After fourteen years in a Manhattan kitchen untouched by renovation, Sara Moulton recently took an axe to it all and started from scratch. It might shock you to learn she still cooks on an electric stove (no gas in the building) and didn't enlarge the footprint one inch. Better yet, she cooks five nights a week for her family of four and develops all of her recipes there.
I spent a recent afternoon in her apartment chatting about what makes an ideal kitchen and helping her make Chicken Saltimbocca from her new book, Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners.
Meet Sara Moulton: chef, cookbook author, and television personality. For twenty three years, Sara was the executive chef at Gourmet Magazine, until its closing in October 2009. She hosts Sara's Weeknight Meals on PBS and is the food editor for ABC's Good Morning America. She is the author of several cookbooks, the most recent of which is Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners (Simon & Schuster, 2010). “Broadly,” she says, “this book is a compendium of strategies to wriggle free of the straitjacket that stipulates starch/vegetable/protein at every meal.”
Two and a half years ago, despite her stellar cooking résumé, Sara's New York City kitchen was "rather down in the heel," so she redesigned it with the help of kitchen designer Walter Pluff and Best Buy. The entire process was documented with a time-lapse camera perched on one of her loft's columns and the project was made into eight webisodes for Best Buy. The footprint remained the same but everything else was ripped out. In three weeks the kitchen had new cabinets, lighting, tile, floor, countertops, and appliances.
"My first stove came complete with a dead cockroach, hanging out in the glass in the back where the dials were. Then I got my second electric stove; still, one of those old fashioned coil-types." Her current range is a glass-top electric by KitchenAid. Sara doesn't seem to mind cooking on electric. In her building, gas isn't an option.
What inspires your cooking style?
Family has been a big influence as well. My grandmother was a good Ye Olde New England cook. She was my first teacher. We'd go to her house in the country and she would make bread and apple pie and cookies with us. My mom was a writer for Mademoiselle who traveled a lot and when she traveled she liked to eat in restaurants. When she came home she liked to re-create the meals. Together we starting cooking from Craig Claiborne's New York Times Cookbook. That book really expanded my horizons. Then in college, my mom pushed me. I was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan after college cooking at a bar three days a week. Mom wrote to Julia Child and Craig Claiborne; Julia didn’t respond. Craig said if she wants to become a chef, she should go to culinary school. So I did. It's funny that later on I ended up working a lot with Julia.
I’ve always had at least three jobs but we've always had family dinners. We still have family dinner now and my kids are nineteen and twenty-three. It's not the fancy stuff I would eat in restaurants. Which is not to say for a special occasion I don't splurge. But in general, it's French-based without all the butter. I went to Culinary Institute of America, after all.
These days, in the cooking world, you have to be well-informed about all different kinds of cuisine. Particularly when I doing the Food Network shows, I became more familiar with Asian and Italian ingredients from the guests I'd have on the shows.
At the end of day, it has to taste good and I like it to be sort of healthy. Even though I'm French-trained, I tend to use olive oil not butter; I rarely use cream; I try to bulk up on vegetables as much as I can for the family. You know, I find that butter and cream often have a dull flavor. When I don't want that stronger olive oil flavor, I generally go with grapeseed oil.
What inspires your kitchen?
It's very efficient. It's designed with the whole triangle idea in mind: the stove, sink and refrigerator in a shape that's easy to move around in.
What are your favorite parts of the kitchen?
I love the farmhouse sink because it really does make me feel like I'm in a farmhouse. I love the granite counter-tops because they're dreamy and they remind me of the ocean. My pull-out cutting board with garbage collection is genius. I love the big shelf above the kitchen, the upper deck. For Thanksgiving I put all my platters of food up there.
What's the best cooking advice or tip you ever received?
It’s all in the details, but that's not something anyone told me; it's just something I figured out over time. For example, searing meat properly, simmering something until it's reduced, or seasoning something when you should season it. It's amazing what a difference those little details make.
What is the biggest challenge in your kitchen.
Just having the two large burners on my stove can be a challenge. I’m generally cooking for four so I wish I had six burners.
What is your biggest indulgence?
Always have Parmigiano Reggiano. I don't know if that's an indulgence but there are certain ingredients you have to have the best. I always buy organic eggs.
Do you have a dream tool or splurge?
I want to get the Penguin soda machine.
What are you cooking this week?
Chicken Saltimbacco with Artichoke Sauce from my new book, and smashed potatoes because Sammy's home from college. When he was away we all dropped the starch, but he's back, so it's time for starch again!
What cookbook has inspired you the most?
Anna Thomas's Vegetarian Epicure and Frances Moore Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet are serious inspirations. I'm not a vegetarian, but for most people that way of eating really is healthier. We don't need to eat so much protein. I have a lot of favorite cookbook authors: Madhur Jaffrey, Nina Simonds, Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, and Jean Anderson. I like cookbooks. I actually read them.
What's the most memorable meal you've ever cooked in this kitchen?
For Sammy's fourteenth birthday my son said he wanted to have a dinner party for his birthday. A dinner party for eight boys! For the first course he asked for lobster bisque. I hadn’t made it since culinary school, so I went to Julia's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and twelve pages later, I decided to just make up my own. The main course was braised short ribs, which I also make for Thanksgiving instead of turkey. I was worried about kids not wanting the ribs, so I also made Jean Anderson's oven fried chicken which is dipped in melted garlic butter.Sammy loves spaetzle, so I did that, too. So I said, "Vegetables?" and he asked for frozen corn. He doesn't love dessert so we set up a simple sundae buffet with store-bought ice cream. He insisted on setting the table with flowers and candles. Some of his friends just didn’t get it, but the whole thing was so sweet. The next year he asked for gumbo and that was just too much work so we hired out the gumbo to a friend's husband who had cooked in New Orleans. Those were great dinner parties, even if some of it was lost on the young guests.
What are your essential cooking tools?
• 10” chef's knife
• cutting board
• 10- to 12-inch skillet
• metal tongs
• curved fish spatulas
• rubber spatula
• Cuisinart food processor, especially for grating vegetables. (If you grate beets they cook in 3 minutes!)
• Bench scraper – both for getting things from cutting board to pan and cutting board to garbage
• Cabinets: Associated Fabrication (Brooklyn)
• Range: KitchenAid - Architect Series II 30" Self-Cleaning Slide-In Electric Range (Stainless Steel)
• Dishwasher: KitchenAid Architect Series II Superba Series Dishwasher (Panel Ready)
• Refrigerator: KitchenAid - 21.8 Cu. Ft. Counter-Depth French Door Refrigerator (Stainless-Steel)
• Sink: Astracast Fireclay Farmhouse Sink
• Faucet: Barber Wilsons
• Floor Mat: Wellness Mat
• Cookware: Chantal Copper Fusion
Recipe from Sara Moulton's Everyday Weeknight Dinners
Chicken Saltimbocca with Artichoke Sauce
Makes 4 servings
Hands-on time: 35 minutes
Total preparation time: 45 minutes
Saltimbocca, which literally means "jump into the mouth" in Italian, is a no-brag-just-facts description of the wonderfulness of the classic recipe made with veal scaloppine, prosciutto, and sage. My version substitutes chicken for veal and adds an artichoke sauce. This recipe would work not only as a special treat for the family on a weeknight, but as a winning dinner entrée for guests on a weekend.
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.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 1 1/4 pounds; see Note)
12 large fresh sage or basil leaves
2 to 3 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma
1/3 cup Wondra or unbleached all purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup dry Marsala or sherry
One 14-ounce can artichoke hearts
1 cup Homemade Chicken Stock
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1. Sprinkle a small amount of water into a large resealable plastic bag. Place a chicken breast half in the bag and close, leaving 1/2 inch open. Pound the bag with a rolling pin or meat pounder until the breast is about 1/4 inch thick; remove and set aside. Repeat with the remaining chicken breasts.
2. Put 3 sage leaves on the less smooth side of each pounded chicken breast. Cover them with the prosciutto and press until they adhere. Cover the breasts and chill them for 10 minutes. Cut each breast crosswise in half.
3. Spread out the flour in a pie plate lined with wax paper or parchment. Season half the chicken pieces with salt and pepper to taste. Working with one piece at a time, coat the chicken with the flour, lifting the wax paper on both sides to move the piece around; shake off the excess flour.
4. Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over high heat until hot; reduce the heat to medium. Sauté the chicken for 2 minutes per side, or until the pieces are golden and just cooked through; remove them to a plate and cover them loosely with aluminum foil. Repeat with the remaining oil and chicken.
5. Add the Marsala to the skillet; bring it to a boil, scraping up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan, and simmer for about 1 minute, or until the pan is almost dry.
6. Drain and coarsely chop the artichoke hearts (about 1 1/3 cups). Add them to the skillet along with the chicken stock and simmer until reduced by half. Return the chicken to the skillet and simmer just until reheated. Add the butter to the pan and swirl until it has melted. Divide the chicken among 4 dinner plates; spoon the sauce over the chicken and serve.
note: Or use 1 1/4 pounds thin chicken cutlets (about 7), which will not need to be pounded or cut in half. Just make sure to distribute the sage leaves and prosciutto evenly among all the cutlets.
(From Sara Moulton's Everyday Dinners by Sara Moulton. Copyright © 2010 Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.)
• Check out Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners at Amazon and Powell's
• See Sara's old kitchen here on the first Best Buy webisode in which she walks through the space with her kitchen designer.
• Kitchen Tour Archive: Check out past kitchen tours here.
(All images: Sabra Krock, except Chicken Saltimbocca: Jamie Tiampo)