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Deconstructing Dinner

Food Network’s Sara Moulton shares tips and tricks

Sara Moulton, host of "Sara’s Secrets" on the Food Network, will demonstrate recipes from her latest cookbook at a BU Food and Wine Seminar on March 1.

After a long day of work or class, many people’s solution to dinner is opening a can or picking up fast food on their way home. Sara Moulton, host of Sara’s Secrets on the Food Network, thinks there’s a better way, and she’s coming to BU on March 1 to tell us exactly what it is.

At Thursday’s already sold-out BU Food and Wine Seminar, Moulton will demonstrate recipes from her cookbook Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals and share tips for creating delicious, easy-to-prepare meals. The author of two cookbooks, chef of the executive dining room at Gourmet magazine, and food editor for Good Morning America, Moulton has made it her mission to wean Americans from their attachment to fast food and prepared food. She spoke with BU Today about recipes, trans fats, and her efforts to make cooking as painless as possible.

BU Today: Could you share a few tips for making delicious, easy meals?
Moulton:
Rethink dinner, for starters. My real goal in life is getting people to cook more often — not fancy food, just real food every night for dinner. We all make the same 10 boring dishes for dinner. Unless you’re vegetarian, most people think they have to have a protein, a starch, and a vegetable for dinner. I try to get people to think of other dishes they can make. Another tip is to take advantage of cooking time to prepare something else. Say you’re making a soup: you can put the oil in the pan and slowly heat the pan while you chop the onion and then add the onion and cook it while you chop the garlic. Then cook the garlic while you prepare the next ingredient.

You say your goal is to get people to cook more often. Aren’t people cooking enough at home?
No, it’s a disaster. People eat so much fast food and processed food. Processed food is the whole center of the supermarket. If you look at labels on processed food, the ingredient list goes on for 500 miles. The more ingredients, the more likely they’re processed, and the less healthy they are for you. It’s much better to start with raw ingredients. There’s more nutrition, less fat, and less sodium.

How are you combating this trend?
One show at a time. I’m basically trying to show people how easy it is. I think the Food Network is getting people cooking more. And more people are cooking in general because there is so much more available in the supermarkets to play with. When I started on the Food Network in 1996, I talked about using chipotle and no one knew what I was talking about. Now people are looking for new exotic flavors. I try to show how to use the machines we have — food processors and blenders are good for certain things.

What about the microwave?

I’m actually microwave-impaired, so I can’t offer any advice. I don’t feel you have control with the door closed — you can’t see it, you can’t smell it.

Will the trend of getting recipes off the Internet kill the cookbook industry?

It already has. The trouble is, people who are mostly downloading recipes don’t get the whole philosophy and concept of a recipe book. And who knows if the recipe works? It’s already been a huge problem for me. I used to put one new recipe on my site a week and now it’s once a month. I’m not giving my stuff away for free anymore.

What do you think of the recent ban on trans fats in New York restaurants?
I think it’s wrong. I don’t think the government should be messing around with what’s served in restaurants. Just banning trans fats or listing calories on the menu is not going to change people’s eating habits. What we need is real education on what’s healthy and what calories are so that people can be more informed. It smacks of Big Brother. If Big Brother wanted to be more helpful, it could regulate agribusiness and inspect fertilizers so we wouldn’t have E. coli in our spinach and inspect cows so we wouldn’t have to worry about mad cow disease.

What’s the most common cooking problem people ask you about?
Back when I was on Cooking Live, the most frequently asked questions were, “Why is my chicken breast dry?” and “Why does my cheesecake crack?”

And what’s the solution?

For the chicken breast, it means you overcooked it or the heat was too high or both. There’s very little fat in chicken breast, so it’s very easy to dry out. You should cook it gently until it’s just done. A cracked cheesecake means that the oven was too high, it was left in too long, or it wasn’t in a water bath. But it might crack anyway; so one thing you can do as soon as it comes out of the oven is run a knife around the edge. This way the edges will shrink as it cools instead of the top cracking.

What recipes will you demonstrate on Thursday?

I’m going to make an arugula salad with spicy pecan praline and aged gouda. I’ll make a caramel with the sugar and toss with the pecans and salt. It’s spicy and acts like croutons in the salad. I’ll also make a breakfast sandwich, with the idea of making more than the 10 boring dishes, and I’ll show students the proper way to make biscuits. It’s a great thing to know how to make instant bread.

I’ll make soba noodle and chicken salad with a sesame-miso vinaigrette and show how you can turn miso into a vinaigrette with rice vinegar and sesame oil. It tastes good, and it’s good for you too. You don’t have to use it just on salad; you could put it over fish and chicken too.

I’ll also make keema matar, an Indian dish that’s all about the spice mix garam masala. I want to show people how easy it is to make their own Indian spice mix by roasting and grinding spices. It’s also an international dish, and I try to get people to step out and do dishes they might not otherwise.

Although Sara’s Secrets with Sara Moulton on March 1 is sold out, tickets are still available for Cru Wine, Cru Chocolate with Bill Nesto on Friday, March 2, at 7 p.m. and A Taste of History with Jamie Bissonnette and Chris Pirro on Wednesday, March 28, at 6 p.m. For more information about upcoming seminars and to purchase tickets, visit the Food and Wine Web site.

Catherine Santore can be reached at csantore@bu.edu.