weekly on Chris Kimball's Milk Street Radio podcast on National Public Radio.
We caught up with Moulton, 67, recently during a cooking demonstration at Lake Austin Spa Resort in Austin, Texas, one of her favorite escapes from the New York cooking scene.
Moulton prepared a menu of raw asparagus, mushroom and parsley salad; sauteed beer-battered shrimp; and Italian stuffed strawberries. After sharing in the bounty, Moulton, wearing her signature Converse high-top sneakers, signed her most recent cookbook, Sara Moulton's Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better, and sat to talk about her experiences and share stories and tips from her years as a chef.
She served some of her own recipes using fresh herbs and vegetables from the retreat center garden. She showed the crowd how to trim the sides of raw asparagus stalks so they match in size and cook at the same rate.
Moulton, who graduated from the University of Michigan and the Culinary Institute of America, said she loves teaching. For many years she was the food editor for Good Morning America.
She shares stories about her friendship with Child often during her cooking demonstrations.
Her relationship with the famed chef began in Boston, when Moulton worked at a restaurant as a catering manager, not far from where Child lived in Cambridge, Mass., and filmed her cooking show for PBS.
Moulton was fresh out of college when a co-worker recommended her to work on Child's show. The relationship was formative for Moulton.
One of Moulton's goals with her shows and cookbooks is to help home cooks feel comfortable in the kitchen and develop confidence. As she was cooking for guests in Texas, she reminded them, "You know what Julia always said, 'You're alone in the kitchen,' so no one can see your mistakes."
Moulton said she doesn't entertain much these days, mostly because she doesn't have time to clean her New York City loft. Instead, she cooks almost every dinner at home with her husband Bill Adler, a music critic.
Lately, she likes to prepare fish by simply coating it in flour and sauteing it on the stove. She prefers flaky, white fish and if it's fishy smelling, she soaks it in milk first.
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"Sometimes I'll throw in some bread crumbs and then just put it in an oven with a little butter," she said. "That's what I do, and he's happy as a clam."
The couple has a grown son and daughter who live nearby and sometimes join them for meals.
Duck breast is another current favorite.
"Recent studies show that duck fat has a lot of the same principals as olive oil," Moulton said. "The meat is leaner than white meat turkey and has more iron than a lot of red meat. So it's actually a very healthy choice and it takes no longer to cook than steak."
Her method: Pat it dry, season it and then put it skin-side down in a cold pan. Start the pan on medium-low heat and slowly a lot of fat will come out of the skin. Pretty soon, the duck will be somewhat swimming in fat. Pour off most of the fat and save it for later for duck fat potatoes or whatever. Season the meat. Then, put it back in for just about two or three more minutes.
Because Moulton lives in a loft, she doesn't do much outdoor grilling. But that doesn't stop her from making "grilled" garlic bread. She puts slices in her toaster and then rubs them with fresh garlic and a little olive oil.
Even though she got her start because of her food styling abilities, her priority these days isn't how food looks but how it tastes. She's a proponent of balancing flavors and adding fresh herbs.
Her go-to meal is soup.
"I just throw in whatever I have," she said, describing how she usually starts with Canadian bacon and then continues to add ingredients to the pot. After broth, she tosses in lentils and whatever vegetables she has on hand along with fresh herbs and spices. "And then I take some out. You can use an immersion blender if you want or you can take a little bit out and throw it in a regular blender. And then I put it back in to thicken it."
The soup is done when the vegetables are cooked.
She doesn't worry about overcooking foods either, because she relies on the Julia Child method: If you can smell the food, it's done.
Contact Kathy Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Raw Asparagus, Mushroom and Parsley Salad With Pistachios and Parmesan
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ pound thick asparagus, tough stems discarded and stems peeled (look for tight tops on the spears and cut off the bottoms)
1 cup flat leaf parsley leaves, washed and spun dry
4 ounces white button mushrooms, sliced thin (look for firm, tight mushrooms and wash in a bowl of water and dry, taking off tips before slicing)
⅓ cup pistachios or chopped toasted walnuts (can substitute sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds)
1 ounce shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano
In a salad bowl, combine a hefty pinch of salt, some freshly ground black pepper and the lemon juice. Whisk until the salt is dissolved, then add the oil in a stream, whisking. Set aside.
Lay the asparagus flat on a cutting board and slice a few stalks at a time very thin on a diagonal. Add to the salad bowl along with the parsley, mushrooms and pistachios, tossing well to coat with the dressing.
Divide the salad among four plates and top each portion with some of the cheese. Serve right away.
Source: Sara Moulton
Sauteed Beer Batter Shrimp With Tartar Sauce
For the tartar sauce:
¾ cup mayonnaise (can substitute Greek yogurt or sour cream)
¼ cup finely chopped dill pickle
1 medium scallion, chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon drained capers
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon hot sauce
For the beer batter:
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon (4 ounces) all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt plus extra for sprinkling
¾ cup chilled lager
2 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil (Moulton prefers grapeseed oil)
1 pound raw large shrimp, peeled and deveined
Make the tartar sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients.
Make the beer batter: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt. Transfer ½ cup of the mixture to another medium bowl. Add the beer, whisking until the mixture is somewhat smooth with a few small lumps.
Heat half the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Working with half the shrimp at a time, toss them in the flour mixture. Transfer the shrimp to a strainer and shake off the excess mixture. Coat the shrimp with the batter, letting the excess drip off, and add them to the skillet. Cook them, turning once, 1 to 2 minutes a side until they are golden. (Most of the batter will stay on the side you first put down in the skillet.)
Sprinkle the cooked shrimp with salt, transfer them to a baking sheet and keep them warm in the oven while you cook the remaining shrimp. Serve with Tartar Sauce for dipping.
Source: Sara Moulton
Italian Stuffed Strawberries
1 pound strawberries
2 ounces Neufchatel or one-third-less-fat cream cheese (about ¼ cup), softened
1 teaspoon sugar
¾ ounce bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped (can substitute miniature chocolate chips)
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
Cut each strawberry in half lengthwise through the cap. Arrange the strawberry halves, cut side up, on a serving plate. Trim a thin slice from the bottom if necessary to make each half sit evenly.
Using a small spoon or melon baller, scoop out a hollow in the center of the cut side of each strawberry. Reserve the strawberry scraps for another use (or eat them).
In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese and sugar; stir in the chocolate and orange zest. Divide the cream cheese mixture into the hollows in the strawberries and serve. (You can use a pastry bag or a plastic sandwich bag with the tip cut off to pipe the filling into the berries.)
You can prepare the strawberries and the filling several hours ahead of time but do not stuff the strawberries until right before serving.
Source: Sara Moulton