One survey reported that folks equate the stress of home entertaining with the anxiety of going to the dentist. It doesn’t have to be a root-canal kind of challenge. An autumn gathering around the table can be foolproof and enjoyable, especially if you follow the recipes in Julia Turshen’s new book.
“Small Victories: Recipes, Advice, Hundreds of Ideas for Home-Cooking Triumphs” (Chronicle, $35) is designed to make home cooks feel good about cooking. She says that celebrating small victories in the kitchen is a sure way to become comfortable, a way to rejoice in the realization that cooking doesn’t have to be complicated to be satisfying. And yes, pleasurable.
In a telephone conversation from her home in upstate New York, she told me that her Turkey and Ricotta Meatballs are a great place to start, an easy-to-prepare entrée that even an inexperienced cook can master without difficulty.
“This recipe is a keeper; it’s one of my favorites” said Turshen, the co-author of several other bestselling cookbooks, including “Mario Batali’s Spain – A Culinary Road Trip.”
“They are so easy to make, in fact hard to mess up. They are familiar yet updated. I started making these meatballs for my wife Grace who has Type 1 diabetes; she needs to be careful about carbs. By adding ricotta, I skip breadcrumbs and eggs – which also makes the dish gluten free. The meatballs are tender and incredibly light; turkey can be dry, but these aren’t. Another small victory is that they are baked rather than fried.
Just cook up a big pot of spaghetti (to accompany them). Most recipes in the book serve four, but I’ve made this one larger to serve 8. Put half away in the freezer if you like.”
The meatballs can be made ahead and refrigerated; the sauce, too. Reheat the sauced meatballs in a 325-degree oven until piping hot.
After each recipe in the book, she noted ways to alter the dish in simple ways. These culinary jewels are called “spin-offs.” For meatball twists, her spin-off suggests using ground sausage instead of turkey. Or for a Moroccan riff, use ground lamb instead of turkey, along with some crumbled feta (instead of Parmesan) with a handful of toasted pine nuts and mint.
For an easy starter, Turshen suggested Caesar salad. She explained that when she was working as a private chef, the most requested item was her Caesar salad dressing. Clients often requested that she leave containers of the tasty mix in their refrigerators.
“My mother is convinced that it will sell and then my whole family can live in the ‘house that Julia’s Caesar built,” she explained.
The small victory here is omitting the time consuming coddled egg (or raw egg) and swapping in a spoonful of mayonnaise instead. OK, it’s not authentic Caesar Cardini salad, but it is delicious and you can prepare the creamy-thick dressing ahead and refrigerate it.
If you want to add a fall touch, cut a Fuyu persimmon into wedges and use those orange beauties instead of tomatoes (that’s the variety that is shaped like a tomato not the one that resembles a heart profile).
Cauliflower on the Side
As a side dish, she suggests Cauliflower with Anchovy Bread Crumbs, a dish that brings crunchy, salty and umami elements to the table. She said that learning to repurpose stale bread for these crumbs is a small victory, along with realizing that room temperature dishes are delicious. So, when entertaining you can roast the florets before the guests arrive and dress it with those tasty crumbs – then set it aside until serving time.
Another small victory is learning that roasting cauliflower requires patience. It should stay in the oven until it is very well browned. That caramelization turns it sweet.
We All Scream for It
She says that everyone loves ice cream and that it is by far the easiest dessert to serve. There are often delicious store-bought ice creams that are themed to fall: pumpkin, cinnamon, or walnut. And there’s always good old vanilla; surround it with sliced ripe pear if you like.
“I love dinner parties and we have a lot of them,” she says. “Our home is relaxed. Inviting people into your home is viewed as a real gift. It’s an opportunity to connect with people. And it doesn’t need to be intimidating.”
Cauliflower with Anchovy Bread Crumbs
Yield: 4 servings
1 head cauliflower, cored, cut into small florets
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 garlic clove, minced
4 oil-packed anchovies, drained
1 1/2 cups coarse bread crumbs, stale bread works fine
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
The anchovy bread crumbs are delicious scattered atop pasta (instead of cheese). This dish can be turned into a soup by pureeing the roasted cauliflower with some chicken or vegetable stock, then garnish each serving with the anchovy bread crumbs. Also, if you prefer, you can make the bread crumbs have a different flavor by substituting chopped rosemary for the anchovies or substituting fresh oregano for parsley. Or, for a cheesy version, add some finely grated Parmesan or pecorino at the last minute to the bread crumbs.
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Put florets on baking sheet; drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil and salt. Toss. Roast, stirring occasionally, until tender and well browned, about 40 minutes. Transfer to serving platter.
2. Meanwhile, in large heavy skillet over medium-high heat, warm 3 tablespoons oil. Add garlic and anchovies; cook, stirring, until anchovies completely disintegrate into the oil. Add bread crumbs and cook, stirring frequently, until they’ve absorbed all of the oil and are brown and a bit crisp, about 5 minutes. Stir in pepper and parsley; remove from heat.
3. Scatter bread crumbs evenly over cauliflower and drizzle everything with remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
Turkey and Ricotta Meatballs
Yield: 8 servings, or 4 servings with lots of leftovers, about 30 meatballs
Two 28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
7 garlic cloves, 4 thinly sliced, 3 minced
1 cup fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
1 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups fresh whole-milk ricotta cheese
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 pounds ground turkey (preferably dark meat), room temperature
1. Pour contents of the tomato cans into a large bowl (set the cans aside) and crush the tomatoes with your hands (this is messy but fun job, and a good one for children). Rinse one of the cans with about 1/4 cup water, pour into second can and swish it around to get all the excess tomato out of the cans, and then pour the water into the tomato bowl.
2. In large saucepan or pot over medium-high heat, warm 3 tablespoons olive oil, add the sliced garlic and cook, stirring, until it begins to sizzle, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes and a very large pinch of salt; bring to boil. Lower heat and let sauce simmer, stirring every so often, until it is slightly reduced and has lost any tin-can taste, about 30 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil on baking sheet and use your hands to rub it over entire surface. Set aside.
4. In large bowl, combine minced garlic, basil, parsley, ricotta, Parmesan, turkey and 1 tablespoon salt. Blend everything together gently but authoritatively with your hands (they’re the best tool for the job), until well mixed. Then, use your hands to form the mixture into golf ball-sized meatballs; the mixture will be sticky, so wet your hands with a bit of water to help prevent meat from sticking to them. Transfer meatballs to prepared sheet as you form them (it’s okay if they are touching a little). Drizzle meatballs with remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and roast until they are browned and firm to the touch, about 25 minutes. Use tongs or slotted spoon to transfer meatballs to simmering sauce (discard whatever juice and fat that is left on baking sheet). Cook meatballs for 10 minutes in the sauce (they can be left in the gently simmering sauce for up to 1 hour) and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
1 small garlic clove, minced
4 olive oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
3 hearts of romaine lettuce, trimmed, washed, dried and cut into bite-sized pieces
A handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
For a vegetarian version, use 1 tablespoon drained capers in place of anchovies. For a vegan version, use 1 tablespoon capers in place of anchovies and Vegenaise instead of regular mayonnaise and leave out the Parmesan.
1. In a blender or food processor, puree garlic, anchovies, lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil and mayonnaise until smooth. Add Parmesan and give a few pulses just to incorporate the cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Alternatively, finely chop anchovies, put them in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients and whisk everything together.)
2. Put lettuce in large bowl and drizzle nearly all of the dressing over it. Use your hands to mix everything together, making sure each and every piece of lettuce is coated. Divide between 4 plates. Divide tomatoes evenly among the salads and drizzle the last bit of dressing over the salads. Serve immediately.