Sara Moulton: still fighting for equality in the kitchen

11/13/2012
BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Chef Sara Moulton puts together a French apple tart at Inverness Club.
Chef Sara Moulton puts together a French apple tart at Inverness Club.

Even now, Sara Moulton sees discrimination in professional kitchens.

Even now, 30 years after co-founding the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance, which is devoted to making a place for women in restaurants and other food jobs, she still finds that women are not welcomed in many cooking workplaces.

Even now, after years as one of the most popular chefs in the early days of the Food Network, as the former executive chef at Gourmet magazine, as the food editor on Good Morning America, and as the writer of several cookbooks, she still has trouble gaining acceptance from the largely male fraternity of chefs.

These days, Ms. Moulton is most often seen as the host of Sara’s Weeknight Meals on public television; the half-hour program airs at 2 p.m. locally on WGTE-TV.

Recently, the upbeat chef gave a cooking demonstration and prepared the menu for a dinner for clients of Key Private Bank at the Inverness Club (she specifically noted their kitchen was open to taking direction from a woman). While showing how to make a soufflé in a phyllo cup and an apple tart, she exhibited the sense of humor and easy accessibility that has made her a fixture on television for 15 years.

“My specialty is to enable people to get dinner on the table. People think cooking is much more difficult than it is,” she said before the event.

Spiced peas and sweet potato puree.
Spiced peas and sweet potato puree.

Her television shows and her most recent cookbook, Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners, go beyond a mere listing of recipes. She offers tricks and tips to cooking, advice on how to use leftovers to make two meals out of one, and how to plan recipes.

The key, she said, is having all the ingredients on hand. She recommends shopping on the weekend for the whole week. It is a good idea, she said, to buy five proteins, five vegetables, and five starches, even if you don’t immediately know what you are going to be doing with them. You can figure out how to mix and match them later, she said.

She also suggested rethinking the way we look at cooking: “Why not have breakfast for dinner? I love eggs,” she said.

Now 60, Ms. Moulton has long been a little bit of a rebel. After going to an exclusive all-girls prep school, she went the other direction as a hippie at the University of Michigan, earning a degree in the history of ideas. These days, she stands up for her individuality by wearing sneakers in the kitchen; most chefs insist on heavy-duty shoes because so much of cooking involves objects that are heavy or sharp.

But she wears sneakers because sneakers make her happy, she said. Though she sticks with basic black now, she used to wear whatever color matched her outfit on television, even though the viewers could not see them.

One more tiny rebellion: Though as the food editor at Good Morning America she appears on the show to talk about cooking turkey at Thanksgiving, her family’s Thanksgiving tradition is more non-traditional. They don’t care for turkey, but they do like braised short ribs, so every year she makes an elegantly prepared batch of braised short ribs for the holiday (even so, she shared with us a few recipes for side dishes to serve with turkey).

After college, Ms. Moulton decided to turn her love of cooking into a career, so she went to the Culinary Institute of America, graduating with highest honors. She began working in restaurants in Boston. It was while serving as the chef and manager of a catering operation there that a casual conversation with a co-worker about peeling hard-boiled eggs changed her life.

Ms. Moulton mentioned that Julia Child did not boil her hard-cooked eggs, and a colleague mentioned that she was a volunteer on Ms. Child’s show, which was shot in Boston. Ms. Moulton wondered if she, too, could become a volunteer. The co-worker passed the word on to Ms. Child, and soon Ms. Moulton was offered a paying job on the show as the food stylist. She did not know as much about the job as she claimed at the time, but “I was artistic. I could land food on the plate nicely,” she said.

“That started a lifelong mentorship. She was an angel to me,” Ms. Moulton said. Ms. Child helped her with jobs, steered her toward an internship in France, and came to her wedding. More important, she showed her how best to act in front of a television camera.

“She taught me how to smile on TV. If she says it’s important to smile, I smile,” she said.

For her first show, Cooking Live, Ms. Moulton shot around 1,200 one-hour episodes, all of them live. She would take questions on the phone from viewers and cook several dishes, often with guest chefs. Many of the guest chefs went on to become famous, including Anthony Bourdain, Michael Symon, Ming Tsai, and Rocco DiSpirito, but it was Ms. Child who was “a nightmare, because I was so nervous about what she would think and say.”

Her favorite guests on the show were her children, Ruth and Sam, who were young and tended to say whatever came to mind. Their 15 or so appearances created some worries in the control room, but nothing happened with them to cause too much of a problem, she said.

The Food Network now rarely has the kind of show that made Ms. Moulton famous, with chefs cooking while discussing the process of making food. In recent years, she said, the network has shifted its emphasis from education to entertainment. But the audience has picked up enough tips and techniques that they know more about cooking than they once did.

The question is whether they put it into practice, she said. For instance, people who watch food television now know the way chefs chop onions, but she does not know whether they use that method at home.

Even so, she said, to accommodate this higher level of knowledge, “when I do demos around the country, I need to bring out more bells and whistles” to show her audience things they had not seen before. At the local event, she did not just make an apple tart, she used the apple slices to form a rose pattern in the middle.

One thing she likes to preach in appearances, on television, and in books is the importance of sitting down to dinner with one’s family. She makes certain to do this as often as possible, setting the table with place mats and making time for conversation with her daughter (who is living back at home) and husband, Bill Adler.

Mr. Adler, is a former music critic and publicist for some of the biggest names in early hip-hop — Public Enemy, LL Cool J, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, and more. Lately, he has been curating music exhibitions at museums and making films. He and Ms. Moulton have been together since meeting at the University of Michigan more than 40 years ago, but by all appearances he is still smitten.

“I’m lucky,” he said at the local event, “because I get to see Sara Moulton and her sunshiny personality every day.”

For more information, contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.


RECIPES

Sweet Potato-Chipotle Puree

8 medium sweet potatoes, halved

6 tablespoons butter, divided

1 cup chopped onions

1 chipotle pepper with adobo sauce, or more to taste

6 tablespoons milk (3 ounces)

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400.° Slice chipotle pepper open, remove seeds, and chop pepper.

Place potato halves on baking sheet. Bake potatoes in middle of oven for about 1 hour or until tender when pierced with fork.

Meanwhile, in a sauté pan melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat and sauté onions until translucent. Set aside. Remove potatoes from oven and scoop out flesh into a food processor and add remaining 4 tablespoons butter, onions, chopped chipotle with some adobo sauce to taste, and milk. Puree until smooth; do this in batches if necessary. Season with salt and pepper.

Yield: 8 servings

Source: Adapted from Sara Moulton

 

Spiced Peas and Onion

1 (10-ounce) package frozen green peas

1 tablespoon vegetable oil, divided

1 cup thinly sliced onion

1/2 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

Salt and pepper

Thaw the peas and pat them dry. Heat ½ tablespoon oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low; add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until it is well browned, about 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

Add the remaining ½ tablespoon vegetable oil to the skillet and heat over high heat. Add the mustard and cumin seeds; cover immediately and cook, shaking the pan, for 30 seconds. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside until the seeds stop popping.

Add the peas to the pan and cook just until hot. Return the onion to the pan and cook until it is hot; season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Source: Adapted from Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners, by Sara Moulton


Tuscan White Bean Dip

1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced fresh rosemary

1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives (see cook's note)

Flatbread, crostini, crackers or bagel chips for serving

Cook's note: This amount gives a decided olive taste to the spread. It's delicious, but use a little less if you don't want olives to be quite so predominant.

Combine the beans, oil, rosemary, garlic, pepper, and salt in a food processor. Puree for about 1 minute or until creamy and smooth. Add the olives and pulse three times for 5 seconds each time.

Chill until ready to serve with your choice of breads.

Yield: 4 servings

Source: By Randal Johnson, in In the Kitchen with Cleveland's Favorite Chefs