Q&A: Cookbook Author Tanorria Askew

A smiling woman wearing a gray sweater
Cookbook author Tanorria Askew

A 2016 appearance on Season 7 of Gordon Ramsay’s competitive-cooking show MasterChef established Tennessee-born Tanorria Askew as a culinary up-and-comer. A Teachers Credit Union coordinator at the time, she finished fourth in the competition, impressing the judges with her comfort-food finesse. Ramsay declared her andouille-spiked shrimp and grits the best he had ever tasted.

After the show ran, reality TV became Askew’s reality—she left her credit union job to prepare food full time, living her dream as a private chef, food writer, co-host of the Black Girls Eating podcast, and now, a published cookbook author. Askew shares her wisdom in Staples + 5: 100 Simple Recipes to Make the Most of Your Pantry. Guiding readers through simple but stunning dishes like bacon-wrapped dates; a tidy chicken, mushroom, and rice skillet casserole; and Church Lady Potato Salad with plenty of paprika, Askew preaches the importance of a smartly stocked larder over an elaborate one. Here, she points us in the direction of shrimp-and-grits greatness, shares her Sunday dinner plans, and gives props to Julia Child.

Do you have a big kitchen?

I do not have a big kitchen. I have a fairly outdated kitchen that is covered in ivy wallpaper. I dream of having a wall like Julia Child’s, where she hung all of her pots and pans and labeled them. I would love to do that with my cast-iron skillets. I’m from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I was born near the Lodge Cast Iron factory. I have quite a collection.

Is there one great fake-it-till-you-make-it recipe from your book that is surprisingly easy to prepare but looks amazing?

The lemon spaghetti with garlicky roasted shrimp. It sounds really fancy, presents beautifully, and makes a nice quantity if you’re entertaining. But it really is just tossing pasta and pasta water with lemon juice and roasting some shrimp in the oven. It is so delicious and bright. And because it’s pasta, it’s also really filling.

On the subject of shrimp, you are famous for your shrimp and grits. I think a lot of people are intimidated by shrimp, or they don’t really know now to prepare it properly. What advice would you give them?

I think people are cooking shrimp too long and at the wrong temperature, which makes it come out rubbery, sometimes almost gritty. The key to cooking shrimp is to cook it on high heat quickly. Whether you are searing it in a skillet or roasting it in the oven, you’re only going to cook it for five to 10 minutes, depending on how big your shrimp are. In the oven, I wouldn’t cook it any lower than 400 degrees. When you are searing it on the stovetop, use medium-high heat for one to two minutes on each side.

How about the grits?

Don’t be afraid to use an obnoxious amount of cream and butter. But most importantly, if you’re cooking grits for any type of savory application, they absolutely should be cooked in stock, not water. This is the only opportunity you have to season the grits and flavor them. Even if you are just cooking grits for breakfast application—like as a side with bacon and eggs—that water should be seasoned well with salt.

What do you love to make at home?

Oftentimes, throughout the week, I’m just honestly too busy to cook, so I may make a meal that will last a couple of days. Chicken wings are very popular in my house. I bake them in the oven. There is a recipe in the cookbook for crispy chicken wings in the oven. But on Sundays, I cook what I want. If you don’t like it, you don’t need it. And so, I will do something low and slow like a pot roast or short ribs or ox tails. Or I will do a really hearty soup or stew. In the summer, I will throw some sea bass on the grill.

Is MasterChef an experience that you ever want to do again?

MasterChef was an absolutely amazing experience. I don’t know that I would do a lengthy competition show like that again; I was gone for 72 days. But I would love to be on some type of cooking competition. My ultimate dream is to have my own cooking show—something more along the lines of teaching, like a Julia Child–type show. I feel like we need to get back to that.

What else are you working on right now?

I’m very fortunate that Indianapolis loves me. I feel like had I been in a different city, maybe in New York or Chicago, I may have gone under the radar after MasterChef. But I feel like Indianapolis is taking care of me as far as my career goes. Between the Black Girls Eating podcast and dinner party season (which, even though I think it’s slow in the winter, it’s not), I am doing something really fun with the book. At the start of the year, I’m picking up my Conquering the Kitchen virtual cooking classes with Staples + 5. So we are making recipes out of the cookbook, once a month. It’s a public virtual cooking class. Anyone from anywhere can register and join me for about 90 minutes and make a recipe. I just want to get the message out to people at any income level and any food-access level that they can make good, wholesome food. I feel like being in a city that has one of the largest food deserts in the nation, that message needs to be loud and clear.