Turshen discussed the book, “Now and Again,” on Milk Street Radio, while also speaking about her cooking philosophy, favorite go-to dinners and how she roasts a chicken. In the interview, she explains some of her book's greatest hits—turning last night’s salad into today’s pesto, tomato sauce into soup the next day, and, the inspiration for the book, using leftover brisket and chicken soup for a riff on Vietnamese pho.
Get a taste of Turshen’s wisdom in the interview excerpts below, and head over to Milk Street Radio to listen to the full show.
On the inspiration for “Now and Again”
One year I went to my aunt and uncle's house for Passover Seder and my aunt had made so much chicken soup and so much brisket that she sent everyone home with leftovers. My wife, Grace, and I found ourselves eating chicken soup and brisket over and over again, and we were getting like a little bit sick of it, even though those are two of my favorite things in the world. So one night I thought, “I can't eat this again.” But it was so good and such great quality and I wanted to use it, so I charred an onion, I added it to the stock with some ginger and star anise and cinnamon, and the flavors you would often find in pho. Then added the sliced brisket to it with some rice noodles and served it with fresh herbs. Grace was like, “Oh, when did you order takeout?” I took it as a compliment. It was these two things we had gotten almost a little bit sick of and they were totally transformed.
On rethinking lettuce
I think especially in America, we don't think of lettuce as something that you cook. But it is cooked in different places all over the world, and it's great. It kind of transforms the texture. It makes it this kind of warm, satisfying dish and I just am always looking for that road to a recipe that's both really simple and also just a little unexpected. [In her book, Turshen serves lettuce, stir-fried with ginger and garlic and sliced celery, all seasoned with soy sauce, over rice with a fried egg.]
On roast chicken
I first like to take my chicken out of the fridge before I put it in the oven. I like to not go directly from the fridge into the oven. I think it's too extreme. So I try to bring it to room temperature (and that's assuming I remember, but I try to do that). So I take it out an hour or two before it goes in the oven and I like to season it really well. I hopefully also season it a little bit earlier before it goes in the oven so that the salt and everything really penetrates. I just cook at 425 for an hour or so depending on the bird.
On food as a window into culture
Eating a plate of food in and of itself, if it's something you've never eaten, maybe you'll learn about a new ingredient or flavor. That can be really exciting. But in terms of really learning about a culture, I think you have to talk to whoever cooked it or read their story or listen to it. And also kind of trace those ingredients and find out where they're from and who grew them. I think if we bring that kind of mindset to everything we eat, we learn so much about each other.
I was telling you about the sort of Jewish chicken soup I grew up with. To me, that bowl of soup represents my entire history. It represents my family and where they came from and where they fled, and the traditions they brought with them. To me it's my whole family. It's my whole heritage in a bowl.
On go-to dinners
Two come to mind. One from “Now and Again” is the chicken and black-eyed pea chili. I make it or a variation of it all the time. There's usually a container of it in our freezer. It's the kind of thing that I love to make an extra batch of whenever I make it just to kind of have it on hand. If I'm away from home for a night or two, I like knowing that there's some in the freezer for my wife if she wants. It's just one of those things that's easy to make and really satisfying to eat. I like having dinner out of a bowl. So that's one. And then the other that came to mind immediately was from my earlier cookbook, “Small Victories.” I did a recipe for turkey and ricotta meatballs and that recipe became super popular and it was sort of amazing to watch it kind of take on a life of its own. And I think again, it's because they're really easy to make, but so comforting. I think they just always hit the spot.