Down the Aisle:Julia Turshen

Author of Small Victories Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

When Julia invited me up to her neighborhood in High Falls NY, I was eager to get out of the city to soak up some fall scenery. As I found myself nearing her local go-to, the High Falls Food Co-Op, I instantly fell in love with what most city dwellers would longingly relate to as the quaint main street of a small town Upstate. Amidst the quintessential pumpkins, hand-painted signs, and friendly employees, I was able to sit down and talk with Julia about her process in writing my new favorite cookbook, Small Victories. Each turn of the page is like stumbling upon another elusive and hard-earned kitchen secret, shared with enough personal humor and practical knowledge that I can’t decide if I want to just keep reading or rush to the kitchen to test out each and every one of her discoveries.

J:  On my way here, I realized that this is one of the few times I don’t actually have to do a ton of grocery shopping!  We eat every meal at home, so we are usually here a few times a week, but Grace (Julia’s partner) and I are both leaving for book tours next week, so I don’t want to overdo it and buy things we won’t use.

How unique that you are both out promoting your books at the same time!  What types of food are you usually stocking up on, and what does a normal trip to the co-op look like for you both?

J:  We love coming here because it’s so close by, and I love how small it is. When I’m in a big place it’s easy for me to get overwhelmed. The produce here is so awesome- it’s what we are usually buying.  Just last January, Grace was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which changed a lot of how we eat.  Now I am always buying produce, chicken, and other good proteins here.

Do you come here just once or multiple times each week?

J:  I do multiple trips because my workload is always fluctuating.  I am always testing my recipes at home, and it kind of depends on what I have on the docket.  It’s too much for me to think about buying a ton of stuff at once.  Also, I really like grocery shopping!  I would say I’m here 2-3 times a week.  We always are getting cherry tomatoes-we eat a lot of those; and avocados, depending on how ripe they are when I’m at the market; and bananas.  I always pick up fresh salad greens too.

Now that it’s Fall- what ingredients do you get excited for, and what are the first Fall items that end up in your basket?

J:  I love squash- especially delicata squash, since the skin is so thin so you don’t have to peel it. I mean, I cook every day, and am a very avid home cook; but I’m also a little bit lazy (laughing).  It’s just nice when you don’t have to peel the squash you know?  Last night I was testing this recipe for a braised chicken with kimchi in it, and I figured I could just use the leftover chicken by shredding it and using it for lettuce wraps for dinner tonight.

So you put the kimchi over the chicken?

J:  I basically brown the chicken and put a jar of kimchi mixed in with it, and let it cook in the kimchi- super simple.

That sounds really good- and the kimchi does all the flavor work for you.

J:  Exactly.

So what are you usually doing with the squash that you buy?

J:  I like to roast it.  Sometimes I’ll toast some nuts, or I’ll make parsley and garlic mixture to put on top, just something to give it a little umpf.  Sometimes I’ll make a soup- even though Grace isn’t a huge soup eater.  Another dish I like to make is a turkey chili with squash in it.  I like to make things that will yield more than one meal, but I also don’t like to eat the same thing often, so what I’ll do is just freeze the leftovers and have it later on in the week or later that month.

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“Sometimes I feel like we are in the middle of nowhere, but then we have this, and this place always blows my mind.”

 

Should I grab you a basket?

J: (laughing) Yeah, I come in here saying I don’t need to buy anything and now I’m like, “Oh yeah I guess I can use that.”  That’s something that changed when we left the city and moved up here.  When we lived in Greenpoint, we would eat a lot of take-out, but that’s not really an option anymore; and with Grace’s diagnosis, eating at home became an even bigger and more important part of our lives.  Being up here really helps us with that because there are so many easy and accessible ways for us to get whole foods into our house each day.

What made that change happen- leaving New York City to move up to the Catskills region?

J:  We wanted to buy something and we couldn’t afford it in the city.  In December will be 2 years of owning the house up here, although it took us a few months to be up here full time because we had to do a little bit of work on it.  The original plan wasn’t to live up here full time because well… I have always lived in New York City.  But then I would spend some time up here and I realized I was just so much happier here.  Grace was always ready… I just needed a minute.

So this section of the co-op is why I really love coming here.  The bulk spices and teas are so amazing.  You can take as much or as little as you want, and for someone who is always testing new recipes, it’s such an incredible option to have.  Sometimes I feel like we are in the middle of nowhere, but then we have this, and this place always blows my mind.

Do you prefer shopping at a small co-op like this to places you used to shop at in the city?

J:  I feel like up here everything is more fairly priced, even if this place is where we spend a lot of our money; but then again I don’t mind spending my money at a place like this because the quality is so good. I feel like with places in the city, a lot of the prices are just so high to keep up with the high overhead they have.

Do you and Grace have any rituals around food that you share?

J: Our friends Jeff and Larry, who we became very close with once we moved up here, do a weekly Shabbat dinner.  I grew up in a very secular Jewish family, and I always liked the idea of doing Shabbat dinner, even though we don’t really do it at home.  

Because Grace and I work from home, we can stop and eat our meals together.  There are so many instances where we have so much going on, and we will just want to zone out in front of the TV- which I know isn’t great.  Any time where we get to just sit with each other, especially during the summer when we try to eat outside a lot.  It’s a really good reminder that we are really lucky to live up here- the fact that in the middle of the day we can sit at our table outside and have lunch together.

 

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“I find that, just like sitting down and eating a meal together outside- a long walk can be a perfect reset button.”

 

What do you do to find inspiration for recipes or to get you in the mind frame to be creative?

J:  I find that, just like sitting down and eating a meal together outside- a long walk can be a perfect reset button.  We have two dogs, and we walk them a lot.  I wouldn’t say it’s where I come up with recipes, but it’s a place where I can clear my head.  It allows for the new ideas to come in.

For recipes, I get a lot of inspiration from what other people are doing, whether that is in restaurants or just what friends are making, and I’ll often try to make the simplest version of it. Or I’ll just break down the meal and make a recipe out of- say- the dressing, especially if it is unique or can be used in other dishes.

Were you working on Small Victories while you lived in Brooklyn?

J: I started working on it while we still lived in Brooklyn, but finished it up here. I don’t feel that moving up here changed much in terms of the voice or specific recipes.

I definitely have loved to cook my entire life, and I love working on cookbooks.  I have developed and tested so many recipes in tiny NYC apartment kitchens, and now we moved up here and I have my first big kitchen!  I loved working on Small Victories here because I had the space to do it.  I feel like I have fallen in love with the house all over again because I have the means and the space to do all of the cooking I have wanted to do.  The other great thing about moving here before the book was finished was that we were able to do all of the photography here.  My dream was for the book to feel like it was from my home to yours, or my kitchen to your kitchen, so it really ended up being exactly that, and very personal.

Since you have worked on so many cookbooks for others, can you talk about some of the challenges in putting out your first personal piece??

J:  I have had a few, for sure. I had this idea a while ago…and it is something I plan to revisit again…but it was an idea for a children’s book.  It was food oriented, but not directly related to what I do now. I really believed in the story and felt very sure about it.  I ended up writing a book proposal for it, and had a friend who is an illustrator work on it as well.  I wrote the book- and shopped it around, and no one picked it up, and it got rejected from all of the places I went.  In my mind I thought it was this sure thing.  It resonated with me and I felt like it was going to be a good thing, but it wasn’t clicking and it just didn’t end up working out.

I remember thinking, “Huh this wasn’t the plan!” (laughing).  In hindsight, I just don’t think it was the right time for that, and it doesn’t mean it can’t happen at some other point. I still have the proposal, and maybe the longer I get to sit with it the more I can refine the idea for it.

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“…it’s not quite there yet… but it’s ALMOST there, and it’s almost a victory.  I think the next round of it will be a keeper.”

 

Sometimes when people have an idea and set out to make it real, the act of just doing it, whether it ends up flopping or succeeded, can be a success in itself- putting yourself and your efforts out there.

J:  I also so feel like if I have an idea for something, as a cook and writer, I need to get it out. Even if it doesn’t happen, I need to find some way to express it so I can make room for more things to make their way into my mind.  It’s kind of like how we were talking about the walks.  If I hold onto it and don’t get it out on paper, it ends up taking up the space that new ideas could occupy.

What was your last small victory, either in or out of the kitchen?

J:  I would say my last victory was out of the kitchen. I just got back from a 10 day book tour and I’m not usually an early riser, but because I was on the west coast, I managed to stay on east coast time and I got up early and did some form of exercise each day.  I couldn’t believe I did that!  It was really nice to have a moment that I dedicated to myself and body since so much of the tour was a bit frantic.  It set a tone for me each day that ended up being really great. So to me that was my victory out of the kitchen.

In the kitchen I had a victory that revolves a bit around this recipe that is in the Small Victories cookbook called “Happy Wife Cake”.  It was a chocolate cake that Grace loved before she was diagnosed but can’t have any more. I have been working on a version that she can eat, and it’s not quite there yet… but it’s ALMOST there, and it’s almost a victory.  I think the next round of it will be a keeper.

 

 

Take-aways:

  1. Small VictoriesJulia's Recent Bookhttp://www.chroniclebooks.com/titles/small-victories.html
  2. High Falls Food Co-Ophttp://www.highfallsfoodcoop.com/