Cook the Book: Small Victories by Julia Turshen

Red Lentil Curry

Welcome to Cook the Book, an occasional series where I cook my way through books I love and explore how poetry surfaces in the kitchen. This post contains affiliate links, so if you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission.


Since this is a new series, I’ll explain how I landed here. When I started EatThisPoem.com in 2012, it was very structured: here’s a poem, here’s some commentary, here’s a recipe to go with it. I still love the format and will be blogging like this sporadically, but I’ve also felt compelled to talk about food and poetry other ways. Specifically, through the lens of whole cookbooks.

This longing was brought on by a recent dry spell in the kitchen. Our cross-country move has opened up space for me to rekindle my love of cooking, and I’ve been getting back into a ritual I sorely missed: reading cookbooks cover to cover, and cooking from them peacefully and quietly.

Small Victories by Julia Turshen

During the busy promotional months for Eat This Poem in 2017, I zeroed in on one of the cookbook’s key messages: Eat This Poem might be filled with recipes, but it’s narrative is also a call to mindfulness. To that end, there’s a lot of poetry to be found in the kitchen. Paying attention to the small things, like pot stirring or vegetable cutting, is an opportunity to listen in, to meditate briefly, and to both practice the art of releasing control while also being in charge of an outcome, like a recipe. It’s a beautiful thing when we’re able to pay attention, which admittedly isn’t always, but I like to think of this space and the book I wrote as an encouraging call to action on that front. That’s a long way of explaining we’ll be talking about the intersection of poetry and cooking, sometimes without a poem directly involved.

When I was writing my second book throughout 2018—a meditation on the writer’s life—cooking was usually an afterthought. I still planned our meals every week, but didn’t spend a lot of time dog-earing magazine pages or pulling cookbooks from the shelf. I relied on instinct and simplicity, and a small group of recipes I could make over and over with slight variations, and within about thirty minutes after getting home from work.

I was in a season of having to choose one essential activity over another, and writing won out for about nine months. I’ve crossed to the other side now, but when I reflect on that period, red lentil curry immediately comes to mind.

In Julia Turshen’s comforting cookbook, Small Victories, she urges us to embrace the little wins cooking a meal can offer. During a time when that’s about all I could manage, her voice was a welcome one. The recipe for red lentil curry is perhaps the most cooked recipe in the entire collection. In fact, when reaching for the book, it practically opens to page 136 as if on cue, knowing exactly what I’m looking for. Over the years I’ve tried (and loved) many other recipes: pickled onions, chilaquiles with roasted tomato salsa, turkey and ricotta meatballs, a berry cobbler I made with only strawberries even though Julia said not to because strawberries are too watery, and a chopped chickpea salad.

But for a long stretch, curry was all that counted. It was reliable, always worked, required nothing but pantry ingredients and a few fresh additions like ginger and onion, and even went so far as to think about clean-up, advocating for filling up the coconut can with water rather than using a measuring cup.

At first, the small victory was simply that I made dinner. Eventually, I memorized the recipe, and didn’t need to consult the page while I worked. But I often found I wanted the book open, because by then it felt a bit like an old friend. I liked the companionship of seeing a picture of the lentils and double checking that I needed 1 teaspoon of cumin, then rummaging through the cupboard to pull out the rice and other spices.

It was difficult to take my own advice and see the poetry in cooking when life felt so full and draining. I wasn’t always stirring the curry, lost in thought, or looking up from the stove counting my blessings. I was simply filling our bowls so we could eat before getting ready for bed and doing it all over again. But the longer I made this recipe, and the more it lodged itself into my brain, the more I moved through the kitchen with an ease. I already knew the outcome. Instead of having to think about measurements, I could think about the day, let loose anything I needed to release, and find contentment in knowing that although it’s the same recipe we’ve had week over week, it’s still something from scratch, and that enjoying a humble dish of red lentils truly is a small victory.


Curried Red Lentils With Coconut Milk

This is a very flexible recipe, especially if you have extra vegetables wilting in the crisper drawer. I often add chopped carrots to the pot, or a handful of spinach.

Recipe ever so slightly adapted from Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home-Cooking Triumphs by Julia Turshen

Ingredients
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves
¼ of an onion, minced
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup split red lentils, rinsed
1 can full-fat coconut milk, shaken
Sea salt
For serving: Cooked basmati rice, chopped cilantro, plain yogurt, and chopped peanuts

Instructions
Warm the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the ginger, garlic, onion, coriander, cumin, and turmeric and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened and the spices are fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add the lentils, coconut milk, and 2 teaspoons salt. Fill the empty coconut can with water and add that to the saucepan. Stir the pot, then bring the curry to a boil. Reduce heat to low and let the lentils simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with additional salt, if needed.

Serve over hot rice and top with chopped cilantro, a dollop of yogurt, and a sprinkle of chopped peanuts.

A Homecoming

Minestrone

Something happened. Well, a lot of things, and today I’m going to tell you about them. I’ve been wanting to get back here for a while, always hoping I’d stumble across the words one day and find just the right recipe and poetry pairings to share. I wanted to return to how things used to be. But I can’t go on pretending that will happen. Oh, I’ll be back here alright, but there’s no sense in ignoring that eight months have gone by since my last blog post, and we can just jump right back in without explanation. Some people might be able to work that way, but it’s harder for me. As it turns out, I’ve been writing quite a lot lately, just not here.

After Eat This Poem was published in 2017, I spent about six months promoting the book. I was traveling to events, giving bookstore readings, doing interviews, writing guest posts, and blogging, all in an effort to share the news about this wonderful little project I’d put so much time and effort into. By the end of the year, I was tired, and I was also starting to think about my second book. From June to October—while I was on book tour for Eat This Poem—I was quietly working on a new proposal, and my agent was pitching it to publishers. In December of that year, I had a contract and was poised to do this all over again.

The book isn’t about food. It’s about the writer’s life. Specifically, how to go about making space to create when you also have a job and a family. It’s basically everything I’ve learned in the last fifteen years since graduating from college, packaged up in digestible and relatable stories and lessons and insights. It’s about ushering in creative seasons, and using them to frame how you work.

But along the way, I lost my appetite. Because I was writing a book about writing, and also working full-time, and also mothering a toddler, food was one of the first things to go. Don’t get me wrong, we still ate well. Years of cooking and recipe development weren’t all for nothing—I could walk in the door at 5:30 p.m. and have dinner on the table thirty minutes later. I still meal planned, and we always had a full fridge. But sometimes we just ate avocado toast for dinner. Or popcorn. And my appetite for newness had disappeared. It was a defense mechanism, really. In the midst of writing another book, which took up the majority of what little extra time I had in a week, I didn’t have the capacity to read cookbooks cover to cover, or follow new recipes on a Tuesday night, or brainstorm new blog posts for this space, or read my beloved food magazines.

Avocado Toast

For about nine months we subsisted on a simple rotation of recipes I could make in my sleep: rice and beans, quick curry and rice, all kinds of pasta, and big salads. Sometimes on a weekend, there would be more. We’d walk to the farmers’ market and I’d suddenly be overcome with a deep craving for eggplant or peppers, or come home with a giant watermelon and make agua fresca. Sometimes there would be flashes of inspiration, reminders of the cook I used to be. But those moments were rare. I missed it here, but I had my sights on finishing something and needed to set those feelings aside temporarily.

Not that it was always an easy road, though. One day I was so frustrated about not having time to make bread, I almost cried about it. So I included the story in my new book because, well, it’s a book about writing a book, and that was my truth. In that moment I had to choose writing over baking bread and literally could not fit both into my weekend without sacrificing my health or my sanity. It’s just the season I was living in.

So I kept writing and writing and writing. Eventually there were a few paragraphs and a few chapters and an entire messy manuscript to clean up. Then there was a book. It was turned in, copy edited, marked up, polished, read again and again, and turned in once more. There is no going back. It’s out of my hand and will soon be in yours.

I now have space where there wasn’t before. There’s a new table, new light, new ingredients, new hungers.

Oh, and we moved. Not across town, but across the country. I’m no longer a resident of Los Angeles, but have left my home state and settled outside Raleigh, North Carolina. This was a big change and we arrived in our empty new house a few weeks before Christmas last year, enjoyed our first snow (two days after moving in), and spent the winter unpacking, becoming familiar, settling, creating new routines, and getting comfortable. It was cold and invigorating and also hard. But we’re glad we’re here.

This move, this life, was something we started thinking about almost four years ago. We weren’t imagining a particular place, but a feeling and a way of life we were after. Turns out, North Carolina offered it to us. Now that it’s spring, I’m feeling an itch to welcome the new. I’m finally able to turn my attention to things I’ve missed, like food and poetry, and figure out how to make my way back.

I’m deeply grateful for the space to do this. Not only the mental space, but the physical change of scenery that’s been opening up new creativity stores for me. (Case and point: I’ve started writing poetry again!) I don’t have a plan for Eat This Poem, nothing formal at least. (I also have a new online home in Wild Words, about seasonal creative living, if you’re inclined in that direction.) My hope is to inch my way over, sharing some poetry, some thoughts, some recipes, all from a new vantage point.

That’s about it for now. If you’re new, I’m glad you’re here. And if you’re a long-time reader, I’m glad you’re still here. If I’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s the importance of embracing the season you’re in. That’s always my wish for you and for me.

"Letter From Town: The Almond Tree" by D.H. Lawrence + Almond & Chocolate Biscotti

Chocolate + Almond Biscotti

The problem with Italian cookbooks is they make me pine for Italy. (See my infatuation with Rome from two summers ago.) July marked fourteen years since I've been back, so when I began reading page after page about tomatoes and chestnuts and garlic in Guilia Scarpaleggia's From the Markets of Tuscany, my heart simply burst before I was even halfway through. The antidote, of course, is heading into the kitchen. 

Giulia and I first became acquainted through blogging. (She even wrote a dreamy Literary City Guide to Florence.) Her Tuscan blog, Juls' Kitchen, is a favorite of mine, and when I learned her latest cookbook was set to be published in English this spring, I promised to be first in line. The cookbook is organized by market, which any traveler will tell you is probably one of the best ways to explore a new town. Giulia traversed Tuscany meeting vendors, sampling local specialties, and then took that inspiration straight to her Tuscany kitchen to bring the flavors home.  

"To every generation, the market is the beating heart of the town, pulsing with chitchat, friendly shouting and bargaining, and the aroma of roast chicken, croquettes, and porchetta ...

Traveling around Tuscany for over a year to visit its weekly, large indoor and smaller organic markets was a learning experience, one that helped me to better know and love this region I call home—my place in the world. While I was lost in small talk with local producers, buying everything from honey and local cheeses to pork fat sausages and fragrant peaches, my partner Tommaso would follow me with camera in hand, capturing what was unique about every market and how each differed in character and changed with the seasons."

Chocolate and Almond Biscotti | Eat This Poem
Chocolate and Almond Biscotti | Eat This Poem

Letter from Town: The Almond Tree

By D. H. Lawrence

You promised to send me some violets. Did you forget?  
  White ones and blue ones from under the orchard hedge?  
  Sweet dark purple, and white ones mixed for a pledge  
Of our early love that hardly has opened yet.   

Here there’s an almond tree—you have never seen        
  Such a one in the north—it flowers on the street, and I stand  
  Every day by the fence to look up for the flowers that expand  
At rest in the blue, and wonder at what they mean.   

Under the almond tree, the happy lands  
  Provence, Japan, and Italy repose,  
  And passing feet are chatter and clapping of those  
Who play around us, country girls clapping their hands.   

You, my love, the foremost, in a flowered gown,  
  All your unbearable tenderness, you with the laughter  
  Startled upon your eyes now so wide with hereafter,   
You with loose hands of abandonment hanging down.

This poem is in the public domain.


Thanks to a dusty copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, D.H. Lawrence was one of the first poets I ever learned about. So you can imagine my delight when searching for poems that celebrated almonds, in any small way, I came across these lines of verse that begin by revealing "early love that hardly has opened yet." When we move to the almond tree, there's tranquility under its branches throughout Provence, Japan, and Italy (perfect for the recipe to follow). For a moment we're transported, resting somewhere in the shade.

Chocolate and Almond Biscotti | Eat This Poem

By the end of the poem, there's a play on "a flowered gown" which could either be the poet's beloved, or the almond tree, with all its "unbearable tenderness" and "loose hands of abandonment hanging down." Something has changed. We're not privy to the details, whether the relationship has stalled, affection has wained, or the almond tree simply stops bearing nuts year after year. I suppose the only place of refuge is back under the almond tree that "flowers on the street," and the daily ritual of going to the fence, looking for flowers, wondering what they mean. Sometimes we must sit with our questions, and resolutions take their own time to reveal, both in life and in the poems we read to enhance our days.

Chocolate and Almond Biscotti | Eat This Poem
Chocolate and Almond Biscotti | Eat This Poem
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Almond & Chocolate Biscotti

Makes 20 to 24 cookies

This recipe is lightly adapted from the pages of From the Markets of Tuscany by Giulia Scarpaleggia. Inside the cookbook, there's an entire page dedicated to the history of biscotti. Read it and you'll learn the word biscotto means "baked twice" in Italian, and that they came about in response to conservation—they'll stay fresh in a closed tin for up to two weeks. There are also notes on Antonio Mattei, who opened his first biscotti factory in 1858, in Prato, northwest of Florence, and although the bakery is owned by another family now, you can still visit there to taste these sweet little cookies.

Giulia's basic recipe is for almond biscotti, and she shares four variations to try. I combined two of the suggestions to make a dark chocolate and almond version I was so happy with it made me wonder why I hadn't been making biscotti part of my holiday baking routine for the past few years (they'll make perfect edible gifts this season!).

(Note: While typing up this recipe, I realized I accidentally used baking soda instead of baking powder, but the recipe still turned out wonderfully!) 

Ingredients:
3 eggs
1 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
Zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup almonds, coarsely chopped
3 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

Instructions:
Heat oven to 480°F. Add 2 eggs plus 1 yolk to the bowl of a stand mixer. (Save remaining egg white to use later.) Add sugar to the stand mixer and beat with the eggs until light and frothy, about 1 minute. Soft flour, baking powder, and salt over the mixer, then add the orange zest and mix on low speed until dough comes together. Add almonds and dark chocolate and fold in with a spatula.

Line a baking sheet with a silpat and separate the dough into two sections. Using a small icing spatula, spread dough into logs, about 12-inches long and 3-inches wide. I tried doing this by hand at first and the spatula really makes it easier, especially since the dough is a bit sticky. Beat egg white with a fork until frothy, then brush it over the dough. Slide the baking sheet into the oven, reduce heat to 350°F, and bake for 20 minutes. (Starting with high heat will help keep the dough from spreading too much.)

When the first bake is done, the biscotti should be golden on the outside but still tender inside. Let cool 5 minutes, then transfer logs to a cutting board and slide into 1-inch pieces. Arrange biscotti back on the baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, or until golden. Let cool completely on a rack before enjoying dunked in your coffee (or plain!).

Chocolate and Almond Biscotti | Eat This Poem