a small dinner victory

I roasted my first chicken last night. Two days after thanksgiving, I wanted to have my own fancy meal, just Isaiah and me. So I bought a little chicken and some potatoes and some whiskey and figured it all out.

A small victory. Not insignificant.

My cooking excitement, can-do attitude, and inspiration have all been revived from an all-time-low by a book called, aptly, Small Victories by Julia Turshen (wife of Design Sponge founder, Grace Bonney, aka a lady power couple for the ages). The tagline on the front of the book reads, “Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home-Cooking Triumphs.” If there has ever been a cookbook for me, it’s this one right here. The one sitting on my lap as I type, the one I requested from the library and waited quite a while for. The one that the library wants back tomorrow. I”m thinking of staging a resistance, clutching the book to my chest with tears streaming down my cheeks shouting at a helpless librarian, “nooooooooo!” I guess I could do that, but I’d just cause a scene, make some enemies, and rack up all sorts of fines, probably eventually amounting to the cost of the book outright. No matter. I’ll give it back to the library without a tussle. I’ll take photos on my iPhone of necessary recipes (a thing we all do and then promptly forget about?). Everything will be okay.

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It’s a fabulous cookbook. Besides the 95 main recipes featured, each recipe details 4-5 “spin-offs” or other ways to approach the same meal, ingredients, or techniques. AKA, just the sort of cooking advice/knowledge I’ve always longed for but never known where to find! Making connections, seeing what flavors go together, what things are like other things. This doesn’t come naturally to me. I need a little help. I need some Small Victories.

It felt so good to make a meal and to pull it off. It even felt good to deal with a whole raw chicken for the first time, all the skin and bones of it, to rub it with salt and scrub my sink (bacteria beware, you are no match for me and my sponge and anxiety!!) and stick a lemon in it and hope for the best! To have it all come out of the oven at the same time, to plan it all out, to see it through. Like I said above, these small victories (including perfectly crispy roasted potatoes) are not insignificant. Not at all. This is what keeps us going. This is the stuff of life. Making something, something small. Planning a meal and eating it with the person you love. Buying your first bottle of whiskey. Slightly messing up the apple crisp (you can’t win them all.)

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Recipes tried for my small victories dinner:

“Roast Chicken with Fennel, Rosemary, Lemon” (page 174). You rub a small chicken all over with a lemon zest, rosemary, salt, fennel mixture and then let it dry out nicely before just sticking it in the oven and roasting it at a slightly higher temperature than most people would tell you to. I ended up with beautiful, juicy, tender chicken, not dry at all, yet very clearly done. A homey dream come true.

“Kinda, Sorta Patatas Bravas” (page 110). I followed one of the Spin-offs here to learn Julia’s method for crispy roasted potatoes. You boil them for ten minutes first to get them started cooking, and then you dry them well before oiling and salting them and putting them in a hot oven for 45 minutes. Nothing bums me out more than an underdone / not golden or crispy roasted potato. These were lovely, and the method feels pretty foolproof. I should have salted them even more. Next time.

“Whiskey + Maple Syrup Sour” (page 247). A wonderfully easy cocktail. Just maple syrup, lemon juice, whiskey, and seltzer. And no shaker needed, you just whisk the maple, lemon, and whiskey together, pour over ice, and top with seltzer. The simplest. So good, could have had 4 (but it’s good that I didn’t!). Really refreshing. The maple isn’t at all overpowering. Nice to feel a little fancy with a cocktail in hand at home.

Additionally, I made a marinated kale salad from Renee Erickson’s  A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus, and apple crisp from Gwenyth Paltrow’s My Father’s Daughter (a cookbook coincidentally co-written by none other than Julia Turshen! Queen!)

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In other Small Victories small victories, Isaiah’s brother Caleb was in town the night before thanksgiving so I whipped up Turshen’s  “A Nice Lasagna,” and it is now the only lasagna recipe I will ever need ever. And I didn’t even make my own noodles as the recipe suggests! The secret is creme fraiche whisked into a simple simmered tomato sauce at the last minute to give a depth of flavor and richness that takes it over the top. I browned a pound of ground beef before adding the tomatoes to my sauce, and the whole thing took about an hour and a half with most of the time spent sitting in front of the oven with the oven light on watching the sauce bubble.

Yes, that’s a thing I do.

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Also, the lasagna is just as good (maybe better) as leftovers.

I’ve already asked for this cookbook for Christmas, and I intend to work my way through it and try new flavors, techniques, combinations, hopes, dreams. It’s a keeper, one to dogear and stain with tomato sauce.

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P.S. A great article on the book and the making of “A Nice Lasagna” from Chicago blogger Lottie + Doof. The full recipe is here if you’ve got a hankering for a really, really truly nice lasagna right now. As you should. Because it’s magic.

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