Ask The Chef with Joshna Maharaj (Episode 9)

In this episode, Chef Joshna Maharaj answers student questions about overcoming the fear of cooking and serves up ideas for a number of easy-to-make essential dishes for morning, noon or night

In episode 9 of Ask the Chef, our Chef Joshna Maharaj shares insight from her experience to help students overcome a beginners fear of cooking with tips and ideas for a number of easy-to-make essential dishes for morning, noon or night. From scrambled eggs to a grilled cheese sandwich, to a simple go-to pasta and chicken prep that’ll give you options. Yum, yum and yum! This promises to set you on a path to eat well for the rest of your life.

How can I overcome my fear of cooking?

This is a mega question! We need to have a bit of a conversation to answer it properly. Here goes…

There are two things that people are generally afraid of in the kitchen: 1) Cutting their fingers with the knife; and, 2) Messing up a dish and wasting their ingredients and time.

The truth is if you’re careful and if you use a good sharp knife, you’re likely not going to cut yourself. Beyond that, there are basic techniques to hold your knife and how to safely use a knife in the kitchen that will keep your fingers protected. Practice the basic knife skills and you’ll be chopping, dicing and slicing with confidence in no time.

Let’s get back to the fear of messing up a dish. First, I’d like to encourage you all to just embrace the idea that you’re going to mess it up. I’ve messed it up often–and I’ve started posting things that I messed up on my Instagram feed because I don’t want everybody to think that just beautiful things come out of my kitchen. I mess it up all the time, that’s just part of cooking, and it’s OK. 

Yes, it’s unfortunate when you waste ingredients that you spent money on. But it happens and the most important thing is for you to learn what happened and what went wrong so you don’t do it again next time.

Just jump in knowing that you’re going to mess up. It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s not all going to work right. But the only way to learn is to just get in there and try making that dish!

What are some easy-to-make dishes if I’m getting started with cooking?

I think it might be helpful for me to suggest some dishes that are easy starting points–which means doable and you’ll be successful enough to get excited and keep cooking because that’s what we really want you to do! There are basic scrambled eggs, the grilled cheese sandwich, Spaghetti Aglio e Olio and seasoned boneless skinless chicken.

Basic scrambled eggs

Get yourself some eggs. Eggs are low risk and versatile. You can go full-on about learning how to make an omelette, but let’s start with scrambled eggs. Learn how the fat moves around the pan. Learn how the egg swirls. Learn how to make them fluffy.

A reputable source for the basics like scrambled eggs is America’s Test Kitchen. Here’s their Cooking School article on How to Make the Best Scrambled Eggs to go along with a video.

Grilled cheese sandwich

Everybody needs to know how to make their own great grilled cheese sandwich. This is a classic comfort food that I promise you’ll be fed forever with!

Here’s the classic Grilled Cheese Sandwich recipe from All Recipes.

Once you’ve got the basics, then you can start modifying it–different bread and types of cheese, delicious additions to go into the sandwich, a stuffed grilled cheese–it grows and grows one step at a time.

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio

For pasta, learn how to make a simple Aglio e Olio pasta that’s basically chillies, garlic (the “Aglio”) and olive oil (the “Olio”) tossed together in spaghetti. Perfect the basics with this classic pasta dish and then move on to the next one.

Here’s a Spaghetti Aglio e Olio recipe with a video from All Recipes.

Seasoned boneless skinless chicken

What’s the easiest chicken recipe? Seems like a simple enough question, but it’s actually a bit more complicated because what’s easy depends on to who and how do you want to cook the chicken, right? 

So what I thought I’d do is share a few things about boneless skinless chicken breasts or boneless skinless chicken thighs. I suggest you just make friends with the idea of roasting or sauteing pieces of boneless skinless chicken. This is a good starting point before dealing with skin and bones and having to handle the whole bird because that can be overwhelming.

What I like to do is rub the whole chicken piece with olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Lay the chicken pieces on a parchment paper-lined or foil-lined baking tray, and put it in an oven that’s preheated to 400 degrees F. Make sure the oven is preheated because then you get maximum heat and even cooking. In approximately 20 minutes your chicken will be cooked through. 

Here’s a Simple Baked Chicken Breasts recipe with a video from All Recipes.

People often overcook chicken because they’re concerned about the development of bacteria and salmonella. But 20 minutes at 400 degrees F, an average chicken breast will be cooked enough. You can use a thermometer to test the internal temperature, which should be 165 degrees F. Chicken thighs may need more time because sometimes dark meat takes longer. 

But the reason I’m walking you through this simple way to cook chicken is once you have it–you’ve got options! You can make it in a large batch and have it in the fridge. You could chop it up. You can put it in chicken salad. It can get sauteed with other vegetables for a quick little rice bowl or something nice like that. You can put it in a burrito or in some tacos. You can make a casserole with it.

Please remember to be very careful when you’re handling raw chicken. Don’t touch anything else in the kitchen, don’t grab the drawer pull or fridge handle. There’s the potential to transfer harmful bacteria. So do your mise en place for chicken, including a thorough washing of all your prep equipment.

You’re going to eat for the rest of your life, so I really recommend you take the time to invest in this relationship so that your time in this place is joyful. And when you’re in here, you see things that are exciting you and that you just want to cook and feed yourself. You gotta cultivate some intuition and some knowledge, right. I tell people this over and over and over again.

The reason why it looks like I know everything about the kitchen is because I’ve put in hours and hours of practice, right? Malcolm Gladwell talked about the “10,000 hour rule” where research supports the idea that preparation (read: effort) plays a bigger role in success at a high level than innate talent does.

That’s what we’re talking about here, right? Cooking and eating well is an investment in your health and well-being. You’re gonna eat for the rest of your life, so why not learn how to do that well?

We love hearing from you. Thank you very much for your questions!

Do you want to ask the chef a question that could help you and other students?

Message us with your question @CommunalLunch or directly @JoshnaMaharaj on Instagram.

Joshna is a chef, author & activist who cares a lot about people's relationship with food. She works to rebuild food systems in public institutions putting hospitality and sustainability as a top priority.

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