by Maria Reidelbach
Maybe our grannies knew how to cook without depending on recipes, but it’s been a long time since most Americans have had those kinds of kitchen skills. I was lucky that my mother was great in the kitchen—she learned country cooking on the Appalachian farm where she grew up, honing her skills in Europe, where our army family was stationed in the 1950s. Even though I loved her cooking, I was determined to be emancipated from a domestic future and avoided cooking anything but TV dinners.
On my own and in college, I resorted to cookbooks to put food on my table. Even in hippie sources like The Moosewood Cookbook, recipes were rather intimidatingly authoritative, with precise lists of ingredients and mysterious procedures and time frames. I followed them faithfully and seldom veered from their proscribed path, pleased to produce (mostly) edible meals. For many years, that’s all that I did. When an African friend taught me how to cook a few things without resorting to printed formulas, I was amazed and delighted. A small window had opened.
Still, it amazes me how long it has taken to shake off the dependence on specific instructions. I think it’s because we learn to cook from books, not from each other, and our own experiences.
This is changing though. Thanks to cable television and YouTube, we have an endless parade of cooking demonstrations to view, so we can watch skilled cooks at work. Cookbooks are changing, too. I love the new wave books that are more conversational in style, that explain the whys, and are based on simple master recipes that can be varied at will, allowing me to substitute whatever is seasonal or available in my cupboards and fridge.
One of the friendliest and tastiest new cookbooks I’ve seen is Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home-Cooking Triumphs, by Julia Turshen. A former private chef who now lives in the Hudson Valley, Turshen has coauthored many cookbooks, partnering with everyone from Mario Batali to Gwyneth Paltrow. This is her first solo effort and is focused on home cooking delicious and comforting meals for both body and soul. Within this attractive book, Turshen generously shares a lifetime of great tips, techniques, and combinations of “small victories” that make preparing food at home easier, more delicious, and more fun. I love her stove-side manner; I felt like I was right in the kitchen with her, learning at her elbow. The book is illustrated with beautiful photographs, styled with her own tableware, much of it obviously well-loved.
When I visited with Turshen in that very kitchen, the comfortable feeling was amplified—tall and curly-haired, she was relaxed, confident, and supremely knowledgeable. “Everyone is becoming increasingly conscious of how much we use and how much we throw away. It’s very empowering for a home cook to realize how much each and every ingredient offers—how to get a lot out of a little.” Turshen shares great ways to use the odd leftovers. For example, how the juice from pickles, preserved lemons, and kimchi can spice up many dressings and dishes, and stale bread or tortilla chips can make fantastic crunchy beds or embellishments to other yummy dishes. “I just love it when something not-so-great anymore turns into something even better,” she laughs.
Turshen also shares shortcuts that make so much sense. I love her “Deviled-ish Eggs,” made simply by smearing the cut sides of halved hard-boiled eggs with mayo and a shake of hot sauce—a fabulously quick snack or starter that eliminates having to tediously stuff the yolky filling back in the egg (and all over your knuckles, if you’re like me). Instead of bechamel or other cooked white sauces, she subs crème fraiche (made locally by Ronnybrook Farms). Rather than using a battery of stirring tools she extols the virtues of mixing many things literally by hand. There’s also great spin-offs for all the recipes, some of them variations and some transformative. A recipe for Bread, Sausage + Apple Hash includes variations for Easiest Bread Pudding and savory green Romesco Sauce.
Signed copies of Small Victories are available at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck and Fred in High Falls.
Kimchi Fried Rice with Scallion Salad from Julia Turshen’s Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home-Cooking Triumphs
4 scallions, roots and dark green tops trimmed off
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
16-oz jar of cabbage kimchi, including juice
3 tbsp canola or vegetable oil, plus more if needed
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 cups day-old cooked brown or white rice
1 tbsp soy sauce, plus more if needed
To make the scallion salad: Cut the scallions thinly on the diagonal or into small matchsticks. The best way to do this is to cut each scallion into three even pieces and then cut each piece in half lengthwise. Put each piece flat-side down on your cutting board and cut into thin strips. Put the scallions, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, and sesame seeds in a medium bowl and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and set aside.
To make the fried rice: Put a sieve or colander over a bowl and drain the kimchi. Reserve the juice. Finely chop the kimchi and set it aside.
In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add the onion and garlic, sprinkle with a large pinch of salt. Cook, stirring now and then, until the onion just begins to turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to high, add the chopped kimchi, and cook, stirring now and then, until the edges of the kimchi start to ever so slightly crisp and stick to the pan, about 5 minutes. Crumble the rice into the skillet and stir thoroughly to combine. Add the reserved kimchi juice and cook, stirring, until the rice is warmed and red through and through from the kimchi juice, about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, drizzle soy sauce, taste for seasoning. Add more salt and/or soy sauce if needed. Transfer the fried rice to a serving bowl (or portion straight from the skillet) and top with the scallion salad. Serve immediately.
A big thank you to Sook Yeo, of Sook House restaurant in Ellenville, for the homegrown, homemade kimchi that she so generously shared with me.
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. Contact her at email@example.com.
Julia Turshen, author of Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home-Cooking Triumphs in her Hudson Valley kitchen. [credit—can run in fine type] Photograph by Gentl + Hyers (Chronicle Books, 2016).