We first spoke to Sara Moulton in 2019 and with new episodes airing of “Sara’s Weeknight Meals,” we thought it would be a good time to reconnect and catch up with her and see how she fared through 2020 and what life is like today.
Sara, what have you been up to since we last spoke? I saw episodes of you going to Florida and cooking and eating on the water, as well as you going to North Carolina to cook with a viewer at her house.
Those were some older episodes. Obviously we didn’t do anything in 2020 because everything was shutdown. But in 2021, we did get funding and we shot at my producer’s partner’s house in Greenwich, in full disclosure, which is where we pretend it’s my home, which is nicer looking than my home here in New York City. And then we went to Alaska this year, we had funding again and shot Season 11. So we shot Season 10 and 11.
You and I spoke in 2019?
Yes. (laughs) At that point, I had already shrunk down to two things – my public television show and I also do radio with Chris Kimball at Milk Street. We did radio throughout the pandemic, which was shear hell for me because I had to set up all the equipment and it was quite noisy at times outside. It was quite stressful and quite hot. We managed to do it all the way through, so that’s basically what I’ve been doing. My dad died in 2019, probably after we spoke. That’s what I did in 2019, dealing with my siblings emptying out his house in Cambridge and trying to move on. And just when it was time to move on, the pandemic hit.
I saw an episode with Grace Young, which I love. I wish you guys would do a show together. We spoke with Jacques Pepin recently, I wish you guys would cook at home together, since you’re both connected to the cruise line (Sara’s sponsor).
It would really be fun. Interesting enough, years ago, when I first started at Gourmet magazine in ‘84, pretty soon after I started in the test kitchen, they assigned me to work with Jacques for a series of recipes for the magazine; I would actually go out to his house in Connecticut. So, one could say we cooked together, but he cooked, and I took it back to Gourmet and recreated what happened. I’d love to, I’ve had him many times on my show. Grace I’ve had on a lot.
Was her episode filmed after 2020?
Yeah, we filmed it last year; she made this delicious pork dish. I’ve been trying to support her as you know.
Would you ever do a show with her? That would be an interesting show.
It’s very hard to do a new iteration of the show, it costs money and we have different specialties. Not that you can’t cook with people, I try all the time. I try to have guests all the time who know about certain cuisines that I don’t.
What’s a typical day like for you now, post 2020?
It’s like anybody else, trying to get back to normal, whatever that means. So, during the week I work on whatever work I have and that includes working on the show. Right now, Season 11 just started airing, I do the website component and the stuff I do for Milk Street, I do research for that. And on weekends I try desperately to take time off, but I’m not very good at relaxing. I don’t mean relaxing, just not working; I feel guilty. But I’ve taken up watercolors, so that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s funny, a lot of people who get in the arts in one way, often get into them it in another way. Like, for example, Jacques is a very nice, fun painter, his chickens in particular, which I love. I did watercolors as a kid and I picked it up again and I’m taking all these classes on line.
Is it easy versus something like acrylics?
I’m biased, it’s like my mother did watercolors therefore I’m going to do watercolors. That’s why I’m doing it. I know this is not for visuals, but just for fun, this is one I just did that I’m really happy about. (shows a painting of boat in the water in a marsh)
Oh, wow, is that hard to do?
Yeah, it is.
Did you sit and copy it?
Here’s what happens, you do the drawing and I’m a good drawer; I can’t do it in my mind, I can’t not see the boat, but if I can see the boat, I can draw the boat. So I can do the drawing part. What happens in these classes, is the teacher takes you through – first you take this color, do a light wash and this wash over it. So they really hold your hand, but this last one, I’m finally departing from the script and having my own opinions.
Is that an online class in real time or you pick it up when you want to?
It’s not in real time, because that would be too stressful. The thing about watercolors is they dry before you’re done with them. (laughs) You have to work really fast. I’ve been trying to do this for about the past five years. My family now knows that if I’m doing it, don’t bother me because the painting will get ruined if you talk to me for two minutes. I’m taking classes online, as long as they have a style that I like, it’s mainly British (classes). It’s fun. I don’t want to take a class with other people because I just want to do it in my time and my own place, I don’t really want to be criticized, I just want to have a fun.
I think it’s more economic to do watercolors, because you have paper and it’s not canvas.
Watercolor paper is expensive though.
You can’t use regular paper?
It won’t look well and part of the joys of watercolor is the texture of the paper. So this is cold press, the one I did and it’s got little crevices to create the whole look.
How many hours do you spend on it?
Not a lot, because you have to move really fast, and it also has to dry in-between. On a weekend I might spend an hour and half on a Saturday and one hour and half on a Sunday working on it because there’s gaps in between. Aside from that, particularly starting during the pandemic, I walk a lot; I walk about an hour and a half every day. During the pandemic the husband and I would go out for a long walk everyday, usually heading South. We’re in Chelsea, so we would head down to the West Village and the city was crazy empty. You could stand 14th Street and 8th Avenue and look up 20 blocks and not see one car. In March 2020, a lot of people here started walking. The one thing was, what a tragedy this was for the homeless population; you could see how hard it was, because they were at high risk too. You don’t want to go to a shelter when you know you might die.
Has 2020 changed you, have you learned anything from it?
That’s a very interesting question. I have learned that the husband and I really do get along. It was just the two of us my, daughter joined us at the end of 2020. I think the pandemic made or broke relationships, some that were long-term and some that were just beginning. We’re lucky, we had a large enough apartment that we cold have our own space but also get together. We got along, we had a good time, we came up with a routine and we kept each other going. The other thing was, and obviously we’re in the food world here, and a lot of people discovered this: food was something very important. It made you happy at the end of the day, the thing you did that you had never done before. I didn’t get into sourdough, but boy a heck of a lot of people did and that was even when it was so hard to get flour. I tried a few things I hadn’t tried in a while and one of them was gougères, French cheese puffs, from pâte à choux, the same thing you make éclairs out of. And what the French do is they take that dough and they put all this cheese in it, aged Gruyère; you bake it and it puffs it.
That dough is called…
Pâte à choux. I came across a recipe by Dory Greenspan, she brought up that you can freeze them from the raw state, so I would make a batch of 36, and maybe bake up 6 for us and freeze the rest for later. So food was really, really important. And staying in touch with family, but that‘s always been true anyway. My daughter moved back home, because she split up with her boyfriend, so back to making or breaking; but my son was in Brooklyn with his girlfriend with their foster dog they ended up keeping; he’s so neurotic they called him Puddles. He’s half Chihuahua, I never thought I could love a Chihuahua, but I love this dog, he’s so adorable. So holidays when we could finally get together, those little pockets, starting in 2021, I guess we did celebrate Christmas in 2020 here. Everything just seems so surreal as well. I’m not saying anything that you didn’t feel or anybody didn’t feel, that horrible thought of, “Will this never end?” “Will there every be anything else? “Are we all going to die?” Very early on, a chef I admired who was a colleague, I had him on my show many times, and we were talking about having him back, Floyd Cardoz, an Indian chef, died very early in 2020. It was one of those crazy things it took over your immune system. It was awful and that to me was such a reality check. So for people later on, and I have met people down the road, who say, “It’s no big deal, it doesn’t mean anything, it never really happened, it’s just politics,” I look at them and I say, “I guess you didn’t lose anyone you love did you?” It stops them dead in their tracks, not that they’ll change. It was awful.
What keeps you going and doing what you do? You could retire if you wanted to; you did another season or two since we last spoke.
Doing a season does not take enough time. It’s public television, you never get enough money. You have to bang it out real fast and do it really condensed so it doesn’t take long and it’s not like the Food Network where I’d go in for weeks and weeks. It’s not that overwhelming. I considered myself semi-employed, semi-retired. So that is what I’m doing anyway. Like many other people, I’m trying to clean house. After cleaning out my dad’s apartment, although he and my mother were not pack rats, they weren’t awful, although they did keep paper – letters and emails. So now I’m trying to de-acquisition a lot of paper, because that takes time too. I’m reading like crazy, novels, so that’s been a joy. We still make dinner every night, I still make it from scratch. We’ve been traveling a little bit. We have a little farmhouse in northeast Massachusetts, my whole family owns. I counted 28 people that go to this farm. My aunt and uncle bought it with my parents 61 years ago and my aunt and uncle’s had three kids, my parents had three kids and those kids have had kids, so we’re like some number like that. Many of us have gotten married there, a big old farmhouse surrounded by fields, it’s now mostly land trust, wildlife preserve. It’s wonderful.
You guys donated a lot of land to the government?
Yes. We didn’t want a lot of development, it is a great wildlife preserve already. It’s a farmhouse surrounded by fields, surrounded by woods. And there’s a pond on the property and the woods obviously attract a lot of wildlife and then there’s a whole beaver pond in the back woods, which is funny, because when it first happened, we were like, “oh this is just awful!” Because beavers just take over. But there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s against the law to hurt them, and it’s good for nature, so we just got over ourselves.
When you don’t feel like cooking, or in general, what is an easy healthy dish to make?
I love making soup and also just leftovers. Another thing I do a lot is a frittata, so that’s really great for leftovers too; if I have leftover roasted broccoli and some feta cheese and maybe a little bit of chorizo, the chorizo is more of a flavoring than the base. I got an Aerogarden, a hydroponic little garden, the basil’s out of control so that will go on top. I’ll also make a salsa or tomato sauce to put on top of the frittata and we’ll have that with the salad and that would be nice.
How would you make an easy, healthy soup?
Another thing we do, the one take-out we do one every two weeks that’s delivered is Peruvian chicken, which is called Pio Pio. They have all the usual side dishes, yellow rice and red beans and this amazing green sauce that I’ve attempted so many times to replicate, but it ain’t the real deal. So when we get that I usually get double the amount of red beans and freeze them. I use them as the base of the soup. And mashing some of them, I never add thickener to a soup, I always mash it. To that I might add a whole bunch of kale, sauté some onions and garlic and maybe tomatoes if I have some left and put a little chipotle and adobo, then add the kale, some carrots and try to get all sorts of diff colors in there. And then my favorite side dish to go with it, is my faux garlic bread. I live in a New York City apartment, so if I ever fire up my grill pan, and start grilling in earnest, the alarm goes off. So what I do instead is pop some good artisan bread from the supermarket into the toaster, so I can control it better. Then I take it out and brush it with olive oil and a cut clove of garlic and sea salt and that’s a great thing to dip into a soup. The good news about the husband is he’s with me, he’s onboard thinking that soup can be dinner. We never have soup for a first course. So that would be the kind of thing that I would do.
That’s a spicy soup, sounds like you always have a spice in it.
Yes, often. The older I get the more I love chilis and spice. But I also love Italian, so I might go the Italian route with parmesan, broccoli, white beans, carrots garlic, onion and no spice, although the pepper flakes which the Italians use, sneak their way into whatever I’m cooking.
I find the challenge with cooking is cleaning. How often do you clean your stove top? I sauté a lot and it gets grease even on the cabinets around the stove. Do you get grease on the grates in the vent above the stove and how often do you clean that?
Three answers: the husband. Two is there is no vent and three is, we don’t clean it. The stove is always cleaned, the counters are always clean. What happens is the grease goes up and the glass hanging lights get pretty greasy and I haven’t cleaned those in a while. So it is a problem.
Do the cabinets around the stove get greasy?
There are no cabinets, it’s just tile, so I clean those. The husband keeps the stovetop, we’re stocked with electric, which is actually better than gas from a green point of view and I hope everybody’s heading towards induction, because that’s how we should all go in terms of the environment. We have a glass top and if you don’t take good care of it, everything that gets baked on looks like hell but he keeps it gleaming. So, I cook, he cleans.
This is for the December issue, are there any recipes you make for the holidays each year or advice you give others about cooking or cleaning this time of year?
Every year we have a Christmas party, although we didn’t have one in 2020, just with relatives in the New York area and that’s because my husband’s Jewish and when we were first married, he didn’t want a Christmas tree, because his family wasn’t into that. But finally I talked him into it and he said, “Fine, you can have a Christmas tree, but I’m not decorating it.” So I said let me invite my cousin, brother, and we’ve been doing that ever since. So we’ve been doing it 30-plus years. It’s gotten much larger, we’re usually 16 to 18 people, so anytime you have a lot of people, at least for me, make something you can make a head of time. Lasagna, tacos. I’m not saying they’re authentic, I’m saying pulled pork, something with chicken, or vegetarian, or a couple big pots of hearty soup. I make chicken pozole, or creamy cauliflower soup with chorizo and greens. One thing I used to do, but it’s gotten very expensive, so I only do it for our little unit and the family loves that – braised short ribs of beef in red wine. My son’s girlfriend is from Honduras, so she’ll bring cookies that she grew up with. Yummy buttery cookies. But she introduced us to something, she went to high school in Scandinavia and one of the things they had there was mulled wine. I always thought, “Oh, it’s too much sugar and perfectly good wine.” But the way she does it is really delicious and she finishes it with a little bourbon or brandy. So that’s become part of our holiday tradition. Another thing we do, it’s expensive, but it’s a family thing and everybody’s learning how to open oysters. You were asking for suggestions, advice for other people. It’s so strange because Christmas hasn’t been normal. Last year, we were supposed to go visit my sister and her husband, we were all going to be in Maine, and the day before my husband’s birthday in December, he got Covid, so we went nowhere for Christmas. We had the kids over here, originally we were all going to get on a train and go to Maine and my brother-in-law and my sister who’s a doctor said, “We don’t think that’s a good idea, it’s too crowded” and we were going to rent a car. And then Bill got Covid, so all bets were off and that didn’t happen.
Going back to filming your new shows since 2020, how was that?
In 2021, we shot at my producer’s partner’s house, which is in Greenwich, and everybody had to have been vaccinated, there’s protocol on sets and when you’re shooting. Everybody had to be double-vaxed and if you weren’t, you couldn’t come and that was really sad because I had a guest all lined up who was going to be wonderful, she’s vegan. I’ve seen her do a demo and I was very impressed with her and we had her lined up and I asked, “By the way, are you vaccinated?” She said, “No.” You have to be supportive for whatever reason if they don’t want to. Hers was not political, it was for health reasons, and historical reasons, so we had to do something else, which was a shame. But it was like anything else and then this year there’s been pockets since 2020, “Oh you could go do something for 10 seconds.” When we shot this year, we ended up going to shoot in Alaska, and that was fantastic, but again we had to get a test. We had to do it online with somebody, they had to watch you do it. So part of the cruise in Alaska, our major sponsor is Oceana Cruises, the one that you mentioned that Jacques is the head honcho of, the culinary guy. And before you could ever get on the ship, you had to take the test. And on board nobody got sick; that was great. And it worked out just fine.
So you have had some normalcy, because you got on an airplane to get to Alaska.
Yeah, we started in Vancouver, we shot in Vancouver first. We shot quite a few segments in Chinatown. As I’m sure you’re aware, we were talking about Grace Young – Chinatowns all around the country are in trouble, people are scared to eat out, first because of Covid, then because of the violence against Asians. So, we shot at a dumpling shop, at a tea shop, we did tea-smoked tofu, tea eggs which were yummy, and we made dumplings with this wonderful woman who does tours around Vancouver. We got to learn a lot about Vancouver’s Chinatown and then we switched gears and also did something with spot prawns. Have you ever had spot prawns?
No, what is that?
They’re called that because they’ve got four spots on their shells and they’re unique to that part of the Pacific Northwest, to Vancouver in that area. And they are so delicious. I’m a fan of both shrimp and lobster and this is better than either one.
It sounds like you had normalcy, because you had a good chunk of traveling for the show.
We did, it was really wonderful and when we weren’t shooting the show, because we were on this wonderful Oceana ship, we got off at all of the places where the ship stopped and just walked on our own. The first day we were in Ketchikan, and we went to a rain forest, and I had never been to a rainforest, and it was raining in the rainforest but we didn’t get that rain because the rainforest was protecting us. We were hiking for about an hour and a half and when we got out of the rainforest, that was when we got wet. But it was fantastic. It was like climbing over waterfalls and up and down and up and down it was really exciting. I’m a New Yorker, I don’t get to see things like that. So we got to do that and get off at other places and try other things. I’d say the best thing I had to eat was the wild salmon. I’ve had that before on the East Coast. If it’s frozen properly, immediately and taken down to a very low temperature, the texture should be fine, the flavor should be fine. But somehow the fish I’ve had on the East Coast has never been like what I’ve had fresh. And the king salmon on the ship, I did a cooking demo using king salmon, it was so delicious; we did plank salmon, with an Alaskan native, he’s Indigenous and he and I made planked food and that was really tasty also.
Meanwhile, it’s funny you mentioned it, you have Christmas tree behind you; do you light the Christmas tree all year round?
Here’s what happened. You come to understand things about yourself as life goes on, maybe you don’t understand it early on, but I’m a sucker for things that involve light. So, fireworks, stars at night, fireflies and trees that light up. So every year we have a tree and we put lights on it, lots of lights. I’m really happier about the lights than anything else, and we take it down and I’m so sad. So, this year, in January 2022, after we took the tree down, I have a couple of catalogues, they have these trees that you plug in. That’s a metal tree back there that you just plug in and it just makes me happy. And I didn’t just turn it on for you, I turn it on whenever I’m in here, this is my office in my son’s old bedroom, and it just makes me happy; and on Easter I can hang eggs on it!
Is there anything you’d like to add to our viewers?
What I think continues to be true about public television is just how educational it is. We have a fair amount of guests on my show, as you know the name of my show is “Sara’s Weeknight Meals”, and my plan is to help people get dinner on the table every night. But when we do a new season, I look at the rough cuts and see how it comes together, because usually by the time I’m looking at the rough cuts there’s been a distance of a month or two. And I still feel my show is educational, “I’m like, Okay, good, I like this! People are going to learn things!” Just as I’ve learned things from my guests. That’s the thing about public television, it’s getting harder and harder to do it for financial reasons, but I think it stills delivers, seriously.
You were doing the online “Ask Sara” segments in it before the pandemic; do those continue?
We didn’t shoot any new ones for 2022, but we did in 2021. We put it out on Facebook and Twitter, “Ask us your questions.” I think it was in 2019, we put out a query to find a home cook and we ended up getting this wonderful Cuban woman who had been a member of the CIA.
I remember that.
That was really fun.
I watch Create religiously; I can’t wait for the new seasons.
Sara Moulton is the host of Sara’s Weeknight Meals, airing Thursdays and Saturday afternoon on KLCS’ Create TV (KLCS 58.3). Check out: klcs.org/schedule for full broadcast dates and times. You can follow Sara on Twitter or Facebook: @SaraMoulton or Instagram: @SaraSMouton