I am now a chef

Ordinarily I work all day doing atheist activism, then come home and do more atheist activism.  It’s fulfilling, but I’m trying to relax as much as I can right now so I’m trying something new: cooking.  With an oven.

This is quite a step for me.  I got As in chemistry, but have never been able to cook despite some sincere attempts at it.  The closest I generally get is microwaving some sweet tilapia, but that gets old after a while.  This time I will not fail.

Right now I have a couple of chicken breasts in the oven.  I plan to take it to the next level by melting some swiss cheese over them.  In the process of pre-heating the oven to 375, it struck me that “pre-heating” was kind of a ridiculous and superfluous term.  You heat the oven.  Pre-heating the oven would be the same as turning it off*.

Anyway, I tossed my chickens into the oven, that I heated, and immediately ran upstairs to tell Michaelyn what a lucky woman she is.  Imagine, I could make her chicken with melted swiss cheese for dinner anytime she wants.

“Sweetie, I’ve had a really rough day,” she would say.

“I’m sorry to hear that, babe.  How about I make you some nice chicken breast with melted swiss cheese in the oven?”

“My hero!” she’d exclaim.

Rinse and repeat every day for the rest of our lives.

I’m about to write her mother an email congratulating her on the fact that she can stop having ambitions for her daughter, because her daughter has reached the height of lifelong achievement: dating me.

It struck me because Michaelyn pointed it out and proceeded to make fun of me.

Shit was delicious. I just went from zero to chef in a matter of hours.

What should I make next?

PERSONAL: Mid day lab pics from the wife.
PERSONAL: Sorry to disappoint you, Julian.
Update and pics from #AACon15. MST3K cast members were at my talk.
You guys are wonderful.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • tehlise

    Eggplant or Chicken parmesan, from scratch, no cheating! ;-)

  • Jenni

    My friend used to make this amazing chicken…it was a stuffed breast with breadcrumbs, garlic, feta, spinach, swiss, tomatoes…omg it was soooo good. Good luck with your next concoction!

  • neatospiderplant

    I don’t pre-heat my oven at all. I just turn it on when I put the food in. I’ve never had a problem with things being undercooked that way, and I save on my utilities by not having the oven going longer than needed (especially if the prep takes longer than I plan.)

    Next, I say you should make lasagna.

    • amber c-f

      It is fair to note that there are exceptions… Anything that involves yeast, ya better preheat. Also, if there is a very short burst of heat broiler style, preheating is important.

      Otherwise, I am with you.

      • Dave X

        Someone once served me a meal of some raw chicken casserole in 20 minutes from a cold oven. I think the recipe she was following was broken, and it didn’t help that she’d refrigerated the thing before “baking”, nor test that it was even warm before serving it.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    Make some vegetables to go with the chicken! For dinner this week, I made rosemary roast potatoes: about a pound of small red potatoes from the farm down the street from my house. I washed the dirt off, cut them up into chunks (you don’t have to peel them if you wash them well), tossed them with some vegetable oil, salt, pepper, minced garlic and dried rosemary, then roasted them in the oven at 450 degrees for about 30 minutes. Perfection. I always buy the jars of pre-minced garlic, which is hell of a lot easier then chopping up a garlic clove yourself.

    Another idea: broccoli stir-fry. Slice up a head of broccoli into florets, as large or small as you like. Pour a thin layer of vegetable oil into a large pan (best not to use olive oil, it burns easily) and turn on the burner to heat it up. Once the oil is hot, spoon in some more minced garlic and the broccoli. When it turns bright green, it’s done (and delicious).

    • kagekiri

      Yeah, and you can apply the oil+garlic+veggie thing to stir fry pretty much any green leafed vegetable. If you want the dish to turn out a little more Asian, instead of just salting to flavor, you can dump in some oyster sauce when the veggies are at their most green.

      Or to go Chinese restaurant style, put corn starch in a bowl, add some hot water and stir to dissolve, then add that to almost finished vegetables to get that slimier sauce feel (not too much of a fan myself, but that is how a lot of Asian restaurants seem to do various veggie dishes).

    • neatospiderplant

      I make potatoes almost exactly the same way, but I add a bit of lemon juice too. Makes them slightly tangy.

      I also second the pre-minced garlic.

    • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

      Is there a reason to “mince” garlic per se? I keep reading recipes and wondering if my trusty garlic press is something I’ve somehow smuggled in from a parallel universe. O.o

      • ButchKitties

        When garlic is cut, the enzyme alliinase that exists between the individual cells converts alliin within the cells into allicin, which is what causes that eye-watering garlic smell. (It’s an evolved response to help the plant avoid being eaten). The more cell walls you bust open, the more that the reaction occurs, and the bitterer your garlic will be. However, the difference in taste between pressed and minced is probably subtle enough that most people won’t notice it.

        I never use a garlic press, but that’s partly because I think they’re a total pain the ass to clean. I also kinda like the texture of having little garlic chunks in my food. Alliin converts into something really sweet and mellow if it’s cooked without being exposed to alliinase, and that can’t happen if you use a press.

  • Nathaniel Frein

    Ughghghg. Too bloody hot for cooking w/ the oven at the moment. Right now, grilling is he way for me. Or sauteing.

    Goat Cheese Stuffed Cherry Tomatoes make for a wonderful finger-food.

    Salt Cod Cakes are downright delicious. The recipe calls for a chunky cake, and I like ‘em that way. My GF, however, prefers to beat the fish till it has a much smoother consistency. Tastes the same either way.

    For grilling, I love adding wet wood chips to add a wonderful smokey aroma. Unless you WANT grill marks, lower temperatures for longer is the way to go.

  • http://n/a BunnyT

    I had a couple of replies for some of your recent posts but didn’t want to spam, so I’ll pu them all here.

    Over the last few years, I’ve had a lot of stress from work. One major side effect was a lack of sleep. My low point came when I was getting no more than 2 hours of sleep a night (and not all in one go).

    What I’ve now come to realise was that probably half of the stress came from trying to decide what to do about it. When I finally made a decision (in my case to ask for a demotion)I had the best nights sleep in ages.

    It was also great to talk about it. For me the process of putting into words what’s wrong and actually saying it out loud to someone is incredibly cathartic. It was also probably quite frightening for my manager :)

    Really just wanted to say that what you’re going through struck a chord with me. Also I have a great recipie for a tea-bread with mango, coconut and sultanas if you’re ready to totally man-up and try your hand at baking!

    All the best mate.

  • Ken

    If you can do chicken you can do fish. Baking fish is even quicker then chicken. You could also dip the chicken in a beaten egg then in some bread crumbs and bake like you did before. Crunchy chicken.

  • Nick

    The term preheat is used to distinguish whether or not the food should be present during heating. When preheating, you’re heating the oven before adding the food. Other recipes may call for you to add the food before heating.

  • Greg

    Look for recipes by Alton Brown. Some of the best basic ones out there, and all of them are written for non-cooks. After years of cooking, his are still my goto recipes.

    If you have any favorite foods I would start there. For me it was omelets, and baked chicken, and soup, but I have an unhealthy fascination with soup.

    • http://www.facebook.com/DeannaJoy Deanna Joy Lyons

      Great idea! I have Alton brown’s cookbook from awhile back called “I’m Just Here For the Food” and I learned a lot about cooking meats from that book. I don’t need it any more JT, if you want it I’d be happy to send it to you.

  • shouldbeworking

    My room mates gave me a cookbook for my birthday called “The Solo Chef”. It’s a great book with recipes easily scalable. Before that day, my culinary abilities were limited only by the difficulty of openness the tin cans.

  • http://www.improbablejoe.blogspot.com Improbable Joe

    Maybe a pork loin? It goes really well with the roasted potatoes everyone is suggesting. The only difference from the chicken is that you give it a quick sear in a skillet before putting it in the oven.

  • http://natehevens.wordpress.com NateHevens

    COOKING!!!! One of my favorite things to do!

    Mexican Taco Filling is so frickin’ easy it’s not even funny…

    Basically, you take a large pan, put it on the stove, turn the stove to medium high, then throw in black beans (drain can half-way… or, if using two cans, drain one can but not the other), diced tomatoes, olives, sour cream, guacamole, shredded cheese, taco seasoning, and anything else that you think would taste good in it. Cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is gone.

    Then enjoy.

    Nacho, tacos…

    Oh… and if you decide to use meat, make sure to brown it first before throwing all the above on top of it…

    There’s a lot of ingredients, but one, maybe two steps. It’s easy, tasty, and fun.

    Just make sure you have Febreze for the… erm… side-effects…

    • http://natehevens.wordpress.com NateHevens


      Man I’m an idiot.

      I said “Mexican”… I meant “American”. It’s American Taco Filling… because, like Taco Bell, Dell Taco, Moe’s, and other places like that, it’s truly American… it doesn’t come close to the real thing.

      Now I just feel bad, like I inadvertently said something racist or something… :(

  • Jamie

    If you’re happier with baby steps, I do exactly what you’ve done but stuff the chicken breast with banana before it goes in the oven, and wrap the breast in either bacon or prosciutto before adding the cheese.

    Truly a delight, and only one or two more steps than you’re doing now.

    • neatospiderplant

      Hmmm, sounds interesting enough to be delicious. I will be trying this for my dinner tomorrow! Thanks!

    • http://chronosynclasticinfundibulum.wordpress.com/ salo

      I was going to suggest the same thing! :-P

      Adding prosciutto is easy to do, and it really makes things more interesting. I like to use a mallet to pound the chicken really flat, prosciutto on the bottom, cheese on the top, and roll it up and secure it with a toothpick and then bake. A little olive oil on the outside can make it a little crunchier if you like.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jkmiami89 Jessica

    I can teach you to make really easy and supurby delicious chili.

  • Smhll

    If you add some sliced ham to your chicken dish you almost have Chicken Cordon Bleu. doesn’t that sound fancy?

    I enjoy Cook’s Illustrated Magazine a lot. They experiment with changing up the ingredients and describe the results. It’s almost like Chemistry.

  • gworroll

    Most of what I cook is just grabbing random stuff, throwing it in a pan, and hoping it turns out edible. It mostly does, but it’s not really a recipe or meal as it is random food that’s warm.

    One thing though, worked out well.

    Get a frypan up to medium heat. Throw a bunch of chopped up fresh chili peppers in, along with a tilapia fillet, some soy sauce, and a little brown sugar. Flip the fish every few minutes until it starts falling apart when you flip it.

    It’s incredibly good and only takes a few minutes, including prep time. Some other types of fish would probably work.

    I have no measurements or specific pepper variety recommendations, I haven’t had the chance to pick up a bunch of fish and various peppers to work out any of that. Just throw in whatever amount of the ingredients works. I think it was somewhere less than half a teaspoon of brown sugar though.

  • phhht

    Make a salad. Make your own dressing out of good vinegar and good olive oil and a little mustard, or honey. You can get pretty good mixed greens in a lot of places now. And good bread, and good wine, and you got an un-fucking-beatable meal with no cooking at all.

    If a man prepares dinner for you and the salad contains three or more types of lettuce, he is serious. — Rita Rudner

    Get Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer for techniques.

    Boil eggs. Boil potatoes. Put them in the salad. And you’re off! Next thing you know, you’ll have read Joy of Cooking cover to cover. I know because it happened to me.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    You call yourself a chef. I can call myself a world-famous violinist and brain surgeon. Just us calling ourselves something doesn’t make us into that thing.

    Incidentally, instead of swiss cheese you might try jack or mild cheddar. Just a suggestion.

    • phhht

      You wouldn’t happen to be a True Chef yourself, would you?

    • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

      Why does “mild cheddar” EXIST? *grumble*

  • Laurie

    The purpose of preheating is to heat up the structure of the oven, as opposed to heating the air inside it. When the metal bits of the oven are heated, the temperature doesn’t vary as much when the door is opened and closed. Otherwise the temperature drops and takes a while to recover whenever the door has been opened.

    The bottom oven rack is a great place to store a ceramic pizza stone. It provides thermal mass to maintain a steadier temp.

    In general, if something is going to be baked for more than 45 minutes or so, you don’t need to preheat, unless the recipe has yeast in it.

  • Doug Alder

    Fortunately my mother was simply an AWFUL cook – forced me to learn to cook at an early age just for survival :)

  • Eileen

    preheating is mostly unnecessary, however, if you want to bake (different from cooking) you HAVE to preheat. Putting freshly made cookie dough in a cold oven is a bad idea. That said, I have only one suggestion. Get yourself a remote oven thermometer. It’s this really cool kitchen gadget that has two separate digital thermometers, one of which is attached to a probe that you stick in your food. The other can be on the table, remotely telling you how hot your meat is getting. You never have to time your food, just set the thing to ding when your chicken reaches 165 degrees. (or whatever)

    Other suggestion, go by smell. If you buy a few nicely chosen seasonings you don’t need a ton of prep. Just sprinkle a pre-prepared mix on top of your chicken and you’re done. If you want to experiment with your own combos, that’s fun too, but it takes a while to figure out what goes together.

    And last, think of recipes as guidelines. Never say to yourself “aww, I don’t have sesame seeds so I can’t make this.” You can fake out most foods, or substitute, again, go by smell.

    Good luck!!

  • Daniel Schealler

    Shit was delicious. I just went from zero to chef in a matter of hours.

    What should I make next?


  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    If you are oven roasting potatoes, add other root veggies to the mix – carrots, turnips, parsnips, fresh brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes. (Anything that doesn’t go mushy when cooked on high heat – zucchini doesn’t work.) Yummy.

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    #22 Daniel, Actually, choux pastry is very easy to make. Looks difficult but it isn’t.

  • Loqi

    It struck me because Michaelyn pointed it out and proceeded to make fun of me.

    Is Michaelyn a George Carlin fan, by any chance?

  • http://aplayfullife.wordpress.com JT Whitworth

    Chicken breast, dip in ranch dressing, dip in mix of breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. Takes a little longer to bake because the heat has to penetrate the coating.


    Shepherd’s Pie:
    Brown a pound of ground beef, drain, add frozen vegetables. I like mixed vegetables, but just corn and/or peas also work. Let the veggies soften, then add flour, followed by milk. Add just enough milk until the flour becomes a nice gravy. While you are doing all of that also prepare about six servings of mashed potatoes, the kind in a box works. Add beef/veggie/gravy to casserole dish, the long semi-deep kind. Spoon the mashed potatoes on top and spread around, like a pie topping, hence the name. I enjoy sprinkling shredded cheese on top. Personally I like pepperjack, but a taco blend works, cheddar, swiss, or even just thin slices if you don’t have/want to shred the cheese. Bake about 20 minutes at 400 or so, until the cheese melts, basically. If you want to get fancy you can brush the top of the potatoes with butter or egg whites so that a nice brown crust forms.

    • Catwhisperer

      Or, you can put the thing under the grill for 10 minutes or so and get the nice brown crust without the bother of brushing anything with anything.

      On a technical note, I keep being told that Shepherd’s Pie is made with minced lamb; if you use beef it’s Cottage Pie. >Shrug<

  • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

    I have numerous wonderful recipe suggestions, most of which start with sauteeing onions, plural, until they’re at minimum roughly toffee-colored. I find this is more dedication than most people want to put in. >.>

  • pwillow1

    The best advice I can give you is to start watching the YouTube videos of Chef John at foodwishes.blogspot.com. In five-minute segments, you can turn yourself into a very competent cook. Make one new dish a night and in no time you will have quite a formidable repertoire.

  • Greta Christina
  • http://www.facebook.com/DeannaJoy Deanna Joy Lyons

    There’s also the ever-popular crock pot. I’ll buy a hunk of meat on sale and throw that in on high for a couple hours with some water. When the meat starts falling apart, I use tongs or something to remove any fat chunks, if the meat is rather fatty I’ll even take it out and use a strainer to rinse the grease off. Then put the meat back in, add some random veggies and onions (and the minced garlic from a jar) and a couple of boullion cubes. Go somewhere and leave it on low. When you come back, it’s food! Little by little, I’ve been learning soups in there.

    You can make pulled pork or beef just like this too if you don’t add lots of veggies, just onions and a bunch of BBQ sauce.

    Like you, I’ve had to learn by doing. I’m 33 now, and I think I’ve got it down well enough to google a recipe and try it, or most importantly, wander around the kitchen looking in cupboards until I figure out if I can make anything out of what I have. :)

  • ah58

    I would suggest getting a wok and trying some stir fry cooking. It’s easy, fast and tastes delicious. You can stir-fry something almost as fast as you can cook something in the microwave.

  • Carol Eberhard

    Guess this means you’re cooking for everyone next time you’re home, right? And washing your own dishes? I am the luckiest mother in the whole world…:o)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      Let’s not get ahead of ourselves now…

    • Catwhisperer

      Steady now. The main advantage to learning to cook the handful of things I can make now is the fact that I can cook for everyone, and expect SOMEONE ELSE to wash the dishes.

  • lorimakesquilts

    I make Italian pasta all the time. If you want meat in it, brown ground beef, chicken or turkey, whatever you have/like, with chopped onions, peppers and garlic in a little olive oil. Otherwise, just cook the peppers and onions in the olive oil until the onions are clear. You can also add zucchini, squash, eggplant, whatever veg you have laying around that sounds good.

    Then add tomatoes (canned or fresh), a teaspoon or two of sugar (cuts the acidity of the tomatoes), your browned meat and Italian herbs — basil, oregano, marjoram, or whatever smells good. Again you can add more stuff here, like black olives.

    Get it up to bubbling then turn the heat down to a little above the lowest setting and let it simmer while you boil pasta. Drain pasta, dump it in the sauce, stir it up, put in a bowl, top with parm or mozz or both and enjoy.

    This is super easy and you can get endless variations by switching up the spices, using rice or barley and such as a substitute for the pasta. It’s a great way to clear out the fridge of veg that needs to be eaten.

  • lorimakesquilts

    Oh one more of my faves. This is more of a winter dish, a real comfort food, and it has bacon, so yummy but not entirely healthy — Fried Cabbage and Potatoes.

    This makes a lot so you might want to cut it in half.

    Fry a pound of bacon, remove the cooked bacon and pour off all but enough grease to leave the bottom of the pan covered. (Can be less if you’re using non-stick.)

    Throw in about three large potatoes that have been diced (about 1/2 – 3/4″) and one or two large diced onion (one is plenty unless you really like onions). Add in lots of ground pepper, and about a tablespoon of ground mustard. Stir to coat with the bacon grease and let them fry for 10-15 minutes. Stir every now and then. They should be getting a little brown.

    Add in a chopped head of green cabbage, lots of ground pepper, and about a tablespoon of ground mustard, also a splash of dark beer is good. (I don’t add salt until the end because of the salt in bacon. I usually don’t add any, but I’m on a low-salt diet so you may want to add some.) Cover, turn the heat down a little and let it cook for another 15 minutes or so, stirring now and then. Don’t worry if you can’t really stir at first, just let it steam for a bit and as the cabbage wilts the volume will be reduced.

    When the cabbage is done to your liking — some like it with still a little crunch, some don’t. Add crumbled bacon back in. Stir it up and serve. Delicious.