Back in the not so distant and formative years of the Food Network, my favorite show was COOKING LIVE with Sara Moulton. Working alone or sometimes with a guest, Sara taught early viewers how to cook. She didn't just demonstrate the steps in a recipe. She talked about why things worked together, and provided plenty of smart tips and techniques that encouraged them to get into the kitchen and not just rely on a cookbook. She answered all those nagging questions that new cooks always have about roasting, braising, frying, sauteeing, preping vegetables, baking a cake or muffins, or cookies and rolling out a pie dough--Sara showed us how to do it all. This was in the pre-celebrity TV chef days. Accessible, friendly with a beaming smile and the encouraging manner of a born teacher, Sara quickly became one of the network's most admired stars. As a publicist with cookbooks to promote, I often booked my clients on her show and I can tell you Sara is exactly the person you see on TV. We don't get to see as much of her in front of the cameras these days (though she pops up on PBS often enough). The good news is that she's produced her fourth cookbook, SARA MOULTON'S EVERYDAY FAMILY DINNERS (Simon and Schuster; $35.00; ISBN: 978-1-4391-0251-0) and in every way, I think it is absolutely her best. Turn to the back cover of the book. There are plenty of admiring quotes from the likes of Marcus Samuelsson, Rick Bayless, Pam Anderson, and Isaac Mizrahi. Everyone likes Sara.
To combat cooking fatigue with the same old dinners over and over again, Sara was determined to rethink the family dinner to get the most important family meal of the day out of its rut. This "has resulted in several strategies," she writes in the Introduction of SARA MOULTON'S EVERYDAY FAMILY DINNERS. "The chapter called "Appetizers for Diner" formalizes my frequent preference for a meal's starters to its "main course. "Two for One" spells out how to make a great new meal with leftovers from the night before simply by making sure that there will be leftovers. In "Five-Ingredient Mains" the challenge was to come up with recipes that are as delicious as they are quick to make." There's a chapter on whole grains, a vegetarian chapter (with icons for easy identification), and most of the recipes contain suggested variations on "how to make it lighter, how to make it vegetarian, what to exchange for ingredients you hate or simply can't find in your hometown. But I'm hoping to do more than provide you with options," Sara states. "I'd like to spark your creativity. Real cooks don't need a recipe. They can look at their ingredients, consider their options and make a meal."
I only had to go to page 12 to find a recipe for a salad dressing that I had been seeking for years. Creamy Garlic Dressing Two Ways: Rich and Slim powerfully reminded me of a similar dressing that I enjoyed on cold, poached leeks at an Alsatian restaurant (now sadly closed) near my former home in Manhattan. Sara presents it in a full-fat version with sherry vinegar, Dijon mustard, kosher slat, black pepper, a garlic clove, a small amount of heavy cream (or with yogurt, a lower-fat alternative) and olive oil. I've made it at least a half dozen times. I use the garlic version for meats and omit the garlic for vegetables. This is a versatile and delicious dressing, perfect for warm or cold artichokes, asparagus, those well-remembered poached leeks, cold roasted beets and so many other vegetables, salads, cold chicken, beef, pork and fish. Sometimes I make it with the yogurt too. It is equally delicious.
Here's the innovation of SARA MOULTON'S EVERYDAY FAMILY DINNERS that most captured my attention. Sara done away (almost entirely) with "mise en place," or the concept that all ingredients should be prepped and in front of you before you begin to cook. She still advises in the interest of time to have all the ingredients out of refrigerator and cupboard to be within easy reach when you need them. She has written the steps into each recipe, an interesting and practical departure from conventionally written recipes. You might argue that Joy of Cooking does the something similar, but the thing I've resisted about this classic cookbook all these years is its lack of an ingredients list at the top of the recipe (essential to me).
I'm a sucker for easy desserts that look like you made a lot of effort. The Butterscotch Pudding Cake really works for me. "When it's baked," Sara reveals, "it separates into a layer of cake and a layer of hot, rich butterscotch pudding sauce. It's a snap to make, and you can finish it off with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream." That's all I needed to read and ran to the kitchen. It's a winner. Spring Soup with Bread Dumplings is a great one-pot meal combining chicken stock and asparagus, mushrooms, fava beans (or frozen limas if fava beans are not available), leeks and peas, and given some light heft with the inspired addition of dumplings made with fresh bread crumbs, eggs, parmesan cheese and parsley. This elevated minestrone is sure to put anyone into a good seasonal mood.
There are so many good ideas in SARA MOULTON'S EVERYDAY FAMILY DINNERS. Try the egg chapter, with lots of egg dishes you've never heard of, as well as some interesting riffs on classics, such as Toad-in-the-Hole Italiano. I'm eating more sandwiches for dinner these days and Sara's take on the genre is right in tune with this concept. Southwestern Caesar Shrimp Sandwiches and "Fried" Catfish BLTS are two interesting and different choices. The main course salad is also showing up more frequently on my dinner table. I went a tad upscale one night with the Seared Scallops and Butter Lettuce Salad with Grapefruit Vinaigrette, and then found myself equally happy with the Bean and Kielbasa Salad with Creamy Chipotle Dressing.
Sara has provided dinner for company, dinner for people on the run, dinner for the family (and for surprise drop-in guests) and dinner for the family to relax and enjoy each other's company. Here's comfort, convenience and tasty food all wrapped up in one source you'll want to go back to again and again.
Spring Soup with Bread Dumplings
First things first: this is a spring soup. It's meant to be made when asparagus and fava beans are in season. Just because you can find these items in the supermarket in November, when they have been flown in from the other half of the world, doesn't mean you should give them a second thought. Eat this soup when our half of the planet is awakening from its long winter nap and you'll feel renewed, too.
That said, when I was finishing preparing it, I worried that this light little soup might not be substantial enough to satisfy The Husband. Poring over the Italian cookbooks in my library, I came across several recipes for "bread dumplings." Now, I have never met a dumpling I didn't like, from gnocchi to pierogi, but these were news to me. Most dumplings require some sort of batter and a bit of prep time. I couldn't believe you could get away with using bread as the batter. Turns out that bread dumplings are a snap to make and, even better, when I added them to the soup, they absorbed a ton of flavor from the broth and puffed up like little balloons. The Husband was happy.
Makes about 8 cups (without dumplings), 4 servings*Hands-on time: 35 minutes*Total Preparation Time: 40 minutes
Bread Dumplings (recipe follows)
1/2 pound shelled fresh fava beans or shelled fresh lima beans,
or 1 2/3 cup thawed frozen limas or favas or a combo
3 leeks (about 1 1/2 pounds)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups homemade chicken stock (or canned broth)
1/2 pound asparagus
1/2 pound small white mushrooms
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 cup shelled fresh or thawed frozen green peas
1. Prepare the Bread Dumplings (see recipe below)
2. If using fava beans, bring 1 quart salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the shelled fava beans and blanch for 1 minute; immediately transfer them with a slotted spoon to a bowl of ice and water to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, gently peel the skins from the beans.
3. Trim off and discard the green parts of the leeks, leaving about 5 inches. Cut the white parts in half lengthwise and then into 1-inch pieces (about 3 1/2 cups); rinse them well and pat them dry.
4. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low; add the leeks and cook for 5 minutes, or until they have softened.
5. Meanwhile, bring the chicken stock to a boil in a 4-quart saucepan. Trim the asparagus. Peel the bottom of the stems if the steam are thicker than 1/3 inch; slice the asparagus cross-wise into 1-inch pieces (about 1 1/3 cups). Clean, trim, and quarter the mushrooms (about 2 2/3 cups). Add the asparagus and mushrooms to the leeks and cook for 2 to 3 minutes more, or until almost tender. Microplane the grated cheese (about 1 1/3 cups) or grate on the fine side of a box grater (about 2/3 cup).
6. Add the leek mixture to the chicken stock along with the favas and peas. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low; add the dumplings and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until they are cooked through. Stir in the cheese and serve.
Beat 2 large eggs in a medium bowl until frothy. Stir in 2 cups fresh white or whole wheat bread crumbs, 2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 1 1/3 cups Microplane-grated or 2/3 cups grated on the fine side of a box grater), and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves. Roll into 12 balls. Cook in the soup as directed above.
This is my adaptation of a dressing for grilled quail that I first encountered in Gourmet magazine. Generally, I steer clear of creamy dressings, because of the extra calories they pack, but this one is so delicious that I couldn't leave it alone. Even so, I present it to you here in full-fat and lighter versions. The lower-fat alternative swaps out the cream for yogurt, which subtracts calories, adds tang, and is still pretty creamy.
Makes about 2/3 cup*Hands-on time: 10 minutes*Total preparation time: 10 minutes
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup heavy cream or plain-low-fat or full-fat Greek-style yogurt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Whisk together the vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper in a small bowl until the salt has dissolved. Press the garlic (about 1 teaspoon) into the mixture. Gradually whisk in the cream and then the olive oil. Store in the refrigerator for a day or two.