July 9, 2020Books
Review: Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home-Cooking Triumphs by Julia Turshen
In her introduction to Small Victories, Julia Turshen says “Celebrating small victories is...a sure way of becoming a comfortable and intuitive, even inventive cook.” What are small victories, you ask? As Turshen describes them, they include useful tips, broader ideas about cooking, and “spin-offs”. This last might be my favorite part about Small Victories. Think about your favorite recipes, ones that you make over and over again, not just because you like the finished product, but because you’re so comfortable with the steps that the actual preparation is as enjoyable as the result. When you embrace the idea of spin-offs, you can create multiple variations on that comfortable recipe, all without eating the same thing night after night after night. As Turshen says, “...if you cook this thing, you can also cook all of these things.” For a very simple example, “if you can make spaghetti, you can also make rice, quinoa, or soba noodles.”
I’ve got almost the entire library of Barefoot Contessa cookbooks (Ina Garten also wrote the foreword of Small Victories.) I love just about everything I’ve made from her oeuvre. But it’s Julia Turshen’s books that have made me a better cook - not only better but more relaxed and flexible.
As Garten says in her foreword, this book is just like Turshen “totally accessible.” I think Turshen has done an amazing job of demystifying so much that can be intimidating or off-putting about cooking. I have ALWAYS been completely beholden to recipes, at least until I’ve made something eleventy billion times. That has meant that sometimes I haven’t made a dish that looks really good to me, because I couldn’t find a specific ingredient (black sesame seeds - IMPOSSIBLE to find!) Or I’ve passed on something that looks delicious because I don’t have a grill.
Turshen set the stage to help me unlearn my fealty to what’s on the page, shortly after her introduction. In the section “Some Things to Keep In Mind” she clarifies that in her recipes, “all eggs are large, all milk is whole and all butter is unsalted.” BUT (capitalization by me, since it feels like she is addressing me directly) “...if you have just medium eggs, 2% milk or salted butter, don’t turn the page - everything is adjustable.” When I first read that, I was tentatively thrilled. But then my inner cooking critic whispered “Excuse me, how will you know what adjustments to make?” Pipe down, inner critic!!! It turns out Turshen provides multiple examples of those adjustments throughout her recipes. Combine that with the easy-to-activate tips Turshen shares, and you’ll find you can expand your menu rotation exponentially, not to mention have a lot of fun doing it.
The cookbook is broken down into the following categories:
There is also an excellent index, which Turshen encourages you to use as a way to make sure you are able to fully exhaust any ingredient you buy, even if you need only a small amount for a particular recipe.
I’m excited to share some of the insights from a few of my favorites. You’ll get an idea of how the cookbook is structured and how it helps live up to the promise of what we read in the foreword and introduction. When I’ve been able to find the full recipe online, I’ve included a link.
I didn’t think I really liked fried eggs, but I now I realize it’s because I’ve been preparing them wrong forever. The small victory Turshen shares in this recipe is to add a few drops of water to the pan to create steam and then immediately cover the pan to trap that steam. Voila - a perfect fried egg that, in addition to tasting great on the yogurt with lemon, adds richness to just about anything. I draped one on the top of leftover mashed potatoes and it was so good and filling I felt like a genius.
Sour Cream Pancakes with Roasted Blueberries
This is a simple recipe and a FANTASTIC example of the all-important spin-offs Turshen shares throughout the book. I’ve learned to keep a variety of versatile ingredients on hand, so when I want to try a new recipe, there’s a chance I can do it with just the things I already have in the kitchen. But I almost never have blueberries. I do, however, almost always have apples. And in the spin-offs for this recipe, Turshen invites you to roast “...just about any fruit in place of blueberries.” When working through other cookbooks, in the absence of a particular ingredient I might have thought to myself “maybe this would work with this instead of that”. But I often didn’t have the confidence to diverge from the instructions, figuring it would end up terrible and all my work (and those ingredients!) would go to waste. Turshen’s spin-offs (and the sheer volume of them) are helping me build valuable experience in adapting recipes to ingredients I have or even just like better.
Soups and Salads
If I had to pick the name of a recipe that sums up the easy/breezy approach Turshen makes feel so possible, it’s
A Bowl of Anything Soup, Anytime
First, Turshen provides the least intimidating instructions for making stock (a task that has terrified me for most of my cooking life) I've ever followed. Then, the recipe itself is so versatile and flexible, including the following:
I mean, come on! Are you telling me it’s that easy to make soup? I can totally do that.
Turshen also takes the pain out of ingredient shopping.
“I’m fully aware that they (nigella seeds) are hard to track down, and I don’t expect you to lose your mind looking for them. You can also leave them out of the fritters. Or add a thinly sliced scallion to the mixture.”
I have to pause and say, this approach to cooking is a game-changer for me, and so much more helpful than something like “if you can’t find nigella seeds use your imagination!”
String Beans with Pork, Ginger and Red Chile (also works great with ground turkey - look at me, I’m already spinning off on my own!)
This recipe shares valuable secrets to successful stir-frying (“Don’t crowd your pan and don’t be afraid of high heat.”) It also has one of my favorite line-items for ingredients.
2 tbsp chicken stock (OR white wine, OR water)
(Capitalizations by me again, because I never have stock, I rarely have wine, but I always have water!!!!)
Grains, Beans and Pasta
This is a great grain salad and has completely turned around my quinoa ambivalence. The small victory Turshen shares here is to spread out the quinoa on a baking sheet just as soon as it’s cooked. This both helps it cool more quickly but also guarantees the grains stay separate which makes for a better texture. The recipe has about six ingredients, but once I’d made it a couple times, I felt completely comfortable making substitutions (macadamia nuts for hazelnuts, feta cheese for goat cheese) and adding items that I thought I would enjoy (water chestnuts for crunch, red onions for flavor). This is now one of my regular recipes, and also a great way to use up any extra vegetables I have in the fridge.
Final Thoughts from Your Pop Culture Concierge
As I’m writing this, we’re still in the midst of varying degrees of lockdown due to Covid-19. You might be taking this opportunity to cook or bake more. I’ve found I’m enjoying cooking so much more now that I don’t feel like I have to rush through each step in order to finish quickly. And this forced downtime has really afforded me the chance to expand the repertoire of dishes that I prepare for myself and others. Having Small Victories as a resource during this time has been such a gift. Turshen says in her introduction “If I am not cooking, I’m thinking about what I’d like to cook.” That’s becoming true for me, too. But more specifically, when I’m not cooking, I’m thinking about what I’d like to cook from Small Victories.
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