Small Victories — Julia Turshen

Anyone who is a collector is motivated by love. That once in a hundred feeling of stumbling across the one. The one that reminds you what drew you to building and maintaining this collection in the first place.

This feeling–a quickening of the pulse, a feeling of sheer luck–is exciting because of its rarity. If every new item to a collection inspired such extreme feelings, the net result would be indifference and boredom.

You have to acknowledge and accept the examples that are fine, okay, and bravely acceptable as they provide the backdrop for the truly exceptional titles to shine.

I will stop being coy and cut to the chase: I love Small Victories by Julia Turshen. It is my favourite new cookbook in a while. It does so many smart things that it makes other cookbooks seem insubstantial and superficial in comparison.

The extent to which I have fallen for this book is especially interesting when I consider that this was a title I was going to pass by. Why? Well, I know you should never judge a book by it’s cover, but I totally did with this one. The gingham trim, the sort of boring chicken soup, and my gut feeling that the small victories would really just be useless recirculated advice all lead to the conclusion that this one was safe to skip.

I am not even sure why I did actually buy it. At any rate, what matters now is that it has entered my life and I am the richer for it.

Structure and Design

Hardback. No ribbon.

303 pages across the following chapters:

  1. Foreword (by INA “USE A GOOD OLIVE OIL” GARTEN!)/Introduction
  2. Breakfast
  3. Soups + Salads
  4. Vegetables
  5. Grains, Beans + Pasta
  6. Meat + Poultry
  7. Shellfish + Fish
  8. Desserts
  9. A few drinks + some things to keep on hand
  10. Seven Lists
  11. Menu Suggestions, Give Back, Acknowledgements, Index

I have already talked a bit about the cover. Despite how much I love this book, I think the cover fails to match the tone and content of the book. The gingham spine is particularly misleading: it suggests a sort of old fashioned family classics like approach. The chicken soup, while attractive, is potentially the most boring dish from the book. The embossed titled is sort of corny. It’s just not a good cover.

Yet things improve immediately when you open the book. The end paper is this perfect cheerful yellow. Think of the yellow of a post-it note (let’s talk sponsorship, 3M?) only intensified by a hundred.  You continue to flick through the book and the impressions of the cover are quickly dispelled. This is a thoroughly modern cookbook, both in design and content. Yet the books modernity does not equal faddishness or tedious adherence to flavours-of-the-month.

The recipe format is a basic one and works reasonably well. A generous recipe headnote is a vehicle for Turshen to give a bit of context to the recipe as well as provide a series of small victories. These small victories are the central conceit behind the book: they are little juicy nuggets of advice or guidance. In an author without Turshen’s experience or passion they would be useless and a waste of time. However Turshen has been a private chef, a recipe developer for scores of cookbooks, and genuinely loves food and cooking. As a result these tips are useful, sometimes almost to the degree of being revolutionary.

Under the headnote comes the list of ingredients, split across three columns. Given that I have professed my love for this book, I feel comfortable in sharing another (minor) criticism: this way of listing ingredients is awful! The horizontal space it consumes means you cannot get an at-a-glance sense of what the recipe needs. It doesn’t allow for clustering like ingredients. It is a bad choice.

The recipe method is immediately below, and consists of paragraph long chunks split across two columns. This works much better than the ingredient list. The column size and paragraph length are perfectly calibrated to be consumable in a quick glance.

And on, say every second recipe, there is a little box that gives you a few different variations on the recipe (or in some cases a whole new mini recipe). Again, this is something that in the hands of a lesser author would be a waste of space. However these are genius and drastically increase how useful this book is. It is also a great way of teaching creativity and of building kitchen improvisation skills.

I am torn by the photography. It’s by ‘Gentl + Hyers’ which I can only assume is some sort of industrial lifestyle photography group operating out of an artisanal barn somewhere. It is often very good–the lighting is delicious–but it sometimes verges on being an unconscious parody of the Food52 style of photography.

The real weakness in the photography is that the book features a lot of photographs of ingredients rather than the finished dish itself. While I enjoy pictures of corn and of bowls of lentils, I am more curious to know what a finished dish might look like. It’s a curious choice of art direction, certainly.

Thoughts

The magic of this book was not apparent from reading it. The recipes looked, well, fine. Perhaps even a little simple. So it was with a bit of trepidation that we cooked the first few things from this book.

The results were exceptional. We were not sure what to think or to trust that something special was going on. As we ate we looked at each other and had conversations: “This is good, right? Like really good” “Can’t talk. Eating.”

So we cooked more and the good results continued time and time again. Eventually we relaxed and realised that those first few recipes weren’t a fluke, but simply characteristic of the smart way Turshen approaches recipe writing. The recipes make the most of her extensive experience in a way that not every cookbook author can manage. Quite frankly, I’m in awe of the magic she achieves with such concision, warmth and elegance.  In this book, Turshen has set a new benchmark for this style of cookbook. I really hope that she writes another.

While I could explore the catalogue of cookbooks she has worked on, I sense there’s something special and personal about this, the first cookbook published under her own name.

Here’s what we’ve cooked so far (sometimes I say so far knowing I’ll probably never come back to the book. In this case it is an accurate statement of intent):

  • with Roasted Tomato Salsa (I had chilaquiles for breakfast at a cafe once and was not too impressed. Had my first experience of the dish been with these I would have been a convert a lot quicker. The salsa that forms the base for this dish is really incredible. A small victory from me is to forego making your own tortilla chips and use some from a bag.)
  • Sour cream pancakes with roasted blueberries (I must have put slightly more baking soda than was called for because these had a faint, almost ghostly, metallic aftertaste. Still, once I get the quantities right, this will become my new go to pancake recipe. The roasted blueberries are the perfect addition.)
  • Aunt Renee’s Chicken Soup (the only clear miss from the book: this was just bland and insubstantial. Given the good rap Turshen gives it, I’m almost convinced I missed a step or my chicken was defective.) 
  • Bibb Lettuce with Garlic Dressing (an addition to my repertoire of go-to dressings. It’s essentially a basic mustard vinaigrette but with the addition of crushed garlic that gently pickles in the vinegar.) 
  • Julia’s Caesar (again, you get such a sense of Turshen’s experience and appreciation for maximal flavour with minimal effort: by using mayonnaise as the base, you get a quick tasty caesar dressing dressing without the potential concern of raw egg yolk.) 
  • Zucchini, red onion & pistachio salad (fantastic and nuanced textures combine to make a really glamorous and sophisticated salad. It is quick to make but looks and tastes much more impressive than the sum of its parts) 
  • Tin-Foil Kale & Cherry Tomatoes (potentially the stand out recipe from the book: you simply wrap kale, tomatoes and garlic into a foil parcel and then apply heat. The results are incredible and would convert anyone to kale. The perfect side dish.)
  • String Beans with Pork, Ginger & Red Chile (the culinary palette of the book stirs more to new-American, however I quite love the Asian inflections to some of the recipes. This is a fine rendition of a Chinese classic, yet one that won’t set the world on fire.) 
  • Kinda, sorta patatas bravas (see comments above about maximal flavour for minimal effort. These crispy potatoes go fantastically with a punchy tomato aioli. This would be a genius idea for a party.) 
  • Roasted Scallion + Chive Dip (I could eat a whole bowl of this. It is a super fantastic onion-y dip. And again demonstrates how well Turshen understands how to create flavour but also make food people want to eat. Oh it was good. And I got misty eyed with affection when she suggested you serve this dip with salt and vinegar crisps.) 
  • Kimchi Fried Rice with Scallion Salad (While I would have preferred this with brown rice—which stands up to the assertiveness of the kimchi better than milquetoast white rice—it was perhaps the best kimchi fried rice I have made. The scallion salad is a perfect addition and prevents the dish from being too one note.) 
  • Chopped Chickpea Salad (Simple perhaps to a fault, despite the off-piste addition of sizzled chorizo. Our go to chopped salad is slightly more involved, but more enjoyable: Neil Perry’s Rockpool Bar and Grill chopped salad)
  • Orecchiette with Spicy Sausage + Parmesan (*love heart eye emoji* forever) 
  • A Nice Lasagne (this is a smart way of making lasagne with a tenth of the overall time and effort. The result is evocative enough of the full on lasagne bolognese to be satisfying and delightful.) 
  • Greek-ish Grilled Shrimp (this is a simple recipe. In fact, I was almost tempted not to make this recipe because of how simple it seems. Not making this recipe, however, would have denied us a real treat. Elegant and robust.)
  • Cold Elixir (I unexpectedly had an opportunity to try this. I swear there’s a magic in it as it actually made me feel a better as I suffered with a summer cold.) 

Why this book?

  • You love smart, clever cookbooks that somehow pull off quick AND delicious
  • You are willing to overlook a misleading cover
  • You want a book that provides real inspiration and encourages creativity

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░░ A summer cold And does it just spark joy?

You must buy and cook from this brilliant book! I love it and I am sure you will too.