Dirty Work: Turning Leftovers into Delicious Chilaquiles with Julia Turshen
“The thing that keeps me up at night is the thought of someone making a recipe that wasn’t well-tested and feeling like they did something wrong. It’s a waste of money and time, and they might be discouraged from doing something else. That’s awful.”
Photo by Farideh Sadeghin
Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. In the latest installment, luminary recipe whisperer Julia Turshen stops by to put together some absurdly killer chilaquiles and to talk about the poetic nature of recipes and her first solo-cookbook, Small Victories, which was just released earlier this week.
"The thing that keeps me up at night is the thought of someone making a recipe that wasn't well-tested and feeling like they did something wrong. It's a waste of money and time, and they might be discouraged from doing something else. That's awful," explains New York-based writer and cook, Julia Turshen, as she cuts into some day-old corn tortillas in the MUNCHIES kitchen.
If you happen to have picked up a bestselling cookbook in the past decade, there's a very good chance that you've already experienced the varied and inspired work of Julia Turshen, whether or not you were actually aware of it.
That's because Turshen is one of the brightest rising stars in cookbook publishing, and is greatly sought after for her ability to create insightful, cohesive cookbooks that speak deeply to readers. , The Kimchi Chronicles, Hot Bread Kitchen, It's All Good, and Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen are just some of the cookbooks that Turshen has been involved in, acting as a co-author or collaborator with the likes of Mario Batali, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Dana Cowin, respectively—to name just a few.
Despite all of these major accomplishments, it's hard to believe that is Turshen's first solo cookbook. In it, though, her voice comes through loud and clear—as it does in the chilaquiles she cooked for us out of the spoils of a high summer garden here at MUNCHIES.
Turshen explains that chilaquiles, the traditional Mexican breakfast concoction, is "a dish I've always loved." Plus, it fits the concept of her book: each recipe has a tip or technique that is a "small victory"—in this case the reinvigoration of leftover tortillas into something magical. It also puts to perfect use the abundance of tomatoes that we had in our garden when Turshen came to visit.
Turshen's recipe combines pickled onions, a salsa rich in roasted tomatoes, onions, and chiles, and, of course, those leftover tortillas. "I love it because it's not a strict recipe—you can use any kind of tomato, or tomatillos, it's got a lot of flexibility to it. I love the idea of an ingredient that everyone thinks is done, or doesn't have anything to offer," Turshen explains. "Like a stale tortilla—it can be a whole new thing. Usually those recipes are even better than you'd think, like anything with leftover bread."
Turshen says she developed this recipe largely by accident, after forgetting to serve some tortilla chips she had made for friends when they came to visit her and her wife in their upstate New York home. Describing chilaquiles at "the perfect hangover breakfast," Turshen shows us how easy it is to assemble the dish.
She also explains that her roots in cooking and cookbooks are deep. Both of Turshen's parents worked in publishing when she was young, so by the age of 12, she was making Thanksgiving dinner for the family. Later, she worked as a private chef and did a stint as an intern at Food & Wine. These experiences led to working on a cookbook for a PBS show and then to the many cookbooks she has co-written. In the meantime, Turshen says she "had this running list in my head of my own recipes" and "a long email to myself where I wrote things I'd made—so the table of contents for this book was brewing" for a while.
Turshen's wild head of curls might suggest that her approach leans towards the untamed and spontaneous, but the truth seems to be that she values precision and concision as well. Turshen explains that in college, she studied poetry: "I have a whole theory about why that was the perfect bridge into food writing. Writing a recipe is trying to convey a lot of information while being very economic and evocative with your wording. They're all like little poems." The clear explanations that fill her cookbook and the variations she offers for each recipe—turning 100 recipes into 500—are like an act of culinary haiku or the creation of a book of sonnets.
Turshen understands the beauty of a well-crafted recipe and the passion a cook can have for a favorite cookbook. "I like to divide the world, and I think people either use cookbooks for information or for inspiration—incredible photography, and things you might never make. My favorite cookbooks are the ones that do both, that are very approachable and give you a lot of information, but inspire you to try something you've never tried before."
In the end, Turshen's combination of pickled onions, salsa, sour cream, and tortillas melds into more than the sum of its parts. A topping of cotija cheese and some fresh herbs doesn't hurt, either. Never one to let a ready supply of nearby produce go to waste, Turshen decided to venture back into the garden for some more inspiration and was able to put together an inspired summer salad and some blistered shishito peppers in a matter of minutes.
We dive in and find that the result of Turshen's long training as a cook and cookbook writer has certainly paid off. "I like simple food that has a lot of flavor," she says.
We couldn't agree more.