“If you know how to grill a hamburger, you know how to grill anything.”
There are few up-sides to insomnia. If you’ve experienced it, you’ll know. It’s the absolute pits. So I’m not making light here, I promise …
… but one tiny positive of sleepless nights for me – as someone who thinks about food and cooking & even cooking utensils all day long – is what I call “Middle of the Night Twitter”.
In the world of “Middle of the Night Twitter” I get to pick up lots of cooking things from other parts of the world I’d normally miss. Especially in those hours when the Food Network inexplicably goes off air in the UK and I’m sat there in the dark with the dog, who is probably thinking: “For God’s sake, go back to bed”. In these twilight Twitter hours, I particularly turn to America, where there’s always really exciting cookbook stuff going on.
And so one early morning a while ago I read a great interview by Christine Huang with Julia Turshen in Edible Brooklyn. I just loved the whole thing – the tone of the intro, the snap interview, and above all, the detail & the movie about Turshen’s upcoming book, Small Victories. When someone says, “Truly, if you can boil water, you can make just about anything” – I’m pretty much a fan straight away. The whole feature was a great advert for the book: I wanted to read it immediately. So here we are.
The appeal to me of the interview/movie/emotional space thing around Small Victories was the way I just identified with the heartbeat of it all, the easy philosophy. It’s a way of thinking that reminds me of my aunt. One blue day, she made me these beautiful scones in her old Rayburn, pinny covered in flour, ingredients everywhere, but no measuring, no weighing – just an instinct that comes from making them for years & a way of knowing her old stove the way a guitar player knows their old Martin HD28.
What am I going on about?
I think what I’m saying is that in Julia Turshen I just had a sense of someone who has a freedom like that, a simplicity. Unapologetic about being a home cook, as Nigella says in her Summer podcasts. Just making food to eat, as Nigel Slater might say. I adore cooks like this, cooks who write like this. Most days, nearly every day, I just want to cook & share simple, flavourful food that has the vibe of those eyes-closed magic scones my Aunt made me all those years ago – and writers like these seem to come from the same place.
It was a delight to discover that this sort of food is on every page of Small Victories.
Small Victories is a wonderful book. The title comes from the idea of scoring little bonuses as you cook, like finding an accidental flavour, or a new one-pot gem, a different way of doing something. I’ve been cooking from it for a month now, and I love it.
The last book I’ve worked from extensively is always in my mind as I start on a new one, and it was the same here. Oliver Rowe’s Food for All Seasons is a masterpiece, and I have to say I found a kinship between these two books – a strong connection in the sense that both books feel like a work of great determination, a great drive to get everything down, to say as much as possible. Some cookbooks, frankly, feel a bit phoned-in – not so Rowe or Turshen. The passion crackles from their pages. If books like these were phoned-in, the bill would be astronomical. “All the lessons I’ve learned throughout a lifetime of loving to cook I’ve put into this book,” says Turshen, and it shows.
I got started with the Turkey + Ricotta meatballs. I love meatballs of all nationalities and political views, so I tend to zoom in on them in any book. I also chose this recipe first because Turshen says they were the first thing she ever cooked for her wife. I always try such dedication recipes first – Nigella often has them, John Whaite fell in love over one – because I assume something special & genuine about them, like a poem with a dedication. And that’s nearly always the case. These super-light mouth-watering meatballs in Small Victories are absolutely delicious – simple to make, and so fresh and herby. They reminded me instantly of Florence Knight’s superb polpettine in this way – just super-alive, sparky-tasty food.
In this same frame of mind I made her Dad’s Chicken + Leeks. Again, this is a simple recipe that ends up performing that trick of alchemy whereby the simplest and most straightforward ingredients and processes produce the deepest and most satisfying flavour you can imagine. I went with her Dad’s impulse, and put in a carrot as well, but next time I will try Turshen’s own preference – a haiku-simple pot of chicken, leek and sprinkled chives. The broth that emerges in this recipe is outstanding. “I could not love it more,” she says. It’s true. It’s great.
I also cooked the book’s cover star: Aunt Renee’s Chicken Soup. Aunt Renee – of the “fake Louis Vuitton bags” and hair salon in a Brooklyn basement – sounded like such a character and this recipe so amazing that her soup simply insisted to be made. When Renee died, Julia Turshen wrote a simple obituary in the New York Times: “I will take care of the soup.”
And take care of it she does, in the best possible way – by sharing. I got stuck into the stock, piling in the chicken and celery, the full head of garlic … The whole journey towards a distilled, golden batch of hot chicken loveliness takes perhaps four hours. The reserved chicken breast goes in towards the end, and the carrots and parsnips, and what you end up with is just glorious chicken soup. The kind of chicken soup that every now and again you’re just going to crave. I could go a bowl now, just thinking about it …
And I thought about Aunt Renee as I was making it – maybe that’s why my own Aunt is in my mind. I was thinking to myself: well, this soup has crossed the Atlantic now, made its way to Scotland, to the eastern edge at the North Sea. If you go in the water at the beach here & swim straight ahead, the next stop would be Denmark, or Sweden, if you go off course a bit. Maybe someone will read this blog over in Scandinavia and give the soup a go, I thought, and then we can all take care of it. From there to someplace else maybe – so Aunt Renee’s recipe would go around the world, turning up back in Brooklyn some Sunday morning early, bit hungover, lots of new fridge magnets …
I would be here for days if I described the rest of the dishes I’ve made, and the baking I’ve done from this book. I’ve made the marvelous sesame and poppy seed biscuits, the sour cream pancakes with the amazing gloupy-purple roasted blueberries and the fantastic Roasted Salmon with Maple + Soy. I was incredibly pleased with my – so I thought – completely delicious String Beans with Pork, Ginger + Red Chile and have made the Indecision Grilled Chicken three times since the book arrived. If all this seems a bit breathless, well, it is – it’s just enormous fun when you click with a cookbook like this. I stress a thing on this site about “enabling” books – friendly, approachable, personal cookbooks with simple recipes full of sharing & stuff to read – and this one is exactly that. And I haven’t even got to some of the other chapters yet. There’s a Whiskey + Maple Syrup Sour, I hope, waiting to be made.
I like the idea of the small victories, and really identify with it. I have found that in my own cooking, learning from cookbooks becomes pretty important in the end. For years you can get stuck in your ways, cooking the same things, making stuff the same old way. I was like that – almost to the point of going off cooking altogether. But the small victory is what keeps you going. A good cookbook will unselfishly share these – you’ll learn a new trick, or a new skill. Or a new way of thinking. To paraphrase Stephen King, you can’t cook with the door closed all the time. I love this small victory, for example, from Turshen’s Peach + Bourbon Milkshakes: “Failure is sometimes just an invitation for a new name…”
There’s another bit of a kinship with Oliver Rowe in the Spin Offs sections – where Turshen gives us adaptations to the core recipes, different things to try. This was very like Food For All Seasons, where Rowe piles on idea after idea with a kind of glee. A good example is the full tray of variants on the already gorgeous, super-deep crumbly Feel-Better-Soon Cookies. There are also all sorts of different Guide Sections in Small Victories, and they’re superb. I really like learning about a writer’s kitchen equipment, I like getting tips and suggestions on oil and tomatoes. I like all this stuff and sometimes wish more cookbooks would say, “Hey, and here’s my kitchen, and this is my grandmother’s spatula …”
And Small Victories is introduced by Ina Garten. INA GARTEN! Ina is a bit of a legend in the North Sea Scullery, and if I end up being up all night with the aforementioned insomnia, she usually comes on Food Network first thing with Anna Olsen – and then I know it’s time to get ready for work. I basically love Ina Garten, so how about that for the ultimate small victory – you write a cookbook and then the Barefoot Contessa writes your Foreword?!
Anyhow, I recommend this brilliant book, I love this brilliant book and if you’re a cook like me, with your head in the clouds and flour everywhere – confidence rising and falling like the tide – it’ll be a huge victory not a small one to own it.