'Small Victories' Aims To Make Home Cooking Accessible To All

May 9, 2017
Originally published on May 10, 2017 12:42 pm
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This is FRESH AIR. Do you get stressed out looking in your refrigerator trying to figure out what to make for dinner? Do you want to know how to cook a perfect fried egg easily? Our next guest's cookbook might be what you need. Julia Turshen wrote her cookbook to help take some of the stress out of home cooking. It's called "Small Victories: Recipes, Advice And Hundreds Of Ideas For Home Cooking Triumphs."

Turshen says if you know how to make two things in the kitchen, then you have the skills to make 200 more. "Small Victories" is Turshen's first solo cookbook, but she's co-authored several bestsellers including Gwyneth Paltrow's "It's All Good" Mario Batali's "Spain: A Culinary Road Trip." She's also been a personal chef. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Julia Turshen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JULIA TURSHEN: Thanks so much, Sam. I'm so excited to speak to you.

BRIGER: So you say the goal of your cookbook "Small Victories" is to show that cooking doesn't have to be complicated to be satisfying. And part of that you do by using these small victories. So you - in each recipe, you include at least one small victory. So what is that concept?

TURSHEN: Sure. Yeah. So every recipe is introduced with a small victory. So to me, it's a tip or a technique that just makes cooking a little bit more approachable. And then what's super fun is every single recipe has a number of - I call them spin-offs, but they're variations.

So the idea is once you know the tip or the technique, once you know the small victory, you can make this great thing, but you can also make so many other things. So it's really, you know, across the board, across the whole book, the goal is just to empower home cooks.

BRIGER: Right. That's kind of neat, like, you have a recipe about fritters. And I can't remember what the prime recipe is, but it - one of them has chickpeas, but then the other - the spin-offs - you can do it with pinto beans or other kinds of beans. So you provide like four or five different kinds of recipes from that one base, which is neat.

TURSHEN: Exactly, yeah.

BRIGER: Well, let's get to one of these small victories. One that I've been using a lot since reading the book is the way to fry perfect eggs. Can you describe that method?

TURSHEN: Yeah, this recipe is so interesting. I feel like it's become, I think, maybe the simplest recipe. But it's been really popular, which is great to see. And the recipe is for - they're olive oil fried eggs, which just means you fry them in olive oil and you serve them with yogurt, which isn't so commonly seen in America. But it's definitely very popular in other countries. So the technique is to use a nonstick pan, first of all, 'cause just why make things complicated (laughter) and give yourself some insurance off the bat. Heat up a little bit of olive oil in the pan, crack the egg in.

And then my little sort of secret trick is just to put a couple drops of water in the pan - and in the pan itself, not on the egg. And then cover the pan immediately. And what happens is that little tiny bit of water - like, not even a teaspoon, just a few drops off, you know, your fingertips - creates a little bit of steam. And the lid will trap the steam in there. So you almost create this little sort of stovetop, like, steam oven. And what happens is your egg, you know, is cooking from underneath.

It's got that nice hot pan. It's got that beautiful, hot olive oil. But that steam on top will make sure that egg white on top is cooked through. But it's not an aggressive heat. You know, you're not flipping the egg over, so you don't get an overcooked egg yolk. So what you end up with is just a really nicely fried egg where the egg white on top is completely cooked 'cause I feel like I'll eat absolutely anything. I'll try anything. The one thing I really, really don't love is an uncooked or undercooked egg white...

BRIGER: Yeah, that can be gross.

TURSHEN: So (laughter) that prevents that.

BRIGER: Yeah, yeah, and I say it. I do it now all the time. It works really well. You get a nicely cooked egg white and a not-too-overcooked yolk, so it's great.

TURSHEN: I'm so glad to hear that's, you know, happening in your kitchen.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

TURSHEN: That's awesome.

BRIGER: So what do you do with the yogurt? When do you add that into the dish?

TURSHEN: So after you fry the egg, you mix just some plain yogurt - and you can use, you know, thick Greek yogurt, you know, a runnier kind of - any kind of yogurt, just plain yogurt. And you mix it with just some lemon juice, a pinch of salt and you kind of spread it on the plate so you have this layer of yogurt. And you put your fried egg on top. And then basically as you eat it, as your, you know, fork pushes down through that egg, kind of scoops up some of that yogurt and it creates this - it's sort of a bed and a sauce all at once - put a few fresh herbs on top. It's delicious.

BRIGER: Well, in a spin-off section for hard-boiled eggs, you suggest making deviled-ish (ph) eggs where you just cut open a hard-boiled egg and just smear a little mayonnaise on top and maybe, like, a drop of hot sauce. How'd you come up with that idea? It's so great 'cause I feel like whenever I try to make a deviled egg, it just looks like a mess.

TURSHEN: So many of my thoughts and decisions in the kitchen come from you could either call it laziness or efficiency.


TURSHEN: It's sort of your choice. But I love deviled eggs. I think they're delicious. But, you know, taking out all those egg yolks, making the mix, putting it back in, you know, it's a few steps that I think if you feel up for it and you want to, you know, it's worth it. And you could get a piping bag and really go crazy. But those same ingredients can just be layered on top of each other. It still tastes delicious. So it's - essentially, you're just, yeah, smearing a little mayonnaise on a halved hard-boiled egg - put a little hot sauce. You could dab a little mustard if you like that. Whatever you like in your hard-boiled eggs.

And you don't have to do all the work of dislodging the yolks and refilling them and everything. So I like those kinds of shortcuts where you still get a really wonderful result. But, you know...

BRIGER: With, like, half the effort.

TURSHEN: ...It's a little bit less time and effort. Yeah, and I think anything like that, if it makes it easier for people to make something from scratch in their kitchen, I'm all for that.

BRIGER: So all of this is your first cookbook. You've co-authored many popular cookbooks, including ones with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow. And I was wondering if you could explain to us your role as a co-author in that situation. Like, does the other person come up with the ideas for dishes and then you're converting them into recipes? Is it more collaborative? Is it someone says to you, like, go do something with chickpeas and come back to me in a week? Like, how does it work?

TURSHEN: I would love that. I love chickpeas (laughter). It is different every time. So, yeah, "Small Victories" is my first book that's just me on my own. But it's - I think it's - I should know this. I think it's the 10th book I've worked on. So I've collaborated with lots of people. I've co-authored many books. And it's different every single time. It depends on the material that already exists. For example, I've worked on some restaurant cookbooks. And some of the restaurants I've worked with, you know, have binders full of recipes that it's my job to translate from, like, restaurant kind of vocabulary to home cooking, meaning they're often scaled to huge quantities, there's not many instructions because it's, you know, it's a chef writing instructions for another chef.

So it's, you know, a person speaking to another person who knows all these techniques. So it's my job to take that...

BRIGER: So there's, like, a language there already.

TURSHEN: Exactly, yeah. Sometimes I think of myself as kind of, like, a home cooking translator of, like, how can I translate this material so someone can do it successfully at home? And often, it means kind of taking away a lot of excessive steps. And I've worked with restaurant chefs who nothing exists - or not nothing - a lot of amazing things but nothing written down.

BRIGER: Well, you have a delicious-looking lasagna in the book. And usually when you make lasagna, you either add ricotta to it or you make, like, a white sauce, like a bechamel sauce as a filling. But you've come up with another method. What is that?

TURSHEN: Yeah, so it's kind of like the deviled-ish (ph) eggs where you kind of can cut some steps out in order to get a really good result, nonetheless. That is definitely what happened with this lasagna. So I took out the ricotta. I took out the bechamel. The ricotta because - I love ricotta cheese but I think when it's baked in a baked pasta, sometimes it can get a little stiff. And I love, like, a rich lasagna. So I tend to prefer a kind of bechamel lasagna. But the idea of making a bechamel sauce, which can put off some home cooks, especially people who are new to cooking - there's a lot of risk of things not being smooth and all that.

BRIGER: 'Cause you're kind of whisking flour into milk, right? Just that...

TURSHEN: Yeah. You make - yeah. You mix some flour and butter. You make essentially a roux and then you slowly whisk in milk to make like a smooth - it's like a cream sauce. And then you can add cheese to it. You know, that's how you get things like macaroni and cheese. The base of souffles, etc., etc. But basically, I just feel like it's not impossible to do by any means, but it's an extra step. It's an extra pot to clean. That's something that's always on my mind.

But I was like, oh, I want that creamy layer, but I don't want to do that work. And so I went to one of my favorite ingredients which is creme fraiche which is basically like French sour cream. And you can actually just use sour cream, if that's all you can find. But creme fraiche is worth seeking out just because it's richer and why not add some more fat?

BRIGER: (Laughter).

TURSHEN: Life is short. So I make a super simple tomato sauce. That's some garlic sizzled in olive oil. You throw in some canned tomatoes, and then I add creme fraiche directly to that because instead of layering the lasagna - all the different sauces and, you know, keeping track of what's on top of what...

BRIGER: Right.

TURSHEN: ...You know it's all going to get mixed together anyway. So I just mix it. And so you have this essentially creamy tomato sauce. And then I walk you through how to make homemade pasta, just because it's something I love doing. But you can absolutely make this recipe with store bought fresh pasta sheets. I've made it many times successfully with a box of those like no-cook lasagna noodles.

So basically you just have your noodles - your pasta layer. And the other step of lasagna that I find just to be so annoying is pre-cooking those huge pasta sheets because, again, you're - it's another pot to wash. You're having to maneuver these huge pieces of hot, slippery pasta. So instead of doing that, and, you know, cooking them first, layering them with a sauce. I just make extra sauce, so the lasagna - you layer the raw pasta and all that delicious creamy tomato sauce - you throw it in the oven and all that kind of extra liquid from the sauce will cook the pasta through perfectly. And it's such a simple lasagna recipe as far as lasagna recipes go.

And it's just one of my favorites, and I love it. And you can add, you know, cooked ground sausage. You could start the sauce with some meat. You could add a layer of spinach, roasted squash, you know, whatever you want. You can, you know, fill that however you like. But that's sort of the base of it. And it's a really great recipe.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Julia Turshen, author of the new cookbook "Small Victories." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Julia Turshen, author of the new cookbook "Small Victories." It simplifies recipes and techniques for home cooks.

BRIGER: Well, here's another small victory from your book. Peeling ginger root is always very difficult because it's this really knobby, strange looking root. And oftentimes when I have to cook with it, you know, I cut 40 percent of the root away because it's hard to peel. So I'm usually, like, just cutting it. And so out of this weird round object, I get like this perfect rectangle, you know - lose a lot. But - so what - how do you recommend getting rid of the skin?

TURSHEN: I recommend - and this is - yeah - something I've seen in lots of places but - yeah - just to use a spoon, like a normal - a spoon you'd eat cereal with. And you just scrape the edge of the spoon on the ginger because the form of ginger root, you know, is totally kind of, you know, gnarly and goes in different directions. It's not a perfect rectangle by any means.

And instead of fighting it, you kind of just need to go with it. And the skin itself is quite thin. So using just the edge of a spoon which is, you know, firm enough to make some contact, makes some difference, but it's not the blade of a knife, so you're not getting rid of too much. And you just scrape the ginger with a spoon. And the skin comes off super easily. And you're not taking off the ginger along with its skin. And I think it's one of those moments of just not fighting something, just going with it. Yeah.

BRIGER: I'll have to try that out. You call yourself a recipe developer, and so I just - can you, like, lead us to the steps? Like, how do you actually develop a recipe? Do you do - make that dish over and over again just to get it right? Or how does...

TURSHEN: Sure. Yeah. So when I do it on my own, it starts actually not so much in the kitchen, but on the page. And I write all of my recipes before I get into the kitchen. And then I kind of - I print them out, and then I take my red pen like a schoolteacher and then I start making the recipe. I start testing it, but that's usually when a lot of things will change because as I'm working on it, you know, I'll decide to change a spice or maybe something will get pan fried instead of roasted it or vice a versa - that kind of thing. But, yeah, I start on the page.

I write it down first, and it starts usually with a thought or a memory of something nostalgic, maybe something I had when I was a kid. But then, you know, there's a recipe in the book for a rice pilaf that's really delicious, and I love it. I mean, I love everything in the book. I'm biased, but that recipe is basically my version of Rice-A-Roni, the rice in a box, which I ate all the time when I was a kid. And it was something I just loved about the idea of that box of rice includes a lot of things, you know, you can't pronounce. And it's quite salty and all that. So I wanted a version of that. So, you know, I'll usually start from a place like that, like, oh, what's something that meant something to me?

BRIGER: Are you more of an intuitive cook or do you like to go cook from recipes?

TURSHEN: I feel like it's almost like my, like, dirty secret which is like I love writing recipes so much, and I never follow them. And when it comes to just cooking, you know, on a average day at home, which I do every single day, you know, when I'm making dinner for me and my wife or, you know, if friends come by or something, I never follow recipes. I'll look at cookbooks a lot before just to get inspired or I just like looking at them. But I never, ever follow recipes. Every now and then, I'll follow a recipe for a baked good, like if I'm making like a cake or something. But...

BRIGER: Because those are pretty unforgiving aren't they?

TURSHEN: Yeah. But even if I'm making like a pie or something, I'm not following a recipe. Like, I've made pie crust enough to know the ratios. And once you make something a few times, you know, you get comfortable with it. And that's what I find so empowering about home cooking is you earn the set of skills that you can't lose, and then you can make all this stuff. And it's super cool.

BRIGER: The food website, Grub Street - there's this feature that's called Grub Street Diet. They ask someone to, like, keep a journal of their week and write it down what they ate or cooked during that time. And you did one - I think it was like last year - and I found this really fascinating. I mean, I understand that the article's supposed to show, you know, your relationship to food over the week.

So, of course, it's food centric, but the way you described your day-to-day activities - and food just seems so infused into your life and just the way you think about food, the way you prepare to shop or prepare to cook. It seemed deliberate and kind of mindful - it almost felt like a spiritual practice.

TURSHEN: That's such a nice thing to say. I think that's definitely accurate. It feels that way to me. It's - I'm always thinking about food. I'm always thinking about, you know - I'm one of those people who have breakfast - I'm planning dinner. Grace, my wife, is always getting annoyed at me because we're, you know, making sandwiches for lunch, and I'm always asking her, you know, what I should make up for the next meal. And she's like can't we just eat this one?


TURSHEN: So it's definitely - yeah, it occupies so much space in my, you know, my mental space, my emotional space, and I've worked really hard to make it all as much as I can like a really positive thing. If it's going to take up that much space, I want it to be mindful and positive. And, yeah, it definitely infuses kind of every decision I make.

You know, I am driving to the radio station today. The first thing I did was look up, you know, where I'm going to go grab something to eat afterwards, even though it's not a meal time, but if I'm going to go somewhere where I don't go all the time, I want to make sure I experience something good to eat.

BRIGER: Where are you going?

TURSHEN: Well, it seems like there's some good Vietnamese places around here. So I was going to ask someone up front what they think.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

TURSHEN: Yeah. I get - when I'm somewhere I don't know, I ask other people all the time.

BRIGER: You should always ask. Julia Turshen, thanks so much for coming in.

TURSHEN: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Julia Turshen spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Her new cookbook is called "Small Victories." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR.


KATHRYN HAHN: (As Chris) Dear Dick, this is about obsession.

GROSS: My guest will be Jill Soloway, the creator of the Amazon series "Transparent" and the new Amazon series "I Love Dick" about a feminist filmmaker attracted to a macho artist named Dick. We'll talk about the new series and about gender and identity and why Soloway now considers herself non-binary. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.