Though my mother is 100% Italian and an excellent cook, we did not have that kind of kitchen relationship that you read about in cookbooks with the word “nonna” in the title. She was too busy going to law school at night — and then, later, racking up the billable hours — to stand at the stovetop and tell me how much garlic went into her marinara. And, to be honest, I was way too busy scrapping my way through a student-athlete’s schedule to ask any questions about the marinara or anything else. All we both really cared about was that there was a meal on the table at the end of our day. And there always was.
This is probably how I got to be 22 years old before I had the lightbulb moment that the pickles I’d eat straight from the Vlasic jar were actually cucumbers that had been steeped in pickling juices. And how around the same time, my aunt asked me to whisk the heavy cream for dessert, and I put it together that Whipped Cream was actually…cream that had been whipped, as opposed to something that was sprayed from a bottle. (With glee, always, but still.) It’s probably why the first time I attempted my mom’s marinara, I grabbed the jar of McCormick garlic powder instead of a fresh clove.
But here’s the thing. On that fateful day – and forgive me for repeating this story, DALS book readers — my mom took the powder and handed me the garlic bulb in its place. It started everything… and it’s what Julia Turshen, the author of a book you’ll be hearing a lot about, might call a “small victory.”
Turshen, a food writer and onetime private chef, who has co-authored some of your favorite cookbooks (by Dana Cowin, Jody Williams, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mario Batali to name a few), has finally weighed in with her own collection of recipes, called, not surprisingly Small Victories. Each recipe includes a lesson you can translate to another technique, or a shortcut, or a forehead-slapping moment which, like all the best advice, seems so obvious once it’s in front of you, that it’s brilliant. (In her merguez recipe, for instance, she writes “Sausage is just highly spiced meat.” Um, yeah it is! Why wouldn’t I make my own lamb sausage??) In other words, taken together, Turshen’s advice has the overall effect of opening up culinary paths you never thought to trod, and if you take each victory and build on it, you’ll be cranking out some pretty amazing meals. That’s the other thing — her recipes are that masterful blend of simple and sophisticated. Think Corn and Potato Chowder (small victory: snap ears in half to make kernel cutting easier); Zucchini Fritters (small victory: make them small and thin, so by the time they are crispy on the outside, they’re cooked through on the inside); Turkey and Ricotta Meatballs (small victory: ricotta makes them light and tender).
Oh, and then there’s her Caesar. You’ve probably made Caesar Salad before. You might even be eating a sorta sad one at your desk right now while reading this post. It’s in your repertoire already, so what do you need another recipe for, right?
We are officially addicted in my house. Her Caesar dressing recipe calls for mayonnaise instead of the customary raw egg — psychologically much easier for most of us to tackle — and ever since I got a copy of the book, there has been a jar of it in my refrigerator. With fresh romaine and sweet cherry tomatoes, the salad is heaven. My 12-year-old loves it so much that when she called home from a mini sleepaway camp last week, the first thing she reported was that “the Caesar was not the same.”
Julia was nice enough to share the recipe with us below, and for those of you who are already dreading the what’s-for-dinner angst that comes with back-to-school chaos, I thought I’d suggest a good meal to have in your back pocket: Julia’s Caesar Salad with a store-bought Rotisserie Chicken. Yes, store-bought. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If dinner includes a homemade dressing, it doesn’t matter what else on the plate. How’s that for a small victory?
From Small Victories
These are Julia’s words:
When I used to work regularly as a private chef, the most requested item I prepared for lots of different families was Caesar salad dressing. I was often asked to leave containers in refrigerators all over New York City. My master plan is to one day put it in a bottle (my mother is convinced that it will sell well and then my whole family can live in the “house that Julia’s Caesar built”). But, in the meantime, here’s the most direct way to get it from my kitchen to yours. The small victory here is abandoning convention and swapping a spoonful of mayonnaise for the customary raw egg to make a creamy, thick, luscious dressing without any worry about salmonella or anything like that. Plus, what isn’t improved by a spoonful of mayonnaise?
1 small garlic clove, minced
4 olive oil–packed anchovy fillets, drained
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 cup [60 ml] extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
¼ cup [25 g] finely grated
Freshly ground black pepper
3 hearts of romaine lettuce, trimmed, washed, dried, and cut into bite-size pieces
A handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
In a blender or food processor, puree the garlic, anchovies, lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil, and mayonnaise until smooth. Add the Parmesan and give the dressing a few pulses just to incorporate the cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Alternatively, finely chop the anchovies, put them in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients, and whisk everything together.)
Put the lettuce in a large bowl and drizzle nearly all of the dressing over it. Use your hands to mix everything together, making sure each and every piece of lettuce is coated with dressing.
Divide the dressed lettuce among four plates. Divide the tomatoes evenly among the salads and drizzle the last bit of dressing over the salads. Serve immediately.
Small Victories by Julia Turshen is out this week! Photo credits (except top one): Gentl + Hyers (Chronicle Books, 2016)