Friday, June 25, 2010

"My Sara": How Sara Moulton Is Carrying Julia Child's TV-Chef Torch

I like to think of her as “My Sara” because, well, she’s just so doggone cute, and if I hadn’t met the true love of my life, I might indeed be off driving in a skeezy van, traveling the nation, chasing after Sara Moulton.

Noooo, I’m not a stalker or anything. That’s a joke, okay? I might be a little woo-woo with her, but it’s not like I’m anywhere near the level of “screaming-teenage-Beatles-fan”!

Okay, maybe just a tiny bit. But seriously, my not-so-secret adoration of Sara Moulton emerges from a completely innocent appreciation of her down-to-earth style, her approachableness, and her sincerity. She doesn’t act like a “celebrity chef”; she always seems like a normal person, like me and you.

Let me draw a comparison between her and another blonde TV personality famous for helping us all to cook better. You know who I’m talking about—Martha Stewart! Martha (like as if I actually knew her!) comes off as formal, maybe even chilly, and perfectionistic in the extreme—or at least, that’s what she’s come to symbolize.

There’s something to be said, of course, for perfectionism, but that’s not Sara Moulton’s thrust. Like her former boss and longtime friend and mentor, Julia Child, Sara’s philosophy is about trying new things, sometimes making mistakes, learning, improvising, having fun, steadily improving, and being “real.” (La cuisine bourgeoise, as Julia would call it—the food of regular people, done well.)

Let’s engage in fantasy for a minute: Say you’re cooking something in Martha’s kitchen, and you screw up somehow. Something’s burning, or the mayonnaise separated, or the meringue collapsed. Lumpy gravy! Or whatever. What’s your first impulse? Well with Martha, I think it would be, Quick! Hide the evidence! Fast! Before she sees it! (Aaaahhhh! Here she comes! Run like hell!)

But with Sara, you know she’d treat it as “just another routine kitchen disaster,” no biggie. You’d probably just laugh at it together, say “Aw, heck,” and then start over again—or rescue the project by sending it in a new direction. I like this scenario with Sara a lot better, don’t you?

I used to watch Food Network a lot in its early days, when Sara had her Cooking Live shows, which were truly live, and where “anything” could happen. It was fun, informative, and on several occasions she showed viewers how to doctor up dishes when things go wrong.

(I remember the notorious Chinese fortune cookie episode! That Sara had such a big “brain fart” live on TV made me feel soooo much better about my own mistakes. Recently I cooked a big pot of beans and totally forgot to add the ham hocks until the beans were completely done. But I didn’t sweat it—I figured out what to do, and nobody had a clue.)

To this day, I really don’t care much for any of the other “celebrity chefs” out there on TV; from them I have learned tips and tricks and have been entertained, but it was Sara who became a model for me, a chef to emulate.

Anyway, I was able to finally meet “My Sara” in Kansas City a few weekends ago. How exciting! She was travelin’ across America promoting her new book, Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010). Her book tour was sponsored by the German cookware company Chantal, so she was promoting Chantal pots and pans, as well. (And yeah, it’s nice stuff.)

I’d never been to one of these celebrity-chef-book-promotion cooking classes, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, apart from having an opportunity to get an autographed book. The event was titled “Master Class with Chef Sara Moulton.”

The venue was the Culinary Center of Kansas City, which is in downtown Overland Park, Kansas. They’ve got a demonstration kitchen with the angled mirror above so you can see what’s happening on the cutting board and in the sauté pan. The people in the class were all seated at tables in the center of the room.

If you haven’t been to the CCKC, I encourage you to check them out and support them. (Pryde’s in Westport was another sponsor—and surely you know how fun it is to visit them!)

Above is my only halfway decent picture from the class. I’m sorry that I don’t have a whole bunch of gorgeous photos to share with you, but I was busy paying attention, and my camera doesn’t do well in indoor light—and I didn’t want to use the flash because I didn’t want to distract her (taking pictures, I felt, was obnoxious enough). (Oh, sure, I got a great picture of her with a squinty “Gilbert Gottfried” expression . . . but I like her too much to post it.)

After the introductions and applause, Sara got right to work. She prepared four dishes from her new book: Ground Turkey and Mint Lettuce Wraps; Mu Shu Vegetables with Pancakes (actually, crêpes); Soba Noodles with Asian Clam Sauce; and Fruit Pot Stickers. Chefs from the CCKC also prepared the dishes so participants could sample them while she cooked.

I was intrigued by the selection—they all had an Asian theme, and thus were all potentially a “stretch” for a midwestern audience. But the entire book is about expanding one’s repertoire for the family meal, adding new culinary tricks (“How many of you have never made crêpes before? Why?”); new sauces and ingredients; and new techniques that can all be mix-and-matched by anyone with some basic cooking know-how.

Indeed, there’s a section at the front of the book called “Head Starts” that’s all about making some recipes ahead of time that can be frozen or refrigerated for later use. Things like flavored butters, garlic dressing (both “rich” and “slim” versions), broccoli pesto, a basic pizza dough, and so on. These well-described, versatile recipes alone might be worth the price of the book.

The goal with the book is to add to the family cook’s “bag of tricks,” so that one’s weeknight dinners can be more varied and interesting. And healthier—throughout, Sara has tended toward more veggies and whole grains, smaller portions of meat, and only moderate amounts of fat, salt, etc. She has also steered in the direction of sustainable foods, home economy, and healthy cooking methods.

In keeping with the aim of providing relatively fast recipes for weeknight dinners, Sara’s reinvented the way recipes appear. She knows that most people don’t prepare their mise all at once (that is, chop and measure out all ingredients ahead of time)—they chop the tomato, say, after tucking something else into the oven. So her recipes list ingredients like “6 medium celery stalks” and “1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano”; later, while something else is cooling, the instructions say, “Meanwhile, . . . slice the celery . . . and shave the cheese.”

I wonder what her editor had to say about this—editors tend to be conservative (“why change it from the traditional way that everyone’s already comfortable with?”)—but Sara explains: “This book incorporates several new ideas about how to cook smarter, faster, and cleaner. . . . Why not take advantage of the time required to cook an onion—about five minutes—to slice your red pepper?” And though it makes for more verbiage within each recipe, she certainly has a point.

Regarding the food, unless you travel a lot or live in some big metro area like New York, you might find many recipes and foods in this book that are new to you. You might look at a dish such as “Chicken Saltimbocca with Artichoke Sauce” and think “what the hell is a Saltimbocca?” and just skip over it. But fortunately, Sara has provided a paragraph or two of description before each recipe. And you know what? Chicken Saltimbocca with Artichoke Sauce is completely “doable.”

And what she says about preparing the chicken breasts in that recipe is an example of her wonderful way of blending practical information with a spin that is both enthusiastic and humorous:

The only time-consuming part of this recipe is the pounding of the chicken breasts. But if you sprinkle the breasts with a little water before bashing away at them with a rolling pin, they won’t stick to the plastic bag and shred. In any case, I tend to find the bashing part of the preparation strangely soothing, especially after a bad day at the office or a squabble with the kidlets.

Hmm, does that paragraph remind you of anyone—?

If you are a fan of Julia Child (and who wouldn’t be, after that book and that movie), you should pay attention to Sara Moulton.

As she cooked in the demo, she reminisced a little about Julia Child, smiling and calling her a “wild woman” and telling an anecdote about how the latter nearly wiped out an entire table of food that Sara and a colleague had prepped for filming when she suddenly tossed a “Dreadful!” loaf of Wonder Bread over her shoulder.

You know, there’s no question that Julia Child invented this cooking-on-TV scene; she defined it. As an educator, she hit upon the ingredients that cooking-show audiences crave:
  • A sense of “I can do it!”
  • Security; knowing that “screwing up” is no big deal
  • Clear demonstration of technique
  • Genuine enthusiasm for ingredients and tools as well as the final product
  • Education (learning how stuff works is fun!)
  • A teacher with a friendly, companionable personality and a sense of humor

. . . Although there will only be but one Julia Child, Sara Moulton is obviously carrying Julia’s torch—she’s running with it, and lifting it high.

(Go, Sara, go!)

Note: only three pictures on this post are actually mine, the one taken at the class, the picture of the book in our front yard with peaches, and the picture of my own first crêpe; the rest were copied indiscriminately and probably illegally from other posts on the Internet. Okay, the one of the "Kitchen Destroyed by Hurricane Katrina" was lifted from here. No harm intended. If you're the copyright holder, I'll be glad to remove the image or provide credit. Thanks!

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