Food & Drink

Sara Moulton’s cooking tips for beginners — and old-timers, too

Sara Moulton shares her recipe for sauteed lemon chicken with fried capers.
Sara Moulton shares her recipe for sauteed lemon chicken with fried capers. Oxmoor House

Television chef Sara Moulton has distilled four decades’ worth of culinary knowledge into her most recent cookbook, Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101: How To Make Everything Taste Better (Oxmoor House, 2016).

Moulton, 64, has had plenty of culinary experiences from which to cull kitchen wisdom. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and went to work in high-end restaurants. She transitioned to the now-closed Gourmet magazine’s test kitchen when she wanted to start a family, and then spent 20 years as chef of its executive dining room.

Moulton also was the on-air food editor for Good Morning America and one of the Food Network’s original stars with Cooking Live and Sara’s Secrets. She now hosts Sara’s Weeknight Meals, which is in its fifth season on PBS.

In a recent phone interview, Moulton said she didn’t know if she wanted to write another cookbook; this is her fourth.

But her publisher was looking for a book similar to the Good Cook cookbooks, a monthly instructional series that Time-Life Books published in the late 1970s and ’80s. The idea of offering her best advice and recipes for beginner and experienced cooks appealed to her.

“It’s very personal. It’s what I learned over the years,” Moulton said.

Moulton’s 368-page cookbook starts out with her 10 rules for great home cooking (how to balance flavors, how not to waste food), a chapter on basic pantry recipes (stocks, tomato sauce, vinaigrette) and then chapters for quick entrees, one-pan meals, sides, desserts, vegan and vegetarian dishes and more.

It is the perfect gift this time of year with graduates and newlyweds in need of a go-to beginner cooking manual. It also is an attractive purchase for an experienced home cook because of the well-tested recipes, including some from guest chefs on Moulton’s show, like Japanese cooking expert Hiroko Shimbo and stir-fry guru Grace Young.

Here are two gems of culinary wisdom from Moulton’s book:

Forget mise en place: Mise en place, which means “put in place,” is a standard in restaurant kitchens where every ingredient is prepped before you start cooking. As a working mother, Moulton said, she realized that “if you did all of that before you started, you are wasting time.”

Instead Moulton writes her recipes to use the time when one ingredient is cooking to prep the next ingredient. The only exception to this rule: stir-fries, where there are no lulls because the cooking happens too quickly.

Salt as you go: Do not wait until the end to add salt to your food. Salt makes everything taste better, but you have to add it lightly as you go to get the full effect.

For example, salt helps vegetables get rid of excess water, which is good for tomatoes, eggplant and cucumber, whether serving them raw or cooked.

“I really do believe you will use less if you don’t wait until the end,” Moulton said.

Moulton hopes this book will not only inspire people to cook but lay a strong foundation for their own culinary education: “I think if somebody cooked their way through it, they would learn a whole lot.”

Quick tomato, goat cheese and fresh herb penne

Serves 4

  • 3 cups chopped fresh tomatoes (cut into roughly 1-inch pieces), about 1  1/4 pounds
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
  •  1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled
  • 2 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
  • 12 ounces penne or fusilli
  • 1 cup mixed coarsely chopped fresh herbs (such as parsley, basil, oregano, mint, dill, chives, cilantro and tarragon)

1. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan or stockpot.

2. Meanwhile, toss the tomatoes with 1 teaspoon salt in a large serving bowl and let them stand for 20 minutes. Add the lemon zest, oil, goat cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano and hot red pepper flakes, if using, and toss well.

3. Add 2 tablespoons salt and the pasta to the boiling water, stir well, and boil the pasta, following the package instructions, until just al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water, drain the pasta, and add it to the bowl along with  1/2 cup of the reserved liquid. Toss until the cheese is melted; if desired, add additional pasta water to achieve a looser sauce. Add the fresh herbs and salt to taste. Toss well. Serve immediately.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 694 calories, 32 grams fat, 72 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams protein, 48 milligrams cholesterol, 431 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 42 percent of calories from fat.

“Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101: How To Make Everything Taste Better”

Sauteed lemon chicken with fried capers

Serves 4

  • 1 pound skinless chicken breast cutlets, preferably thin sliced
  •  1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, preferably grapeseed, divided
  • 3 tablespoons capers, rinsed, drained, and dried very well
  • Wondra flour or all-purpose flour for dredging
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large lemon, sliced very thin crosswise
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons minced shallots
  • 1  1/4 cups chicken broth or stock

1. Working with 1 cutlet at a time, pound the chicken until it is  1/8 -inch thick and transfer to a plate. Pat the chicken dry and cut the pieces in half if they are too large to saute easily.

2. In a large skillet, combine 2 tablespoons of the oil with the capers and heat the pan to medium-high (capers can pop if added to a hot pan). Cook, stirring, until they are crispy, about 2 minutes. Transfer the capers to a small bowl with a slotted spoon.

3. Spread out the flour on a piece of parchment on the counter. Heat the skillet over medium-high heat. Working with half the chicken at a time, season the cutlets on both sides with salt and pepper and coat them lightly with the flour, lifting the parchment paper on both sides to help coat the chicken and shaking off the excess. Add the chicken to the oil in the pan and cook until lightly golden, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Add 2 tablespoons oil to the pan. Season and flour the remaining chicken and saute, transferring it as it is done to the plate.

4. Dip the lemon slices in the sugar, coating them lightly on both sides, and add them to the skillet. Cook over medium heat until they are lightly caramelized, about 1 minute per side. Transfer to the plate with the chicken. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and the shallots to the pan and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Return the chicken and lemon slices to the pan, along with any juices from the plate. Simmer gently, turning the chicken over several times until it is heated through.

5. Transfer the chicken to 4 plates and simmer the sauce until it has thickened slightly. Spoon the sauce and lemon slices over the chicken and top with the fried capers.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 341 calories, 19 grams fat, 15 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams protein, 66 milligrams cholesterol, 145 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 49 percent of calories from fat.

“Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101: How To Make Everything Taste Better”

Creamsicle pudding cake

Serves 6

  • 1 cup fresh orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated orange zest
  •  1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for greasing the baking dish
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • Seeds from 1  1/2 vanilla beans or 1  1/2 tablespoons vanilla bean paste
  • 120 grams (about 1 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour
  •  1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  •  1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • Vanilla ice cream as an accompaniment

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch-square baking dish with butter.

2. Bring the orange juice and  1/4 cup water to a boil while you prepare the batter. In a small bowl, whisk together the zest, cream, melted butter, lemon juice, and vanilla bean seeds or paste.

3. Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Add the cream mixture and stir just until combined. Transfer the batter (it will be quite stiff) to the prepared dish, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula. Set the baking dish on the middle shelf of the oven and carefully pour the boiling orange juice over the surface of the batter. (This may sound odd, but it’s this mercurial.) Bake for 27 to 35 minutes, until the cake on top has a crisp golden surface and the pudding sauce on the bottom bubbles.

4. Spoon the pudding cake onto each of 6 plates and top each portion with a small scoop of ice cream. Serve immediately.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 308 calories, 15 grams fat, 39 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 48 milligrams cholesterol, 261 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 45 percent of calories from fat.

“Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101: How To Make Everything Taste Better”