The Great Success of Julia Turshen’s Small Victories

We chat with the former Brooklynite about her culinary roots, biggest influences (like Dawson’s Creek) and her latest book: Small Victories.

“Truly, if you can boil water, you can make just about anything,” Julia Turshen writes in the introduction of her new cookbook, Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home Cooking Triumphs out on September 6. An ode to relaxed, spontaneous cooking (because “stress makes food taste bad”), the new collection features over 400 recipes and creative spin-offs.

Among Small Victories’ greatest successes is its emphasis on bright flavors and down-to-earth, totally unpretentious ingredients. Dishes like “Turkey + Ricotta Meatballs” and “Julia’s Caesar” are transformed with simple tricks like using ricotta instead of breadcrumbs and egg in meatballs or substituting mayonnaise for raw eggs in salad dressing.

A New York native, Turshen is best known for co-authoring books like Spain…A Culinary Road Trip with Mario Batali, Buvette with Jody Williams, Hot Bread Kitchen with Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez, It’s All Good with Gwyneth Paltrow, and The Kimchi Chronicles with Marja Vongerichten.

Turshen was first inspired to create Small Victories when she and her wife were living in Greenpoint. Though they moved upstate in 2014, the book is peppered with charming anecdotes about life in the Big Apple and references to her favorite gems in the city including Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint and Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side. We had a chance to chat with Turshen about her latest venture, culinary roots and biggest influences (like Dawson’s Creek). 

Edible Brooklyn: You wrote much of Small Victories while living in Greenpoint. What part did Brooklyn play in the creation and development of your book?
Julia Turshen: The book was born in Brooklyn! My day-to-day life in Greenpoint was very influential when I was laying out the groundwork for Small Victories. Two aspects in particular were my small kitchen (with no dishwasher and very little counter space) and access to great ingredients through the Greenpoint farmers market and all the great Polish butchers, Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co. (which Grace and I lived above), Brooklyn Kitchen and more. These two things meant that I could work on recipes that prized simplicity but didn’t compromise on flavor.

EB: You’ve been cooking since you were a kid. In the book, you even mention starting your first business, Julia Turshen Cooking, at the age of thirteen. How did your interest in cooking become a passion? How has your approach to food evolved over time?
JT: It’s always been my passion, it has never been a casual interest.  My mom and I were actually talking about this recently and recalling some of my favorite things to do when I was little including, but not limited to, creating elaborate fruit salads for “photo shoots” with my Polaroid camera and writing checks for my parents to “pay” after I made them a meal (ha!). I would say my approach to food has progressively gotten simpler and, I hope, very approachable. My goal with cooking has evolved from trying to impress people to just trying to making them feel comfortable and taken care of. My goal as an author is to give people all the tools they need to do this for themselves and their loved ones.

EB: Which Brooklyn (or New York City)-bred restaurants, chefs or businesses have influenced you the most?
JT: My friends Elise Kornack and Anna Hieronimus who run Take Root inspire me so much because they’re totally fearless in doing things their own way. Same thing with my friend Jody Williams (I got to write Buvette with her which remains a career highlight for me). If I am not cooking, Jody’s food is what I always want to be eating. I am also so inspired by Rebecca Charles from Pearl Oyster Bar because not only is her restaurant perfect, she has remained so consistent and steady over the years, which I so admire.  

EB: You’ve worked as a food journalist, private chef and television producer. How did your different roles and experiences in the culinary world prepare you to write your own cookbook?
JT: This is going to sound so silly, but I remember when I was much younger and I was watching Dawson’s Creek and the protagonist got advice about film school and why it was better not to go and just live a big, full life so that he had experiences to draw on to make films. I don’t remember much about the show, but that idea has always stuck with me. I’ve loved wearing a lot of hats in the food world because it’s given me so many varied adventures that have inspired how I cook, see the world and write about it all.  

EB: In Small Victories, you mention your many familial ties to Brooklyn. How has cooking helped you get in touch with your roots?
JT: My maternal grandparents, who I sadly never got to meet, ran a bread bakery in Brooklyn (across the street from Di Fara’s!) called Ratchick’s (my mother’s maiden name). Cooking, and more specifically baking, gives me a way to access stories about my family and also a way to feel tangibly connected. Food gives me a focused lens on life and it’s a great way to ask a bunch of questions that reveal amazing details. Instead of asking my mom or aunt what their parents were like, I ask about what they cooked, what they baked, how they all ate together, what their customers were like, and more. Their answers have given me a rich picture of my family’s history, which is something I deeply cherish.

EB: You lived in the city for much of your life and are familiar with the challenges of cooking in tiny studios with minimal ventilation. What’s the perfect Small Victories meal to make in a New York City-sized kitchen?
JT: For breakfast, I would say the “Green Eggs With (or Without) Ham or the Avocado + Kimchi Toast,” both of which require little effort and very few dishes. For lunch or dinner (and for the same reasons), the “Parmesan Soup with Tiny Pasta + Peas” with Julia’s Caesar on the side.  

EB: If you were to spend a day in Brooklyn for the sole purpose of eating and grocery shopping, where would you go?
JT: I would spend the day with Jennie, who babysat me for my entire childhood and who I am still very close with, shopping in and around where she lives (the Flatbush/Ditmas/Kensington area) for Caribbean ingredients so we could cook a big meal together with dishes from St. Vincent, where she is from. We would stop for lunch to fortify us for a long afternoon of cooking somewhere, maybe Fisherman’s Cove for curried goat, or maybe we’d drive over to Bed-Stuy to get roti from Ali’s Trinidad Roti.

EB: What’s your favorite recipe from Small Victories?
JT: I refuse to answer this! That’s impossible! But I must say, I would happily eat the “Chilaquiles with Roasted Tomato Salsa” for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day…

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Christine Huang

Christine Huang is a freelance writer covering food, lifestyle and culture. Her work has also appeared in Honest Cooking, Eco Cult, Illumine Magazine and more.