Small Victories, by Julia Turshen

Small Victories, by Julia Turshen

That Julia Turshen finally published her own book is a small victory of its own – after running a catering company and working as a private chef, she’s co-written at least seven books, often alongside famous names like Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow. Her new Small Victories is all her own, and it feels like she’d been writing a bucket list of “what I’ll put in my own book when I can finally do it my way!” for the past decade. She has a page of food-related charities so the well-fed can give back. She has a series of lists – seven things to do with pizza dough, seven easy-but-memorable desserts. Planning a dinner menu? She has ideas.

Luckily, they’re mainly good ones. While the lifestyle brandiness of repeating small victories in bold on every page wore on me, it faded into the backdrop a few chapters in. (Tim Mazurek had some fun with that here.) If some of the victories feel forced, it’s still worth it to push through. The food in the book is consistent and impressive, and pushed me (a pretty experienced home cook) to try out techniques that it never occurred to me to do on my own.

As Turshen sees it, many of our cooking problems (including boredom) are problems of perception, a lack of imagination instead of skills.  I think of her as the home-cooking version of a drug pusher, casually whispering in your ear that you can make gravlax in your fridge, or sausage for a weeknight dinner. And she’s good, because I bought right in. There are historical reasons why curing fish and blending ground meat might not have been done in the home, but at this point, they are on a difficulty par with making soup or pasta sauce, and she’s right to remind us of that. 

Gravlax with Caper Cream Cheese. Missed a few of the scales, woe is me. 

Gravlax with Caper Cream Cheese. Missed a few of the scales, woe is me. 

Turshen has a pro’s eye for how much work really goes into a dish (in the case of gravlax, almost none), and what shortcuts are worth trying. Longcuts, too – who would have thought that it’s actually easier to make your own fresh pasta for lasagna? And it is, because then you can skip the infinitely annoying pre-boiling stage. But she also gives you permission to skip components that have been set in traditional stone but aren’t pulling their own weight, like lasagna’s béchamel/ricotta layer. For meatballs, she throws out the egg and breadcrumbs but adds ricotta back in. Good thing you didn’t use it up in the lasagna.

I’m making the book sound more Italian-American than it is – if it has any particular lean, it reminded me of outer-borough New York City and its suburbs, pulling in influences from Jewish and Italian family cooking but also Brooklyn trends, Greenmarket cooking, Middle-Eastern ingredients, and more. She’s flexible when it comes to additions and swaps, encouraging you to use what you have instead of going out to the store. The only orthodoxy is to what’s good and what works. I particularly liked her vegetable ideas, and radicchio slaw with warm bacon dressing and rice pilaf with roasted red cabbage are my new dinner staples. The cauliflower dish adds a few quick steps to your basic roasted cauliflower while improving it by 1000%.

If this is what Turshen does on her own, I say we tell Mario and Gwyneth to go find a new co-writer and just let her do her own thing. That’ll be a big victory for us all. 


make this one thing:

Cauliflower with Anchovy Bread Crumbs

1 head cauliflower, corned and cut into small florets
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 garlic clove, minced
4 oil-packed anchovies, drained
1 1/2 cups coarse bread crumbs
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

Preheat your oven to 425F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Put the cauliflower on the prepared baking sheet, drizzle with 3 tbsp of the olive oil, sprinkle with the salt, and toss everything together. Roast, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is tender and well-browned, about 40 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter.

Meanwhile, in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat, warm 3 tbsp olive oil. Add the garlic and anchovies and cook, stirring, until the anchovies have completely disintegrated into the oil. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring frequently, until they've absorbed all of the oil and are brown and a bit crisp about 5 minutes. Stir in the pepper and parsley and remove from the heat.

Scatter the bread crumbs evenly over the cauliflower and drizzle everything with the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil. Serve immediately.