Juia Turshen wrote a healthy cookbook that has nothing to do with weight loss — and it's mesmerizing

"Cooking, when it's at its best, is a way to take care of each other, not compete with each other," Turshen says

By Joseph Neese
March 21, 2021 7:45PM (UTC)
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Julia Turshen (Melina Hammer)

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

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."

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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

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"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."

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

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. 

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"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 transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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I'm going to mention your wife Grace in relation to the almond chicken cutlets. You developed that recipe after her diabetes diagnosis. I thought that also spoke to a different element of comfort food, that we can have food that still make us feel comfort, but it's also literally comforting for our body at the same time.

So that recipe was something that I started making . . . Gosh, I should know exactly how long ago. I want to say about five years ago, Grace, my wife, who I've gotten to talk about a bit here, was diagnosed as an adult with type one diabetes. Not to get into specific detail, but if anyone listening doesn't know, type 1 [and] type 2 are different. [With] Type 1 you basically have to act as your own pancreas. You have to inject insulin to compensate for your body not producing it. That means that Grace can and does eat whatever she wants, but when she was first diagnosed, she followed a pretty strict super-low carbohydrate diet, because — again, I'm over simplifying something that's quite complicated, and Grace and everyone who lives with type 1 is doing math all day long every day and dealing with so many variables.

But to simplify it, the more carbohydrates you eat, the more insulin you have to take — which is fine, but it's just a lot of math and calculation. As she was getting used to a brand new diagnosis, it was just easier to eliminate some of the variables. In that time, I really wanted to do whatever I could do to be helpful as a person who loves her very much and wants to support her, and also who finds the kitchen to be this place where I can enact that feeling in a very tangible way. It's really hard to feel like there's not much you can do when a loved one is going through something you can't do much about. But you can cook. So I was thinking about things that Grace loves to eat and what are ways to make them in ways, just as you said, really beautifully that take care of her body, that don't make it harder for her. She's already going through something hard.

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RELATED: Peanut butter is a great thing to spread on top of Julia Turshen's Roasted Banana and Sour Cream Waffles

One of those things is chicken cutlets, old-fashioned: dip it in egg, bread crumb, fry it. Delicious, crispy, crunchy. I would brush chicken cutlets with a little mustard-mayonnaise mixture — or just one or the other, because instead of egg it was just more flavor, and I'm constantly looking for flavor. Then I would dust it with almond flour, which is just ground almonds. So almonds are high in fat and protein and fill you up, and [are] lower in carbs. But forget all that, they taste good — they're crunchy, they still provide that texture and that same feeling. Then I bake them and they get brown and crispy, and it's so much easier than pan frying them. There's no mess. It gives you all this satisfaction, this familiarity, but it's actually easier to make, and has the lower carb thing going for it, which was helpful for us in that moment. I love that recipe. It's so, so good and it comes with a picture of my wife and our dogs, which makes me very happy.

My dog — you can't see her, but she's sitting at my feet right now — she has diabetes. It was a recent diagnosis, and I'm learning how to take care of her, because I've had no knowledge of it. I don't have anyone in my family who's suffered from it.

I knew cats could get it, but I didn't know dogs could.

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Yeah, she gets injections twice a day.

Let's talk about side dishes. I'm from Alabama, so I love cheese grits, but I never thought of ranch in them.

I just love ranch dressing, which puts me in the majority of people in the world. I think it's delicious and I love all the flavors in it. So yeah, there's a chapter of really, really easy side dishes. I think pretty much all of them you can make ahead, or you can make most of it ahead. These grits fit right into that. I love grits. I love anything made with corn. They have some cheddar cheese in them and then also all the flavors of ranch dressing, so you get cheesy ranch grits. So good, so comforting. Really great if anyone has celiac disease and can't tolerate gluten in their diet and maybe wants that kind of warm grain-type of thing. This provides that, but it's great for anyone. And it's also something you can make ahead and it reheats really well. Again, just really easy-going and super comforting. 

Then Brussels sprouts. That's something I didn't grow up with a lot as a kid and I think it has that negative stereotype, but it's one of my favorite things in the world to eat now. So is Buffalo chicken. And you have Buffalo Brussels sprouts. How'd that come about?

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Basically for all the reasons you just described. I love really crispy Brussels sprouts and I love Buffalo chicken and I love blue cheese. I just was thinking about these things at the same time and just thought, "What if they come together?" So you roast Brussels sprouts at a super high temperature. If you have an air fryer, which I just got — I'm new to the 21st Century — it's really fun and I think the best thing you can make in it are Brussels sprouts, because they turn out so crispy, so quickly. 

You toss those with a little bit of melted butter and hot sauce, which is what goes on Buffalo wings, then you crumble a little blue cheese on it. So you don't have to go to the trouble of making blue cheese dressing. You just get all that flavor and you can put a little thinly sliced celery, or just the leaves that come on celery, which most people throw out but they're full of flavor. They're so good. You get all that satisfaction of the celery stick dipped in the blue cheese dressing, with the spice. You get it all in one dish, so I love them.

That speaks again to comfort, but healthy. We were talking earlier about how you made your cobbler, and may have eaten it for lunch —

— and breakfast . . .

In the book, you wrote, "One thing I learned about being a private chef is never underestimate the value of a homemade dessert." Going back to [your cookbook] "Small Victories," my favorite party trick — and I make this all the time, and this time of the year is my favorite time to make it, because blood oranges are in season — I make the afternoon cake. But I do the swap that you recommended for citrus, so I make it with blood oranges and almond extract. It's so simple to make, but people love it. That's the one thing, anytime I make it, I get rave reviews. I can try to make a layer cake or something like that, and it just doesn't get the same reaction. What is it about these simple desserts?

Not every meal has to be the best meal you ever ate. I think maybe a better way of phrasing that is: When I sit down to eat, whether it's something I made myself or someone is kind enough to make for me, the last thing I want to feel is confused or stressed, or honestly, impressed. I just want to feel taken care of and I want to feel comfortable. When I'm cooking for someone, I don't want to feel like I have anything to prove, and I don't want anyone to feel like they have anything to prove with me. I just want to enjoy our time together and eat really simple, really good food. I think that's how most people feel.

That afternoon cake is a recipe in "Small Victories" that's super simple. You mix everything in one bowl. You bake it in the cake pan. It's very forgiving. I've forgotten about it in the oven for longer than you should and it's fine. I don't recommend that, but it's fine. It's no big deal. You don't need a machine to mix anything. If your oven is a little off, whatever, it's fine. I just I think at the end of the day that's what we all really want. We want things that aren't complicated and [are] really satisfying, I think, to experience things that appear super simple — and they are super simple — but they taste just as good as you want them to. That is what I'm always aiming for and I think that cake fits that bill. It is also really flexible, as I would hope and I think all of my recipes are. You can make it with lemon, with blood oranges. I love that idea. Grapefruit, you can use any nut in it. It's very, very easy going and you can make it yours.

I love all of the swaps that you recommend, using things that you may have already on hand in your pantry, that you don't want to go to waste. Another example of that I love is your dad's chicken and leeks, but I like the Vietnamese version — or the slightly Vietnamese-ish version. Again, it's not an authentic dish, but represents those flavors.

I very firmly believe that recipes are just not prescriptions. I believe also in providing extremely clear, very reliable recipes. If you're new to cooking, or you're someone who's made to feel more comfortable if you're following a recipe, my recipes are there for you. You can follow them to the letter. I promise they'll work out. But, they're also just there as suggestions and guidelines. I sort of feel like at the end of the day there's only a handful of recipes in the world. You can bake something, you can boil it, you can steam it, you can fry it. Otherwise, it's all just mixing and matching. It's like, "What ingredients do you want to use? How long do you want to do any of these things?" That's it. So I think when we get that, then we realize it's all flexible. I don't like feeling like we have to follow a bunch of artificial rules. And so I want to give you all the guidelines, but also encourage you to not follow them if you don't want to.

But then those are building blocks to help us feel more confident in the kitchen, right?

Exactly. 

So I have two Salon-specific questions, based on two of our food columnists here. Our first one is from Ashlie Stevens, she writes our column Saucy, about the love of condiments. And we're really interested in your dressing that you make. You don't have to peel or cut anything. It's your go-to dressing. Can you tell us about that?

My go-to dressing, which you can make blindfolded basically, it's equal parts of four ingredients: tahini, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, olive oil. Four things that come in a bottle or a jar. You keep them in your pantry and you can make it just for yourself, you can use a spoonful of each of those. You can make it for a huge crowd and put whole bottles together and whisk them together or blend them if you're doing that much. It is so good and it is so simple. I mean, I almost was like, "Is this worth putting in a cookbook? It takes one sentence." Not even, just mix together. But I think it's so useful and it's good on everything.

Yes, it's a salad dressing, it's great on a salad — the first thing I think of is lettuce, but a salad can be anything. It's great on roasted chicken. It's great drizzled on brown rice. It's great on noodles. You can put it on anything. It's so good.

It's great to dip things into. I find especially if cooking for young kids, having something like that that has a lot of flavor and is really a great way to get things like fresh vegetables and stuff into their bodies, because maybe they don't want to sit down and eat a salad. Adults, too — this isn't specific to kids — you cut up a bunch of carrots or cucumbers or something and you dip, and it's a little bit more approachable. It's very, very easygoing and flexible and just the easiest thing to remember.

That's a perfect segue into my next question, because our Mary Elizabeth Williams has a column called Quick & Dirty. She went on a journey last year that she documented about all of her cooking at home during the pandemic, trying to reach for food for comfort. Now she's a little burned out, so she has a column called Quick & Dirty, and it fully acknowledges that even professional chefs, home chefs, are sick and tired of cooking sometimes. And you touch on that in your book. So what do you do when you're sick and tired and just want something easy for dinner?

Normally I will ask Grace to make dinner, or to just figure out something for dinner. Maybe to pick up food from a local restaurant, which we don't have a ton in our area, but we have a handful that are really good and we're really glad to be able to support them. I rely on my freezer. I think it's probably my most used appliance. I write about this in the book too. Whenever I'm cooking, I'm always thinking about my future self and I want to make things easier for her. So, I am always just making more than we can eat and I'll turn it into other things during the week. I wrote another book called "Now and Again" that's all about reinventing your leftovers, because I truly love doing this. But I also just freeze a lot of things, because I love cooking, I love eating, but I don't necessarily want to do it every day. I don't want to make every meal from scratch.

If I have the time and energy and inclination to make something like, I don't know, a chili or a soup or something, I'll freeze it in individual portions. I'll also keep ingredients in the freezer like, we ordered some fish from the Salmon Sisters in Alaska, they're super cool. It comes sealed perfectly and all that. So I keep that in the freezer and I can pop a piece in the air fryer and just have it be super easy. Maybe I have the dressing in my fridge, throw it on some chopped up greens or something. It's just takes a few minutes. And again, maybe it's not a meal I'm going to remember for the rest of my life, but it's going to do the job and it's going to do it well, and it's going to make me feel like I'm able to take care of myself, I'm able to take care of my wife. Or she can do that, and it's just easy. So yeah, I ask the person next to me or I order take out or I go to the freezer. Also, frozen chicken tenders are wonderful.

I'm going to have to get on the air fryer bandwagon now that you're doing it.

You live in New York City, right? You mentioned.

Yes.

I think if I lived in the city, I would be really into it in some ways, because you don't have to turn on the oven or whatever. But also I wouldn't be into it, because it takes up so much space on your counter and that's just very valuable real estate. I don't know, maybe you could put it in the living room.

You got your start, in cookbooks at least, through ghostwriting. It's so interesting to me because this is your fourth book . . . There's always been a picture of the food on the cover. And now we have a picture of you on this cover. You've really become a household name. It's interesting that you went from ghostwriting to you right there on the cookbook. What does that journey feel like?

First, it's important to me to be clear about it. I've never considered myself a ghostwriter and haven't ever worked as one, because to me, my understanding is you're doing work that you're not acknowledge for and you're very hidden behind the scenes. And I have gotten to be acknowledged for all the work I've done. So I've co-authored, I've collaborated. All those words are great, but there's a lot of great ghostwriters and I'm just not one of them, so I don't want to take credit for that.

In terms of the evolution of having worked with so many other people on their books — which is something I've continued to do even as I've done my own — but now, doing my own, previous ones had food on the cover, including my favorite food of all time, chicken soup was on the cover of Small Victories. Now that's me. I'm actually wearing the same shirt [today]. 

It feels incredibly vulnerable. It's truly putting myself out there. But it also feels valuable to me. We talked about how I identify very openly, very proudly as a gay woman. I don't know if that's something you know by seeing a photo of me, but it feels important to do whatever I can to create more representation of visibility in that department.

Also, it's a book with the word "healthy" on the cover. I don't think I appear like a lot of people who are on the cover of books that have the word "healthy" on them. It's very important to me to do whatever I can to expand that definition and to make more space for other books for people who don't look like me and people who live in all sorts of bodies. We all deserve to see our name and likeness under the banner "healthy." That feels really important to me.

The picture is me in my kitchen. That is my home kitchen. All of my work and all of my books are quite literally from my kitchen to yours. That's where I make all my recipes and share them. That's where I write them. I sit at the kitchen table. And I've always wanted that to be the feeling — it feels like it's coming from my kitchen. So this makes that very clear and undeniable. This isn't a random thing of food that is out of context. This gives you all the context.

And I'll also add, if you have a minute, I'll tell you three little funny Easter eggs on the book.

Yes. Yes.

So, one, there's a loaf of bread, that's very important to me on a "healthy" cookbook. There're vegetables, there's produce, beautiful, wonderful. But there's also a big loaf of bread, that feels just important. Two, I don't know if you can see this, but this mug here on my shelf, that's a picture of me and one of my dogs Winky. It's what I drink my coffee out of every morning. It was very important to me that it make to the cover. Then lastly, on the counter behind me, there's a few books stacked up. It's blurry, you can't see it, but those are my previous solo cookbooks, so they're supporting me back here.

Awesome, the layers.

Yeah, those little details are valuable to me, so just wanted to share that.

Speaking of those books being hidden there, I've noticed just from following you on Instagram that you do have a little section where you have some cookbooks that are at the ready that you can go and pop out that you're either using and working from at the moment or that you just use a lot. So I was wondering what some of those other cookbooks are that aren't yours.

I'm surrounded by some great ones. Let me pull some. I didn't know you were going to ask me this. This was not planned. These two that are right here, "Zoe's Ghana Kitchen," this is a wonderful book. I think it just got reissued or reprinted in the U.S. Zoe is awesome. It's a very personal book, also super easy recipes. This is, you can't quite tell from this cover, but this is a copy of Edna Lewis's "The Taste of Country Cooking." This is my favorite cookbook of all time — you can see some Post-its.

It is just the most beautiful written book. And the thing I believe so much with cookbooks is that all books, ideally, you only write the book that only you can write, and you share only the stories that you can share — me talking about my wife and stuff. These are my stories that I get to share with my recipes. Edna Lewis is so important to our history as Americans, as home cooks, and I think has done that sense of voice and personal storytelling so well. I learn something new every time I read it, and I've read it hundreds of times. 

My favorite thing to ask everyone who comes on the show is: Why do you cook? 

At the end of the day, I cook all day because it makes me feel deeply connected. It makes me feel especially connected to so many people in my family, especially those I didn't know. I'm thinking specifically about my maternal grandparents, my mom's parents. My grandfather was a bread baker. My grandmother worked with him in the bakery and cooked all their meals at home. I feel so tethered to the both of them even though I didn't know them, and I feel that tether. It feels like a string I can hold onto when I'm in the kitchen. I don't ever want to let go of that, so I think that's why I cook. I mean, I cook for very practical reasons, mostly I just love eating. But I think that's my why.

For more, read part one of the interview here. Then, check out Julia Turshen's recipe for Roasted Banana and Sour Cream Waffles.


Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is the Managing Editor of Salon. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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