Learning to cook or being a good cook is not about knowing everything. It’s about building on the skills and knowledge you do have and finding ways to use them with new ingredients. Those are what Julia Turshen calls small victories and she shares many in her latest cookbook, Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home Cooking Triumphs.
On Christmas morning, we all come down the stairs in our pajamas. Coffee is essential, then breakfast. It doesn’t have to be fancy but the rule, back from my own childhood, is breakfast before presents. One rule we have changed is that the eldest child is the only one to hand out the gifts from under the tree. Both of my daughters share that fun responsibility. Not that they are children any more.
We open our packages one at a time, so that everyone has a chance to admire each gift. Then the next one is handed out. But I must confess that when I unwrapped Small Victories, I couldn’t immediately set it aside. That comforting soup on the cover was too inviting. I sneaked a peek at the table of contents, beautifully arranged over five pages.
As our Christmas morning does, Small Victories starts with Breakfast. The other chapters are Soups + Salads; Vegetables; Grains, Beans + Pasta; Meat + Poultry; Shellfish + Fish; and finally, Desserts. The rest of Christmas Day was a blur of food and drink and laughter, as we prepared then enjoyed our dinner. But as soon as I had a chance, I found a little pack of sticky notes that I keep for just such an occasion and I sat and read Small Victories from cover to cover, marking each recipe I wanted to try first.
As you can see from the photos above and at the bottom of this post, I used up a lot of sticky tabs. First up was Dad’s Chicken + Leeks, the recipe I’m sharing here today. This is perfect comfort food in one pot and I will be making it or one of its “spin offs” again. (Those are included in the notes of the recipe.) I’ve also made the very refreshing and beautiful Sliced Citrus with Pomegranate + Pistachios.
Other bookmarked recipes included String Beans with Pork, Ginger + Chile, Crispy Hominy + Cheddar Fritters, Grace’s Sweet Potatoes, Jennie’s Chicken Pelau, Crispy Fish with Bacon + Chives, and any one of Julia’s Seven Easy-but-Memorable Desserts.
Julia Turshen is the author or co-author of seven cookbooks, working with the likes of Mario Batali, Gwyneth Paltrow and Dana Cowin. She has been cooking since she was three years old, opening her first catering business when she was only 13. Along the way, she has worked as a private chef and caterer. She teaches both cooking and writing classes. Small Victories is her personal collection of recipes and advice to “demonstrate that cooking doesn’t have to be complicated to be satisfying, or over-the-top to be impressive.”
According to the author, the only way to become a cook is to cook, and the road to becoming a good cook is paved not only with repetition but also with the intuition you gain along the way. Like Julia, we should celebrate each step, each small victory, whether it’s learning how to cook an unfamiliar ingredient or mastering a new skill. Once you know the basics, they can be applied to everything you’d like to cook.
Every recipe shares a small victory, some skill or method or tip that can be used in other dishes, along with three or four “spin-offs” or twists on that recipe. This has encouraged me to look at my other cookbooks in a different way.
Now when I read a recipe, I think, what would Julia Turshen do? And that change of mindset is worth the price of this book; for any cook really, but especially for ones who nervously follow a recipe, sure that it must be done This One Way, because the author says so. No, it doesn’t, and it just might be more delicious when you make it yours. And you have Julia’s permission to try.
- One 3 ½-lb [1.6-kg] chicken, cut into 10 pieces (2 wings, 2 legs, 2 thighs, and 2 breasts cut in half across the bone), backbone discarded (or saved for another use, like stock), at room temperature, patted dry with paper towels
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 large leeks, root ends and dark green tops trimmed off and discarded (or reserved for another use, like stock)
- 1 ½ cups [360 ml] chicken stock
- A small handful of finely chopped fresh chives
- Season the chicken pieces generously on both sides with salt and pepper. In a large heavy pot over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil. Add the chicken, skin-side down, in batches as necessary so that the pieces don’t crowd the pot, and cook, without moving the chicken, until it is well browned on the bottom, about 8 minutes. Once the chicken is nicely browned and you are able to move it without any resistance (the gorgeous brown crust will release the chicken from the cooking surface), turn it over and cook until it’s browned on the second side, another 8 minutes. Be patient, and don’t push and poke the pieces too much (I find it’s good to clean the leeks, make a phone call, or do something similarly distracting while browning the chicken . . . my dad always plays Solitaire!). Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside. Don’t wash the pot.
- Meanwhile, cut each leek in half lengthwise and then across into 1-in- [2.5-cm-] thick semicircles. Put the leeks into a large bowl full of cold water and swish them around so that any dirt that’s clinging to them (as it tends to) sinks to the bottom. Gently scoop the leeks up and out of the water and let them drain in a colander. Do NOT just pour the leeks and their soaking water into the colander, or you will just end up pouring all the dirt back over them.
- Put the leeks and chicken stock into the reserved pot and bring to a boil over high heat. While it’s coming to a boil, scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits from the surface; flavor! Once the stock has come to a boil, turn the heat to medium-low so that it rolls along at a gentle simmer. Return the chicken to the pot, along with any juice that has accumulated on the plate. Cover the pot with a lid that’s ever so slightly ajar and cook, uncovering the pot once or twice to give the whole thing a stir, until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes.
- Season the broth to taste with salt and pepper and serve the chicken sprinkled with the chives. I like to serve this straight from the pot. This is also very good gently reheated the next day, and it freezes nicely.
FOR A SPANISH VARIATION, season the chicken not only with salt and pepper but also with a bit of hot pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika). Substitute a jar of rinsed and drained Piquillo peppers for the leeks and add a few minced garlic cloves and a handful of small Spanish olives (either pitted or give your friends a warning before eating).
FOR A HEARTY AND HEALTHFUL ONE-POT MEAL, substitute a bunch of chopped dark leafy greens for the leeks and add two diced sweet potatoes or a peeled and diced butternut squash.
FOR SLIGHTLY VIETNAMESE BRAISED CHICKEN, leave out the leeks and add a packed ¼ cup [55 g] dark brown sugar, ¼ cup [60 ml] soy sauce, 1 Tbsp fish sauce, and two minced garlic cloves along with the chicken stock. Once the chicken is cooked through, stir in a head of chopped napa cabbage and let it wilt. Serve over rice.
© 2016 Julia Turshen. Used by permission - Chronicle Books
Editor’s note: This recipe is printed courtesy of the publisher. The author of this review received a copy of the cookbook, Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home Cooking Triumphs as a Christmas present. No compensation was received from the publisher. Links to the cookbook are affiliate links.
Many thanks to the publisher Chronicles Books who is sponsoring one copy of this wonderful cookbook for a giveaway, open to US residents only. Please check out the book on Amazon and leave a comment on the post – What recipe from Small Victories would you try first? – to enter. The rafflecopter has several options for earning more chances to win! The more you do, the better your chances. No purchase necessary. The winner will be notified by email. If the winner does not respond in 48 hours, an alternate winner will be selected.
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