Talking Small Victories with Cookbook Author Julia Turshen

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Talking <i>Small Victories</i> with Cookbook Author Julia Turshen

You may have already cooked one of Julia Turshen’s recipes in your kitchen if you’ve picked up cookbooks co-authored by Turshen such as A Culinary Road Trip with Mario Batali, It’s All Good with Gwyneth Paltrow and Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen with Dana Cowin, as well as The Kimchi Chronicles, Hot Bread Kitchen: The Cookbook, The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries and Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food. Now Turshen’s first solo cookbook, Small Victories is out, a hefty tome chock full of “recipes, advice and hundreds of ideas for home-cooking triumphs.” Turshen is passionate about giving people confidence in the kitchen — and showing you that you probably know how to cook a lot more than you think.

Each recipe page contains “small victories” — a surprising ingredient or recipe step to bring out the best of the ingredients you’re working with. Recipes like “Apricot upside-down skillet cake”, “Peach Bourbon Milkshakes” or “Turkey Ricotta Meatballs” evoke family nostalgia, personal memories, as well as sharing professional learnings — with additional “spin-offs” to show you how to adapt recipes at home depending on what ingredients you might have on your own cupboard shelves. Turning the pages of Small Victories, you feel like a guest of honor at the Turshen table, welcomed into the fold, to sit in the warm glow of a kitchen where hearty meals are made with love to be enjoyed by loved ones — Small Victories will no doubt be a treasured cookbook that will be much-thumbed and lead to many great kitchen victories.

We caught up with Julia in the run up to the release of Small Victories, out on Chronicle books September 6th.

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Paste: Congratulations on the upcoming release of Small Victories — how does it feel to be the author of your very own cookbook now?

Julia Turshen: My whole life I’ve loved cookbooks, basically since I learned to read. I’ve loved cooking since even before that. So I’ve really lived my life with cookbooks next to me at all times. I think in the back of my mind I always wanted to do my own, but really I love making them. So for a long time, it was wonderful to help other people make theirs, I felt like whenever I had enough of my own recipes and stories that I thought were good enough to share, when that moment came I would commit to it. It was such a wonderful experience getting to make my own, and I feel wonderful about it, I’m really excited to share it.

It definitely feels different because I’ve never been a solo author, so I’ve never promoted a book, usually at this point I’m already working on the next one! So it feels like a totally new experience to be the person talking about it – but it’s great. I’m so proud of the book and excited about it. I’ve been able to give out a few copies to friends and family, and just for example my mother in law just sent me a picture of the muffins she made from it – that feeling is unbelievable, to know that people are cooking from it, especially people I really love – it’s really exciting.

Paste: There’s so much lovely extra detail in Small Victories, you keep discovering new information when you go back to read over the pages – is there anything that didn’t make the cut in the end?

JT: I honestly didn’t really leave anything on the cutting room floor. Mostly because I spend a lot of time mapping out books, and in particular Small Victories, before I really start the recipe-testing process. Everything in the book is what I intended to include.

Paste: Can you elaborate on your recipe-testing process and how you get the final recipe?

JT: Recipe testing is really interesting, it’s something I really enjoy but it’s — obviously you’re cooking, you’re still chopping an onion, sautéing it etc — but it’s very different to cooking, because cooking to me feels like a very relaxed, intuitive thing, which is definitely what my goal is in trying to help readers feel comfortable with, through Small Victories. To make recipes that are reliable and guaranteed to turn out in anyone’s kitchen, the testing process is much less relaxed. I always joke when I’m testing recipes that I can’t really talk to anyone while I’m doing it, I’m very, very focused. So my process is, when I’m working on my own recipes, I write them before I test them and I either think about, if it’s something I’ve made before, I remember what I did when I made it. And if it’s something I haven’t made before, I’m imagining what I will do. When I start testing, then I’m able to work off something, as opposed to trying to balance a notebook and spatula at the same time, so I’m just troubleshooting as I go, writing down notes, seeing if it takes as long as I said it would, did the things I describe that would indicate to you when it’s done, are those things accurate? Recently I was working on a chocolate cake recipe so I wrote the recipe and went to test it and said what you say about most cakes, “The cake is done when nice and brown” — but it was a chocolate cake, so it was brown when it went in the oven. So it’s just being aware of things like that. Measuring carefully. I now always write recipes in American and also metric measurements, so making sure the measurements work in both ways. Recipe testing is a much more scientific thing to do, it just involves paying a lot of really close attention.

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Paste: Was there a recipe in Small Victories that needed that extra bit of attention?

JT: The one recipe that stands out to me for that reason is actually what I think is one of the simplest recipes, it was Jennie’s Chicken Pelau in the “Meat and Poultry” section of Small Victories. Jennie was my babysitter when I was a kid, and we’re still really close. Jennie’s from St. Vincent, an island in the Caribbean, and pelau is a one-pot meal of chicken and rice with vegetables, it’s something that’s very popular in St. Vincent, and that Jennie made all the time when I was growing up — and still makes! It really is a simple one-pot meal, but I think maybe because it was such a nostalgic recipe for me, and something that means so much to me, I really wanted to get it right and that one I had to test so many times because it seems straightforward, but getting the chicken and rice and everything to cook and be done at the same time, and get the spices correct. So I made that one about a half a dozen times before I felt it was ready.

Paste: You include “spin-offs” for each recipe, which are suggestions for alternative ingredients or processes – where did the idea for the spin-offs come from?

JT: The spin-offs in the book are the variations in each recipe, which I included because really, the genesis behind the book is that, I was talking to lots of friends and people who really love food and cook a little bit, but maybe not as much as they would like to. I felt like I kept having the same conversation: someone would say to me, “I wish I knew how to cook more things, I only know how to make five things.” And I would say — what are those five things? They would tell me and I’d say, well you can make five hundred things with those, you just don’t know it yet! Because I think that recipes are really much more flexible than we often allow them to be. They’re an invitation to all combinations — so if you change out an ingredient, or the type of vessel you make it in, or add a little bit of this, or a bit less of that — all these little things, you end up with a totally different dish. So I think including the ‘spin-offs’ was hopefully an effective way to show people that a recipe can be so many different things. Once you get in the kitchen, if you’re open to being open-minded, you can make anything.

Paste: Do you think that people are cooking more these days than they used to?

JT: I would definitely say yes, but I think it depends so much on where you are, how much time there is in your day — there are a lot of variables. What I can say for sure that I have observed is that the interest in food is just growing, and I think the realisation that cooking doesn’t have to be extremely complicated is increasing, so I hope that means people are cooking more. I definitely am a big believer in home cooking, I think it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself, for your family, for the environment, it really is a very worthwhile activity – I’m all for it.

Paste: You were previously a brilliant host of the Radio Cherry Bombe food podcast. Will you go back to podcasting, is it something you might do again in future?

JT: I loved doing it, after the first two seasons the schedule didn’t work out for me to continue doing it, but it’s definitely something I’ve been missing. Actually my wife Grace used to also host a podcast and I think we’ve both been missing it, so we’ve been talking about some plans of how to maybe bring something back and do it together, which I think would be really fun, so it’s definitely a pot on my stove, for sure!

Paste: On Instagram, you share the meals that Grace cooks for you at home, which is lovely — and also means you don’t end up doing all the cooking, she also cooks for you?

JT: Grace is a wonderful cook. I’m really lucky, she’s an especially great breakfast cook and also wakes up earlier than I do, I got really lucky in that department, lucky for a lot of reasons, yeah she’s a wonderful cook.

Paste: Ok now we’re gonna ask you a couple of your podcast questions: what did you have for breakfast this morning?

JT: Grace makes these amazing waffles — Grace has type-1 diabetes so she has to be very conscious of carbohydrates, and she found a recipe for paleo-style waffles made with almond flour. Over the weekend she made a triple batch of them, we wrapped them up to freeze them. So she essentially makes our own frozen toaster waffles — I had some coffee and one of those with a little bit of ricotta on top for breakfast today, you caught me on a good day.

Paste: And, is there anything in your fridge that we would be surprised by?

JT: Something that might not a big surprise but may be unusual is something I actually used this weekend. I worked on a cookbook for a Vietnamese restaurant this year, it’s not out yet but we’ve been working on it, and during that project I accumulated a lot of ingredients that were new to me, and there’s this yellow Mae Ploy curry paste. It’s an amazing product and it kind of keeps indefinitely, so I used it this weekend to make curried egg plant and zucchini – which are really growing like crazy in New York right now. I kind of forgot about it, I had purchased it a month or two ago.

Paste: Has moving from New York City to upstate New York had an effect on what food you eat?

JT: It’s been the most wonderful decision we’ve made for so many reasons. In terms of food, I would say the biggest effect it’s had, is that we no longer have take-out because we’re no longer in the city. We basically eat every single meal at home, and while I’ve always loved to cook, and cook very regularly my whole life, I’ve never cooked more at home than I do now, and that’s been the most wonderful thing.

Paste: What are you most excited about now that people can cook from Small Victories?

JT: I’d love to see what people come up with beyond the spin-offs that I provided in the book, I’d love to see what their own variations are. So that’s probably what I’m most excited for.