Four Years Later, Julia Turshen Is Still Finding Small Victories in Her Kitchen

updated Jun 17, 2020
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Julia Turshen Small Victories
Credit: Neal Santos; Joe Lingeman

Back in the beginning of May when I was thinking about what cookbook I wanted to feature in June for Kitchn’s Cookbook Club, I thought about the current state of the world. The news was still dominated by the pandemic, and things felt more uncertain than ever. I wanted to cook things that made me happy — which is why I immediately thought of Julia Turshen’s Small Victories. Even though it came out just four years ago in 2016, it already reads like a classic. Each recipe feels like I’m unlocking some sort of cooking secret. And although the cookbook does have a beginner’s bent to it, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

Now it’s June, and the world feels even more tumultuous than before (for better and for worse), and Small Victories remains the comfort I’m craving.

Since publishing her first solo cookbook, Julia has been busy. She wrote two more cookbooks (with another one that she co-authored coming out this fall). She started Equity at the Table, a database for food professionals that features women and non-binary people, with a focus on people of color and the LGBTQ community. Oh, and she also has a podcast, Keep Calm and Cook On (it’s amazing).

I caught up with Julia to talk about the recipes she still makes from Small Victories, and what she plans on cooking when she can have lots of friends over for dinner again.

First, I have to ask: How are you doing?
That’s a complicated question these days, isn’t it? I am running on a mix of rage and gratitude. Physically, I am safe and healthy at home my with wife and dogs with easy access to fresh air [in upstate New York] and we have a pretty great community here. I’m very thankful for that.

I’m so glad to hear you’re safe and healthy. Let’s talk about Small Victories. For those of our readers who might not be as familiar with the cookbook, can you explain the “small victory” concept?
To me, a small victory is like a tip or a technique that you learn while making something that allows you to then make so many other things. I think it really worked as an organizing and teaching principle for the book, but it’s also very much — and this is cheesy — how I just look at life. I think we have to celebrate the small victories and celebrate these small moments, but also help to connect these victories with lots of other moments. I think that’s always true, but I think right now that feels especially true.

Yes! That’s part of the reason I wanted to feature Small Victories this month. Some of our readers have expressed feeling burned out in the kitchen, but in same breath they mention all the things they’re proud of cooking.
Right now more than ever, there is so much that feels out of our control. I think control is not something we can ever have, even if (as a fellow perfectionist) we try really hard. I think it’s why I’ve always loved cooking so much. I feel a sense of control [in my kitchen] and I feel a sense of safety. I feel a sense of satisfaction in getting to make something.

The pride that comes with that and the comfort to share that is really powerful. That’s been a thread throughout my whole life. I’ve cooked forever, since I was really, really little. I’ve also been anxious since before I was born. Cooking is such a grounding thing to do and it makes me feel just a lot better in general, but especially now.

Can you tell me any of the small victories you’ve had in the past month or two?
For the first time in my life I have started making yogurt. I feel pretty secure about my cooking abilities, but the first time I made [yogurt], I was like, “Oh my God, I made yogurt!” I felt so proud. I realized how simple it is. That made me think: Are there other things that have seemed intimidating to me that are actually simple? I felt like it unlocked a lot.

[To make yogurt] you have to mix in a couple of tablespoons of yogurt you already have. It’s like having sourdough to make a new loaf of bread. I think there is a small victory in those types of [recipes] where you’re using a little bit of the last thing to make the new thing. I love that kind of cooking. It was what really inspired me to do my other book Now & Again.

I love when one dish leads into another. It speaks to so much of what I and so many people love about cooking — it connects you to everyone who came before you, which is really cool.

How has your cooking changed in the last couple of months just generally besides making yogurt?
I think the thing that’s changed is how we shop for and gather ingredients for our meals. I used to shop for things like one or two meals at a time. I love grocery shopping and being in a grocery store and watching what other people are buying and all that. That’s not happening right now. I think getting groceries and ingredients is a huge part of cooking.

That makes sense. Are there any ingredients you’re currently using on repeat right now?
I feel like Grace (my wife) and I are going through so much cheese. I just want melted cheese on everything. To me it’s like, oh my God, that’s the ultimate comfort food. I think everything feels really scary right now, so I’m like, I’m going to melt cheese on this because that’s going to make me feel better for at least five minutes and that feels like a small victory.

Credit: Gentl & Hyers
Julia Turshen’s Turkey Ricotta Meatballs

You haven’t worked on Small Victories for some time now. What are the recipes you’re still making from it? Anything surprising?
I make the turkey ricotta meatballs all the time. They really are such a part of our regular rotation and it fills me with an immense amount of joy. What else? I make the Happy Wife Cake every so often. I also make the Caesar salad dressing all the time. I make different versions of the carrot and avocado salad. I make a lot of the stuff.

Speaking of these meatballs, I’ve always wanted to know: Why turkey? Is there something extra special about turkey that I just don’t know about?
I wish I had a big answer to give you. Grace doesn’t really eat that much red meat, so that was why. Ground turkey gets a bad rap, but it’s something we consume a lot of. It works well in the meatballs because ground turkey can be dry, so the ricotta helps.

That makes sense! For beginner cooks picking up Small Victories for the first time, are there any specific techniques or recipes that you think are especially helpful? What would you direct them to first?
I would say to start with whatever you most enjoy eating. Food is super personal. All the recipes are really simple. I would say, to give you a little bit more of a concrete answer, I think if you’re new to baking, I think the cobbler in the book is crazy easy and it’s so delicious. You don’t have to worry about any of the things that people usually worry about with baking. You’re basically mixing almost like a pancake batter and throwing it over some fruit — you really can’t mess it up.

If you’re interested in cooking, start with a salad dressing — like the Caesar salad dressing. I think for a lot of people, this sometimes seem a little bit more intimidating than it actually is.

Credit: Gentl & Hyers
Julia Turshen’s Berry and Buttermilk Cobbler

You and Hawa Hassan have a new cookbook coming out this fall, In Bibi’s Kitchen. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
It’s recipes and interviews with grandmothers from the eight African countries that touch the Indian Ocean, and these women are just awesome. It’s a book for home cooks from other home cooks. All the women in the book are women who cook for their families, and who have taught their kids and grandkids how to cook. I think it’s a great reminder that all around the world, there are many people — especially women — who are cooking really simple, but very, very wonderful and delicious food to sustain their families. I’m excited for people to get to meet them.

I’m really excited about it! Last question: What’s the first thing you’re going to make when you can have a bunch of friends over again?
I think that I would want to make a big Korean clambake from Small Victories. It’s a really fun recipe and one I don’t make as much as I’d like to. It’s such a communal eating experience, which is definitely not something we’re doing right now. I think when it’s really safe to have a bunch of people over together and to not have any fear around sharing food in that kind of way, that would be a really fun thing to do.

Thank you so much for sharing, Julia! Buy Small Victories here (or at your local independent bookstore!), and be sure to follow Julia on Instagram and Twitter.

Julia Turshen’s Small Victories is Kitchn’s June pick for our Cookbook Club. See how you can participate here.