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High Braise 

Edible Complex

Published September 28, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

A small, framed picture is propped inconspicuously in Molly Stevens' kitchen: In it, she looks directly into the camera, a huge gold medal on a blue ribbon hanging round her neck, a champagne flute in her hand, and an impish grin dimpling her face.

"A friend looked at this and said, 'You look so happy!'" Stevens says. "Well . . . yeah, I was happy! I was ecstatic!"

The photo was taken in April, when Stevens garnered the prestigious 2005 James Beard award in the single-subject cookbook category for her latest effort, All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking. The fact that this was the first major book she had written completely by herself -- after many years of collaborating with others -- only added to the sweetness of the moment.

In this era of celebrity chefs and TV cooks, Stevens may not be a household name. But in the somewhat closed circle of American "foodies," the Williston resident is well known. Her editor and champion, Maria Guarnaschelli, has long been a powerhouse in the cookbook-publishing world, as is another mentor, Ann Willan, an author and founder of the esteemed La Varenne culinary school in Paris. Stevens is an alum. She's also a contributing editor to Fine Cooking magazine, and has co-written books with New York editors Fran McCullough and Roy Finamore.

In Vermont, Stevens' food fans can be found at the New England Culinary Institute -- where she taught for years -- and among chefs, growers and artisan food producers throughout the state. She's on the board of the Vermont Fresh Network.

"Molly doesn't have a single enemy in the food world," says Rux Martin, the Charlotte-based executive editor for cookbooks at Houghton Mifflin. "That's very rare in a business like this, a business in which there are a lot of long knives."

It's also a business in which "people go to TV school and are taught to put themselves out there and put their own stamp on everything," says McCullough, Stevens' co-author on a series of annual Best American Recipes cookbooks. "Molly doesn't do that. But she's not self-effacing, either. She has a quiet confidence and an incredible sense of who she is."

"She's smart, funny and a very quick study," McCullough continues. "She's also incredibly curious. It's not unusual for me to all of a sudden receive a box of, say, Balinese long pepper -- which I had never heard of -- because Molly thought I should try it."

Stevens, an elfin woman in her mid-forties, works out of her spacious, cedar-shingled home on a woodsy Williston hilltop. Her civil engineer husband built it himself. The kitchen is open and airy but looks more like the realm of a home cook than of a pro. Stevens feels it is important to test recipes on a "normal" cook stove, as opposed to a professional range, and she is on her second GE. Her fridge is not a trendy Sub-Zero, but a Kenmore.

Over a lunch of homemade pot roast sandwiches and potato salad, she recounts some of the culinary adventures that brought her to the podium of the James Beard Foundation.

Raised in Buffalo, N.Y., Stevens started her own catering company as a high school student, beginning a relationship with food that has become a lifelong commitment. She first came to Vermont as a student at Middlebury College. After graduating with a degree in English, she was immediately "packed up and sent to Boston" with a gray flannel pants suit neatly folded in a set of matching luggage, all purchased by parents hoping their daughter would get a job in advertising.

Instead, Stevens says with a chuckle, she ended up working at the Magic Pan eatery in Faneuil Hall. After returning to Vermont to get a graduate degree at Bread Loaf, she wound up living at Cate Farm in East Montpelier. A nearby artisan baker, Jules Rabin of Plainfield's now-defunct Upland Bakers, gets credit for her edible epiphany.

"I had never had bread like that before, and I remember just sitting in my car and gobbling it down in wonder," she says. "I just had to visit him and ask him how he did it." Rabin informed her that he had learned to bake bread in France. "I thought, 'Well, maybe that's where I should go.'" During the three years in Paris that followed, Stevens worked as a babysitter, a caterer and, finally, a student helper at La Varenne, where she learned the foundations of French cuisine. From Paris, Stevens moved to Manhattan to work at the French Culinary Institute, but she returned often to Vermont for vacations. She met her husband, Mark Smith, on a ski trip.

They moved back in 1988, and Stevens promptly got a job at the New England Culinary Institute. Near the end of her eight-year tenure, she began writing freelance food pieces -- the first for Fine Cooking magazine. She went on to contribute to the New England volume of a regional cookbook collection put out by Williams-Sonoma. She helped Guarnaschelli edit the 1997 update of The Joy of Cooking, and started working with McCul- lough on the Recipes series. One Potato, Two Potato, co-written with Roy Finamore, followed in 2001.

"I worked with 130 cooks on Joy," Guarnaschelli says. "But Molly was a standout."

To better write the chapter on meat, Guarna- schelli recalls, Stevens happily headed out to a three-day course in Texas, where she spent time in the company of ranchers, butchering cattle. More recently, she spent three days in the South, including a day at the Presley estate, where she helped a cookbook friend style photographs for Graceland's Table.

It was Guarnaschelli who persuaded Stevens to do her own book. "And when I really thought about it, the subject of braising is what appealed to me most," Stevens says. She is drawn to the technique because it results in the kind of savory dishes that draw people happily to the table, meals often served straight from the pot, with bread to sop up the sauce. The book went on to win not just the James Beard award but the "single-subject cookbook" award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

The term "braising," at its simplest, refers to the technique of simmering a piece of meat, fish or even a vegetable in a bit of liquid so that it becomes tender and flavorful. "Long braising" is the most traditional: A tougher cut of meat is simmered for hours until it is "fall-apart tender," as Stevens writes. "Short braising" takes less than an hour and is reserved for pieces of poultry, seafood and vegetables.

Stevens' recipes range from the familiar to the exotic, from Yankee pot roast to squid roulades braised with white wine and tomatoes. The strength of the book is that she approaches each recipe with the same calm, clear, straightforward voice of the teacher she was and -- through her writing -- still is.

"Hold a whole squid in one hand (your left, if you're right-handed) . . ." she begins, walking the reader through the process of removing the creature's innards, ink sack, beak, quill and outer membrane. It's a disquisition that ends: ". . . be sure to take the trash out soon after cleaning the squid, since discarded squid parts spoil extremely quickly and noticeably."

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About The Author

Marialisa Calta


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