At home and work, celebrity chef nurtures

After a long day at work, you're finally headed home, where a hungry husband and two "starving" kids await your arrival. At times like this, many people might opt for pizza or Chinese takeout.

But not Sara Moulton. The host of two TV food shows, executive chef for Gourmet magazine, and food editor for Good Morning America looks forward to cooking every evening - and to finalizing her dinner plan as she walks several city blocks home.

"I'm always thinking about food, because I love to eat," says Ms. Moulton over lunch at Le Madeleine, a lovely French bistro on New York's West Side. "Even after we finish this lunch, I'll still be thinking about what's to eat. My husband thinks it's crazy."

What's not crazy to Moulton is the importance of family dinners. "In a really old-fashioned sense, I love being the nurturer, putting food on the table for my family," she says. "Maybe it's too simplified, but I don't think that Columbine would have happened if that family had sat down and eaten dinner together. Because nobody knew what was going on with those kids."

Five times a week, the Moultons come together for dinner. Her husband or house- keeper might marinate the meat and start the prep work, and Sara finishes cooking when she gets home.

"I always have a plan. I don't know if it's the most exciting food because I fall into a rut like we all do. You typically have 10 dishes that you rotate."

If her kids want to pitch in, Moulton always welcomes that. When her son and daughter were younger, they showed little interest in cooking, but that is changing.

"I didn't want to push them because sometimes that will cause children to run in the opposite direction," Moulton says. "But now that they're getting older, they're coming back and asking questions."

Her 17-year-old daughter, Ruthie, often makes a tomato-avocado salad for dinner, and Sam, her 13-year-old son, might offer advice on flavoring sauces. Last Thanksgiving was a real coup, she says. "We made the meal together, over two days. One day was with Sam and the other with Ruthie."

When she's not cooking for or with her family, this working mom has sometimes encountered a dynamic that feels far from home.

In restaurant kitchens, the majority of cooking is still done by men, Moulton says. And sometimes the environment can feel less like one's grandmother's pantry than a locker room, replete with foul language and off-color stories.

"I'm not saying I'm against men," she says. "I did marry a card-carrying male, but there is a great deal of sexism in [the restaurant] industry."

Now that she's at the top of the potato peels, Moulton has tried to help other women in her profession. Back in the late 1970s, she was involved in founding the Women's Culinary Guild of New England, which, as the renamed New England Culinary Guild, is still going strong. When she later moved to New York, she cofounded the New York Women's Culinary Alliance, which is also thriving.

The New York group "is only open to professionals, and it helps for networking," she says. "If I need someone to do some food styling, or someone who has a certain specialty, I'll just look in my directory."

A natural teacher, Moulton often mentors young women starting out in her field. Her first word of advice is to work in restaurants for as long as they can to gain valuable experience. She also sometimes suggests that they look for work in California, which she considers a less sexist work environment for women chefs.

"There are a lot of women out there who are well respected," she says, explaining that this has contributed to more civility in California's restaurant kitchens.

In both her personal and professional lives, Moulton's genuinely sweet, down-to-earth personality shines through. And even though she has become a celebrity chef, thanks in part to friend Julia Child, who has encouraged Moulton along her career path, she isn't too self-important to chat with a stranger on the streets of New York.

After lunch, Moulton walks briskly eastward along 43rd Street, when she's stopped in Times Square by a tourist. "I love your show," the woman gushes with a slight Southern twang.

Sara stops and talks to the woman for a moment before she gives her the address of a restaurant. She then shakes the woman's hand goodbye, and she's off.

For information on Sara Moulton's TV programs, visit www.foodnetwork.com.

Mini-Pumpkin Soup
With Toasted Pumpkin Seeds,
Shaved Parmesan, and Fried Sage

16 mini pumpkins, 3-1/2 to 4 inches across
1 can of pumpkin purée, if needed (see directions)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Kosher salt to taste
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 onions, finely chopped
About 5 cups chicken stock
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup fresh sage leaves
Shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Slice off about 1/4 inch of the top - with stems - from 8 pumpkins. Slice the other 8 in half. Scrape out the shreds with a spoon. Pull the seeds away from the stringy membrane, clean, rinse, and pat dry.

Toss the seeds with the vegetable oil and salt. Arrange in one flat layer on a baking sheet. Bake in the middle of the oven, stirring occasionally, until golden and crisp, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Place pumpkins and lids cut side down on lightly oiled baking sheets and bake until tender, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool pumpkins on wire racks. Scoop out the cooked flesh from the halved pumpkins. Scrape most of the pulp from the remaining pumpkins, leaving just enough so that they retain their shape.

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the scooped-out flesh from the pumpkins. Pour in enough of the stock to cover and season with salt and pepper. Simmer over medium-high heat for 20 minutes.

Purée the soup in a food processor or blender. You should have about 8 cups of purée. If not, supplement it with enough canned pumpkin purée to get to 8 cups. Return it to the pot and season again with salt and pepper.

Heat 2 inches of vegetable oil to 350 degrees F. in a deep saucepan. Add the sage in very small batches and fry until translucent, about 20 seconds. (The oil will bubble up furiously when you add the sage to the hot oil.) Drain on paper towels.

To serve, warm the pumpkin shells in a 350 degree F. oven for 15 minutes. Heat soup until hot, adding water if necessary to thin it slightly. Put each of the shells into a shallow soup bowl and ladle some of the soup into the shell. Top with a few fried sage leaves, some Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings, and a few of the toasted pumpkin seeds. Place the lid slightly askew on top and serve.

Serves 8.

- From 'Sara Moulton Cooks at Home' (Broadway Books)

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