Julia Turshen unites healthy and comfort in the kitchen: Delicious "does not have to be complicated"

Turshen's new healthy cookbook celebrates comfort food and has nothing to do with weight loss — it's a revolution

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published March 14, 2021 7:17PM (EDT)

Julia Turshen's "honeymoon chicken." Photographs and styling by Melina Hammer. (Melina Hammer/"Simply Julia")
Julia Turshen's "honeymoon chicken." Photographs and styling by Melina Hammer. (Melina Hammer/"Simply Julia")

This is part one of a two-part interview with cookbook author Julia Turshen.

This shouldn't feel revolutionary, but it is: Beloved cookbook author Julia Turshen has written a healthy cookbook with no limitations. When I pointed this out to her, the culinary force behind "Simply Julia: 110 Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food" was both humbled and reflective.

"I both really appreciate hearing that, and I'm also so sad to hear that," Turshen told me during our recent "Salon Talks" interview. "For so long, I know that I confused the words 'healthy' and 'skinny.' I thought they meant the same thing."

Turshen wrote a healthy cookbook that celebrates comfort food — a genre often associated with feelings of guilt — and has absolutely nothing to do with weight loss. Instead of associating the word "healthy" with limitations, Turshen associates it with limitlessness.

Simply Julia: 110 Easy Recipes For Healthy Comfort Food

"It has nothing to do with restriction. It has nothing to do with deprivation. There are no limitations in the book. And associating healthy with limitlessness, it does feel different to me," she said. "I'm not the first person to have this thought or idea. I think I'm only able to have this thought and idea because other people have shown me what it looks like. But to put that in a mainstream cookbook feels really valuable and makes me feel just really happy it's out there, and proud."

It's through this lens that Turshen defines comfort food, which can mean something different to each of us. Instead of something that divides us, comfort food can be a unifier.   

"I really, really like the place where healthy and comfort come together. Because when I feel my most comfortable, I feel my most healthy. When I feel my most healthy, I feel my most comfortable," Turshen said. "And then bring in the word 'easy' — it's like there's an ease that comes with the feelings when I feel them at their best, like when I feel most comfortable in myself."

The end result is a masterpiece of a modern cookbook that feels both nostalgic and innovative at once. "Simply Julia" provides us with healthier approaches to timeless comfort foods that are within every home cook's grasp. Many of these recipes are guaranteed to become staples on your weeknight dinner rotation. 

"Delicious food does not have to be complicated," Turshen writes in her cookbook. "Cooking, when it's at its best, is a way to take care of each other, not compete with each other."

When Turshen recently appeared on "Salon Talks," we talked about how cooking at home can make us feel more present to our daily lives. Did you know that a great way to make a new friend is to invite them over for dinner? To learn more, read or watch our conversation below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Julia, one of the things that we love the most about you at Salon is that you're an expert, but you're a home cook and your approach comes completely from a love for and the joy of cooking. You give us comfort food, but it's always approachable and accessible.

I'm very happy to hear that, and I appreciate it. It's funny — I very proudly identify as a home cook. Sometimes people, I don't know, when I've had something written about my work or something, they're like, "Chef Julia Turshen." I'm like, "Who are they talking about?" That's not a word I use. For me, that's someone who works in a restaurant or runs a very professional kitchen. I run a home kitchen — and proudly so. So, yes, I appreciate what you said. It just reminded me of that.

And for that very reason, you're one of the cooks who I turned to during the pandemic when I was craving comfort food that I could make at home that was delicious. One of the dishes that got my roommate and I through those early months was your turkey and ricotta meatballs, which you actually served your wife on your very first date. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that.

The meatball recipe you are referring to is in my first solo cookbook, "Small Victories." I think it's easily the most popular recipe from that book, which is great for so many reasons. I mean, one, I think they're delicious meatballs. They're super easy to make. I'm so glad that you and your roommate have enjoyed them. It's one of those dishes that is — I feel like the taste of it makes it seem like it was more complicated to make and also something that just gets better the longer it sits in the fridge. All of those qualities describe my ideal recipe.

It was the first thing that I ever cooked for my wife, Grace. It wasn't our first date, but it was the first thing I cooked for her. Basically, we're still on our first date. We went out to dinner and just never left each other's side. But it was the first thing I cooked for her, so the fact that that recipe has become so popular and been cooked so many times is especially meaningful to me because it's a recipe where I got to share this incredibly personal story. And also to do something that I've come to understand how meaningful it is to me, which is to just share a lot about my personal life, and specifically, my marriage and my work. I grew up loving cookbooks. I'm surrounded by some of the cookbooks I own.

That's a wall of cookbooks.

This is a fraction. My life is surrounded by cookbooks. Growing up, I never read a cookbook that I know of that was written by an openly gay woman, let alone with basically love letters to her significant other woven throughout the recipes. That's something I get to do, and I'm incredibly grateful to do and proud to do. So, yes, come for the meatballs, stay for the gay pride. Other way around? Whatever you want.

As an openly gay writer and editor, I obviously relate to it. But, that was my introduction, because you've sort of come full circle in the new cookbook. You give us "honeymoon chicken," which I particularly loved because my grandmother is an immigrant from Mexico. Tortilla soup is something I grew up with as a kid, and it's something that I instantly think of when I think of comfort food. I wanted to know a little bit about the honeymoon and this chicken dish.

I love the journey we're going on here: Make the meatballs, get married, make the honeymoon chicken. Love it. Where in Mexico is your grandmother from?

She's from the Yucatan. So I do want to ask you about your cochinita pibil . . .

Yes, I would love to talk to your grandmother about it. But, yes, that recipe for the honeymoon chicken. Basically, right after Grace and I got married, we spent a week actually staying in a friend's home that is very near the home we now live in, the home I'm sitting in. We didn't know we would end up here, but anyway, that's where we spent our honeymoon. During the course of that week, we went to a restaurant, and we shared a bowl of tortilla soup. To me, sharing soup is not something most people do. That's a very intimate thing — to share a bowl of soup. Anyway, it was just really delicious soup. It was this wonderful week, super happy memory and time. And just that flavor of chicken soup with chilies and tortillas in it is just — it's a flavor I really, really love.

So in "Simply Julia," which is right here, there's a chapter of all chicken recipes. This book is very much the most personal book I've done, but it's also the most practical. I think the chapters really respond to the questions I've been asked the most. And one is just like, "What is your favorite way to cook chicken?" Because I think a lot of people cook it, and they get bored. So this recipe — you basically have all the things you would put in a pot of tortilla soup in a roasting dish. So you roast pieces of chicken that you coat with some oil and spices, and you roast them on a bed of onions, and tomato, and garlic and some torn-up corn tortillas. It's a great place to put if you have stale ones — you can put them there.

As the chicken cooks, all the juice from the chicken, all the delicious stuff gets into all that. And then you just put all the stuff from under the chicken into a blender, you blend it with some canned Chipotle chilies, smoked jalapeños, a little chicken stock. It makes the most magnificent sauce. You pour that on your chicken. Again, it tastes like something that took a lot more time and effort to make than it did, and it's just so comforting and so good. It brings back a wonderful memory for me. You can also — I like to note — if you have leftover sauce, you can add more chicken stock to it, and you can have tortilla soup. It can just go full circle.

Full circle. So tortilla soups is something that I think of as a comfort food, and your new cookbook is about healthy comfort foods. It just so happens to be extra topical because of the pandemic, and during the pandemic, we've experienced this Renaissance of comfort food. People are talking about macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and similar things. But comfort food means different things to different people. For example, I grew up with my grandmother making me cochinita pibil, and I think of that. But that doesn't fit everyone's definition, so how do you approach the definition of comfort?

It's such a good question, and the subtitle of the book is, "Easy Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food." I spent a lot of time thinking about those three words: easy, healthy, comfort. What do they all mean? What do they mean when you combine them? I feel like I spend a lot of the book interrogating all of that in a really just sort of wonderful sort of curious way. It's interesting: If you say comfort food to 10 different people, you'll probably get 10 different answers. I think it speaks to the fact that all of these words are up for all of us to define for ourselves. For me, I really, really like the place where healthy and comfort come together. Because when I feel my most comfortable, I feel my most healthy. When I feel my most healthy, I feel my most comfortable. And then bring in the word easy — it's like there's an ease that comes with the feelings when I feel them at their best, like when I feel most comfortable in myself.

So for me, comfort food is food that is easy to make. Comfort food shouldn't be a stressful thing to make. It should feel really good to eat, and for me that translates to feeling very deeply connected. So when I prepare that "honeymoon chicken" that we just talked about, making it is really easy. It feels very doable. I feel like feeling healthy, feeling comforted, feeling comfortable. All these things should be within our grasp, because I think they are. So, that's the process of making it. Then, when I sit down to eat it, it brings up this wonderful memory and makes me feel very connected to my wife. It makes me feel connected to the ingredients I've used. I've been thoughtful about them and what I'm using, where I'm getting them.

All those things, that deep sense of connection, it just makes me feel — I don't know — present and in the moment. And when I am feeling present, for me, that is absolutely when I feel both my healthiest and my most comforted and comfortable. Because when I'm present, I'm not anxious. I run quite anxious. There is an essay in the book about cooking and anxiety, and when I think about anxiety, I'm worrying about something that has happened or something I'm worried is going to happen. So, when I'm present, it's very hard for me to be anxious, which is a really good thing for me. When I'm feeling connected, and in the moment and present, it makes me feel very calm — just collected and just here right now — which is just a really nice feeling. And cooking and eating give me access to that feeling on a daily basis. 

I know you described anxiety in the book as being like a grocery list. There's that one item that you need, but you can't find. You explore how cooking is where you really feel at home. But I love the anecdote that you mentioned, too — a great way to make a new friend is to invite them over for dinner. 

I think a lot about what food does when you put it on a table, and there's people sitting around the table. It just  it changes everything. A joke I like to make, I don't know if it's that funny, but a table with people around it that has no food on it is a meeting — and nobody likes a meeting.

You put food on the table, and it just changes the way we interact with each other. It changes our body language. Things like, "Hey can you pass me the salt? Can you pass me the potatoes?" We're crossing our hands, we're using our bodies, so our bodies are occupied. Right now, I'm like, "What do I do with my hands while we're talking. They're flying over here." If we were eating, I would have something to do with them. I think it just puts us at ease. It sort of makes us more human to one another. For me, I have the privilege and luxury of having a home and a kitchen that I'm extremely comfortable in and I want to welcome people into. That's been, I would say for me, the hardest part of the last year is just not having my friends and family in my home all the time and sitting around my table — and let this be my biggest problem during the pandemic.

Yes, it's something I deeply miss, and not having that for a long time has made me realize just how valuable it is. And I'm so grateful for technology. The fact that we can have this conversation right now — I can feel present and connected to you in this very moment — is amazing. It's amazing I can see my five-year-old niece in Cleveland whenever I want via FaceTime. My best friend lives in London. I'm so so grateful for this right now, but I also wish we were sitting at a table and we were eating something, because I think it just opens up different stories we share with each other. It just kind of gives you moments to just sort of pass the time. Think about being in a restaurant with someone, and your food comes, and then you wait for the bill to come and then maybe you get a coffee and all this stuff. You can just extend this natural feeling, and sometimes being together can feel difficult. And I think food makes it feel easier. So, yes, I think it's a great way to make friends, and even if, I don't know, it doesn't work out and you're not friends, at least you had something good to eat.

At least you had great food together! That's one of my favorite things to do, too. In terms of comfort food, I think there's often a guilt associated with eating it. You explored this in a very touching essay in the book, which was reprinted in Bon Appetit. One day you realized that had two feelings: happy and fat. Can you tell us what that means?

What you're referring to is an essay in the book that very much delves into just body image and diet culture, understanding what that is, attempting to dismantle it and . . . I'm saying this all in a vague way. This is a very personal reflection on these things, my feelings about all these things. And, to me, it's the absolute most vulnerable part of the book, and therefore, I think the most important. In just being shared, as you mentioned, it's already led to just so much connection. I have never heard from this many people, and I mean, I could start crying right now.

It's been a very emotional process to put this out there, especially because . . . OK, I'll back up, and say, I very much grew up in diet culture. I participated in it for a long time. I preached it while I practiced it. I don't know, for anyone who's listening who's like, "What are you talking about?" To me, it's the culture we all, for the most part, live in, especially in the U.S. It's a culture that I think just prioritizes thinness over anything else and because of that sort of pits us against each other, encourages us to measure ourselves against ourselves. "I want to get back to this weight, or I want to get to this weight." Encourages us to pit ourselves against each other, to compare each other. It's just really miserable — at least it is in my experience. There are so many businesses attached to this that profit off of it.

I just basically didn't know there were other options. And there are a lot of things that have happened in my life that have helped me get to a place that feels much more free, much more peaceful. That is really I think how I define healthy. It's very much associated with freedom. One of the things that helped me get there — in addition to therapy and in addition changing who I follow on social media — to leaving diet culture and saying no thank you to it, feels to me a little bit like learning a new language. And the best way to do that is to immerse yourself in it, to listen to different podcasts and stuff.

One of the other things that really helped me was this kind of breakthrough moment where I realized that I felt like I had only ever felt two things in my life: happy or fat. Having that idea just cracked something open in me, because one, fat is not a feeling — it's just not. Two, I had limited all my feelings to two very binary things, and there are so many feelings in the world. Three, I had totally associated anything other than happy with fat. I didn't think those two things could exist at the same time. I had demonized fat in the way so many other people and the institutions have. The words I used in the essay were it felt like I splashed a big thing of cold water in my face, and I was like, "Woah." And having that thought doesn't mean that I never have that thought again, but it just helps me identify it more clearly. It helps me move through it and it helps me get in touch with so many other feelings.

I have a poster that's actually right on the wall over here. It's one of these posters that they have in a lot of kid's classrooms . . . I wish I could show it to you, but I would have to move my whole set up here, which is a stack of books that my computer is on. It's pictures of all the different emotions with kids having the facial gestures, but responses to it. For so long, whenever I felt what I had deemed fat, I made myself go stand in front of this poster and be like, "What are you feeling right now?" I was so out of touch with my feelings. I was out of touch with my body. And I know we're here to talk about a cookbook, but this is very much part of it, because this cookbook which is about healthy comfort food, it's not just about the recipes. It's about how we feel when we cook and when we eat like we were talking about. I just really appreciate the opportunity to talk very openly and very honestly about that — not just in the book but in conversations like this one. So thank you for asking me.

Of course. I don't know if it should feel so revolutionary — but it does — that you're able to so honestly and openly talk about this in a cookbook that's about healthy eating. There's diet culture, and it's an industry. But we're having an open and honest conversation, and that's something I've never really had when I've read a cookbook before.

I both really appreciate hearing that, and I'm also so sad to hear that. I just think for so long, I know that I confused the words "healthy" and "skinny." I thought they meant the same thing. I wrote a healthy cookbook that has nothing to do with weight loss. It has nothing to do with restriction. It has nothing to do with deprivation. There are no limitations in the book. And associating healthy with limitlessness, it does feel different to me. I'm not the first person to have this thought or idea. I think I'm only able to have this thought and idea, because other people have shown me what it looks like. But to put that in a mainstream cookbook feels really valuable and makes me feel just really happy it's out there and proud.

Going back to that cochinita pibil, I'm so excited to try your recipe. One of the reasons why I don't make it a lot is because it's a process. You've developed a sort of shortcut, and I think that speaks in general to a lot of your recipes. You're not here to make us spend all day in the kitchen. If we can use one bowl, we can use one bowl instead of dirtying a lot of different bowls. Can you tell me a little bit about that recipe and how it speaks to your philosophy as a whole.

I love that you pulled this one out, because it's so good and it's so easy. As you just said, and as I said in the headnote to the recipe — the headnote is the industry term for the paragraph that comes before the recipe that just gives you the story, and the context and some helpful information — what I included in there is: This is not authentic. I am by no means an expert on this. I'm someone who loves this item of food, which is slow-cooked pork. I love it. I think it's delicious, and I think a version of it is something we can all have in our kitchens whenever we want.

Basically, you cut up a delicious pork shoulder, you could use a pork butt or whatever — just a big muscle that has a good amount of fat in it. And you're going to cook it really slowly so that fat just renders out. You basically put it all in a pot with some spices and some aromatics, including fresh oranges that cook really slowly with the pork. And it has all the flavors that I think happen in a pretty traditional cochinita pibil, but you cook it instead of digging a pit in the yard and wrapping it in banana leaves and stuff, which is amazing and I would love to do (and really love to be invited somewhere where someone's doing that, and then I'm happy to wash every single dish).

This all happens just in a pot that you cover. You put in your oven. No, it is not the real thing, and that is OK. I think part of home cooking is that, I don't know, I just have this belief that — this might sound like sort of a weird thing to say — I don't think every meal we eat needs to be the best meal we've ever had. I think this recipe is incredibly good and very special, but I also think it's extremely achievable and made of very affordable ingredients. It's made with very little technique. You put the stuff in the pot, you cover it, you put it in the oven and the oven does all the work. You don't have to be there. I mean, don't leave your oven on if you're not there, if that makes you uncomfortable, I understand that. But you can be doing a million other things.

I just really like recipes like that just make it very easy for you to provide something very delicious, very comforting and very versatile. That pork can be used in so many different things. You can eat it on its own with nothing except a fork — end of day, perfect. But it goes well with so many things. You can put it into a sandwich or a taco, whatever you want. I just love a recipe that really serves you.

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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