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TV Chef Sara Moulton Shares Kitchen Know-How at the Essex

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Sara Moulton - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Sara Moulton

The Essex Resort & Spa couldn't have found a better guest chef to kick off its new teaching series. On a beautiful mid-September afternoon, 30 fans of television chef and cookbook author Sara Moulton chose to spend several hours with her in a basement kitchen in Essex.

The Washington Post once dubbed Moulton "America's sweetheart chef-instructor," and many in her Vermont audience appeared to feel just that way about her. Carole Perkins of South Burlington was among those who'd paid $50 for the two-hour demo with recipe samples. She had brought a small plate of lemon-raspberry muffins, one of her favorite Moulton recipes, and the original newspaper column for an autograph. "I just love her," Perkins said.

The effort to bring high-profile chefs to the Essex marks "a renewed emphasis on our culinary culture," said general manager Nic Barger. For 20 years, the hotel doubled as a second hands-on campus for the Montpelier-based New England Culinary Institute, until the school cut back to a single location in 2009. Though the Essex has long offered a variety of cooking classes taught by staff chefs for both locals and guests, the series with known culinary names aims to attract out-of-state visitors. The full lineup is still in the works, but two other chefs are confirmed so far, each bringing their own emphasis.

New England chef Matt Jennings, an alumnus of NECI, is scheduled for December 20. The former chef-owner of Farmstead in Providence, R.I., and Townsman in Boston has earned several best regional chef nominations from the James Beard Foundation, as well as a finalist nod for his cookbook, Homegrown: Cooking From My New England Roots (Artisan, 2017). After Jennings closed Townsman earlier this year, he announced a new venture called Full Heart Hospitality, which will focus on food, health and wellness.

In March, Duff Goldman, the Baltimore-based pastry chef/owner of Charm City Cakes and star of the Food Network's "Ace of Cakes," will come to Vermont.

Details of each appearance will vary, but all will include an instructional component and a chance to enjoy food cooked in the chef's style. In Moulton's case, on the evening before the cooking demo, she hosted two seatings of a four-course dinner featuring her recipes at the resort's Junction restaurant.

Based on a show of hands, attendees at Moulton's demo event were mostly Vermonters. The chef, a New York City native, expressed her appreciation for the "bucolic" state. When it comes to innovative food products, she added, "Vermont comes up a lot: artisanal, small batch. You should be very proud."

Moulton, who wears her 66 years very well, stood behind the island at the front of the demo kitchen sipping from a paper cup of coffee before the demo got rolling. Her three favorite beverages are water, wine and coffee — "not in that order," she said with a laugh. Blond hair pulled back into her signature ponytail, Moulton wore black Converse All Star sneakers and a terra cotta-colored chef coat embroidered with the name of her current public television series: "Sara's Weeknight Meals."

The TV show is among the latest projects in a long and varied career. Julia Child, America's original food-television icon, hired her when Moulton was a freshly minted Culinary Institute of America grad. She went on to become a Food Network star, longtime executive chef at the now-defunct Gourmet magazine and food editor of ABC-TV's "Good Morning America."

Moulton has five cookbooks and hundreds of newspaper columns to her credit. She is also a regular on Milk Street Radio, where she and founder Christopher Kimball do a listener call-in segment together. Moulton's friendly, open-minded approach is the perfect counterpoint to Kimball's opinionated, occasionally bristly style.

Judy Collins of East Dorset said, "I've been watching her on TV for years. She's no-nonsense, practical, quite pleasant to listen to."

Moulton demonstrated three main-course recipes, each requiring just five ingredients: Buffalo rice with chicken; scallop, basil and prosciutto kebabs; and duck breasts with apricot-Sichuan peppercorn sauce. Her mission, she explained, is to help people get weeknight dinner on the table. That's grounded in her own experience juggling a daily live TV show with a job at Gourmet while raising two kids.

"Family dinner is sort of our religion," Moulton said.

While the recipes were streamlined, they delivered complex flavors. The chef encouraged attendees not to shy away from unfamiliar ingredients such as blue cheese and duck, although she also offered substitute options.

Moulton shared practical advice, too, including how to be a more engaged audience. "I'm dismayed to see none of you are drinking wine," Moulton observed, channeling Child, who famously encouraged sipping while cooking. "It helps with questions."

Other tips included cooking rice like pasta: in lots of boiling, salted water. "No rinsing or measuring water required," she said. Another tip: Make sure a sauté pan is hot enough to brown and not steam. She also urged cooks to "season as you go. If you wait 'til the end, you'll use much more salt."

Although she trained professionally as a chef and worked for seven years in fine-dining restaurants, Moulton said she learned as much throughout her career from good home cooks. Working on a Gourmet column that featured home cook recipes, "I started to really appreciate and respect home cooks," she said. "Some of those recipes were so fantastic and went against everything I learned in culinary school ... Professional chefs can be so pure and stuck up."

Moulton's cookbooks leverage the best of both worlds. The latest, displayed on the demo kitchen counter, Sara Moulton's Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better (Oxmoor House, 2016), offers a range of recipes from simple to impressive. An elegant apple tart calls for an apple-slicing trick she quickly demonstrated. A "showstopper" apricot soufflé from a French restaurant where she once worked evoked memories of counters that were too high for her five-foot self: "I had to pull out a drawer to put the bowl in to beat the egg whites."

The book starts with some rules for home cooks, many of which Moulton paraphrased while she cooked. The constant juggle of words and action got the better of her a couple of times. Luckily, the recipe samples had been prepared by the Essex kitchen staff.

"It's hard for me to talk and make it taste good, too," Moulton admitted with a laugh.

Some of her guidelines for success: "Get to know your stove" — how it behaves and misbehaves. Buy yourself a 10-inch chef knife. It may seem like a large knife, especially if you have small hands like Moulton's, but that is precisely why it's beneficial, she explained. The weight of the knife means less work as gravity pulls it down to the cutting surface. Read a recipe from start to finish and follow it exactly the first time you make it.

Moulton volleyed out other random gems as she cooked: If fish smells, soak it in milk. (This works for game and liver, too.) Nuke limes in the microwave to help them give up their juice. Use two skewers for each kebab to prevent food from twirling when you turn it on the grill. And oil the food, not the grill. Don't put basil in the fridge; keep it like flowers in a jar of water on the counter. And always allow your protein to rest so the juices can redistribute, then pour any from the resting plate into your sauce, she said, pouring juice from the duck into the apricot sauce she was making.

Attendees relished their final samples of duck and lined up to chat or buy autographed books. Dinah Larsen of Essex Junction, a professional chef who cooks at Lund in Burlington and also manages nutrition and cooking education there, said she got what she came for. "I always thought that Sara Moulton's food was unpretentious, and she makes cooking accessible to everyone," Larsen said. "I came to get ideas, to reinvigorate my imagination."

Her friend Jo Claire Mitchell, who was visiting from Georgia, said she suffers from the two-job, two-kid family overload. "I love cooking, but they need to eat every day, like, breakfast, lunch and dinner and snacks. Every day," she emphasized. "Sara was great. I really am inspired."

Chatting briefly after the event, Moulton considered the arc of her career. "I never wanted to be on TV. I thought that was vulgar, for people who wanted attention," she confided. She credited Child's influence. "I would not be where I am today if not for her," Moulton said. "She was a fantastic teacher. She was naturally klutzy, but then she would make mistakes on purpose to show people how to fix them."

Moulton's experience tutoring in high school and college also informed her approach. "I learned that not everybody learns the same way; the key is to be very welcoming and supportive," she said. She tries never to do "cheffy stuff, because it's intimidating."

Moulton reflected that she never considered studying education in college. Yet, she said, "I'm really a better teacher than anything else."

Buffalo Rice and Chicken

Adapted from Sara Moulton's recipe. At the Essex, the chef urged people to give the blue cheese a try even if they didn't think they'd like it, but she said the recipe also would work fine with cheddar.

Make it a complete one-pot meal by stirring a bag of baby spinach leaves into the hot rice and chicken mixture.

Total preparation time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 cup long-grain white rice
  • 8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons hot sauce, such as Frank's RedHot
  • 4 ounces crumbled blue cheese, about 1 cup
  • 1 cup celery leaves for garnish, optional

Directions

  1. Bring 6 cups salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the rice and cook 15 to 17 minutes until tender. Drain the rice in a strainer, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the chicken into ½-inch cubes. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chicken and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 to 5 minutes until just cooked through. Remove from the heat, toss with the hot sauce and set aside in the skillet.
  3. Crumble the blue cheese.
  4. Stir cooked rice, cup of cooking liquid and blue cheese into the chicken in the skillet. Divide among 4 serving plates and top with celery leaves.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Kitchen Confidence"

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