Cookbook author and chef Sara Moulton was one of the original Food Network celebrities back when they were more focused on teaching people how to cook than on entertainment and competitions. What Moulton's popular shows Cooking Live, Cooking Live Primetime, and Sara's Secrets lacked in spiked white hair and catchphrases, they more than made up for with useful cooking techniques and recipes. Moulton will be in town for the Charleston Food + Wine Festival on Sat., March 5 at 2:45 p.m. doing a cooking demo from her latest cookbook, Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners and appearing at the celebrity authors reception. We caught up with her recently and discovered that she's still a class act — and funny to boot.
City Paper: Your third cookbook, Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners, is a great looking, inspiring, and useful cookbook. What was your goal with this one?
Sara Moulton: Well it's sort of what I've been doing for a while now, only now more than ever. It's trying to help people get dinner on the table during the workweek. What I mean by that is basically starting with fresh ingredients, but trying to make it quick and easy, and figuring out a few tips and tricks. I think that you'll eat better if you start with fresh ingredients, and it's healthy and usually it's more affordable. But it's also understanding that people don't have a lot of time to cook during the workweek, so trying to figure out strategies. Some of the recipes are quick and easy and some are not quite as quick and easy, but at least I let you know what you're in for before you start.
CP: How much new development went into the recipes? You mention in the book that you did nine months of testing three dishes a night at home with your husband and family. That sounds like a ton of work.
SM: The book is almost all entrées except for the side-dish chapter and the dessert chapter, but sometimes they're soup entrées or salad entrées or breakfast-for-dinner entrées — so that was sort of bizarre. We'd be sitting there some nights eating three soups for dinner. But I did all the development in my home. The way we'd work was, except for the dessert chapter, I'd generate most of the ideas, I'd say 85 percent of them, write them down or write a description. Then my partner would do round one of the testing, and we'd taste it and decide what had to happen. There was never just a round one. Occasionally there was a round one and two, and that was delightful. But usually it was round three, four, five, and six. And by the time we'd get there, sometimes I'd just say, the hell with it, this isn't working — or it would make it in.
CP: The organization of the book manages to be both creative and practical. The way the chapters are organized seems to capture the way a modern home cook might really want to operate.
SM: Right, definitely. And I'm sure the other thing you noticed is that I dispensed with mise en place (a French technique for having everything prepped before cooking). I mean, that's not how I cook at home, even though I'm a professionally trained chef. So I thought, why don't I tell people when to chop the onion and when to slice the carrot instead of having them do it all ahead of time, which takes up a lot of extra time, when you could be waiting for the onions to soften while you mince the garlic or slice the red peppers? That's how I actually cook at home.
CP: Your foundation is in French classical cooking. That comes through in the book, but you also seem to incorporate tastes and flavors from different world cuisines.
SM: Well, absolutely. I don't know about you, but I get really bored with the French stuff. It was nice for a while, but now I'm like — yawn. I want new ingredients, new flavors, new excitement. And the good news is that now you can find most of this stuff at the supermarket. I remember when I started at Gourmet, which was in the mid-'80s, and we'd run a recipe with sesame oil, and we had to specify toasted or dark sesame oil, and we'd have to find it at specialty food shops. Now it's on the international isle. We're becoming an international country, period, which I think is wonderful — and we have more toys to play with in the kitchen.
CP: You also have chapters that focus on vegetarian fare and whole grains. How are both of those uniquely suited to home cooking as opposed to restaurant cooking? Were those things you focused on because of health consciousness?
SM: Well, it's an everything consciousness. I really do believe — and I'm not going to get on a soapbox here — I mean I applaud that Michael Pollan and other people are doing this, and I've read their books and really care about what they're saying. But I mean, hey, I was a hippie in college in 1970 in Ann Arbor, Mich., and I was a vegetarian then (I'm not a vegetarian now) mainly because I couldn't afford protein. Back then we belonged to a co-op, and we believed in the environment, preserving things, and recycling, so it's sort of in my soul from way back then. Now I really do agree that we eat too much protein and that it's not an efficient way to feed the world population. So I'd say it's important from a green point of view, from a personal and family health point of view, and from a financial point of view. Farmers markets can be expensive, but at the end of the day, vegetables are cheaper than meat.
CP: The tough economic times also seem to factor into the book. You use a lot of beans and legumes, for example, main ingredients popular in other cultures often overlooked in Western cooking.
SM: And they're so good for you. Not only do they taste good, but from a satiation point of view, there's a lot of fiber and they're going to fill you up. For years I didn't even think about beans much. But now I eat them a lot, and my good cholesterol is terrific and my bad cholesterol is low. And I attribute that to beans and the other good things I eat. Who the hell knows? Whatever — I also exercise. But anyway, again, more toys to play with.
CP: So what will you be doing at your demo at the Charleston Food + Wine Festival on Saturday in the Culinary Village?
SM: This is funny having said, you know, all this stuff about healthy this and that, but I'm making a breakfast-for-dinner pizza, which is in the book. The main reason I'm doing it besides the fact that it's fun and different, and I figured no one else would be making breakfast-for-dinner pizza, is that it will help me to make the point that it's OK to make breakfast for dinner. I have this really cool pizza dough that you can make in six minutes from the moment you open the cupboard to the moment you start to let it rise (that doesn't include rising time). But I make it in the food processor. So I want to show people how easy it is to make that. And then I have this unique way of rolling it out and also I pre-bake it so it's crispy. Then I top it with the things you'd have for a bacon-and-egg-and-potato breakfast with really good quality bacon. God knows there's plenty of that where you guys are. And then it gets a fried egg on top. It's not the healthiest, but the good news is eggs aren't vilified anymore.
CP: In the book you also talk about how these days the Food Network is more about entertainment than home cooking. Obviously your heart is still with home cooking. How do you think the evolution of the Food Network has affected home cooking in the United States?
SM: What's interesting is now there's the Cooking Channel. I think what they're trying to do there is get back to teaching. I recently was on a panel and was asked about Food Network, which I dreaded because I never watch it, which is interesting. What happened with the Food Network was, in 2005, a new president came in, and they changed their focus to 15- to 35-year-old males, and hence the change in programming to, you know, cleavage and competitions. But competitions are pretty popular across the board, as are reality shows. It seems to be what the American public wants to watch. Me? I want to learn something, but that's not why everyone watches food TV. And you know, even with the most ridiculous over-the-top shows you can still learn something.
CP: You were executive chef of Gourmet magazine for years. So many of us were sad to see Gourmet go. Has there been a vacuum left in the food world since Gourmet was shuttered?
SM: I think there has been a vacuum for a certain segment of the population. I think the biggest magazine right now is the Food Network magazine. So I think that's what people are looking for more, is the sort of celebrity association. So those people certainly aren't missing Gourmet magazine. But I think the people who are looking for great writing, interesting travel stories, beautiful photography, great techniques — I'd say they're suffering. The more sophisticated educated cook is missing it. I think Saveur is very similar. It's not the same, but it's so interesting and so packed with information. I read Fine Cooking, Eating Well, Cooking Light ... those speak to me.
CP: Do you have any projects or upcoming plans that you're excited about other than promoting this new book?
SM: The sad news is that Gourmet shut down, but the fun news is I'm kind of a free agent, and I sort of do anything for anybody at any time, which I couldn't when I was at Gourmet. What I do the most is demos, or speaker bureaus. Through them I'll get a speaking engagement (which is not really a speaking engagement) where I'll go do a demo at a casino, for a charity, or at a food and wine event, and I'll get paid. And I love doing that. What I've discovered is that I love not only a live audience like the kind I had on the Food Network, but a live audience where I can see the whites of their eyes. I love talking to people and asking questions and finding out what America's cooking and eating. I'm also working on an iPhone app, which will be 60 recipes, 60 photos, and 10 videos or how-tos. That will come out in May.