Dellani Oakes

The Bread of Life — and Then Some by Dellani Oakes

To Purchase Dellani's Books http://tinyurl.com/mcsmntg
To Purchase Dellani’s Books http://tinyurl.com/mcsmntg

My family loves fresh bread. Not the store bought kind, the homemade kind. Admittedly, that’s my fault. I’ve spoiled them over the years. I love to bake bread and, if I may be so bold to brag, I’m good at it. Don’t expect fancy pastries at my house.

There is no elaborately decorated cake on my counter. You’ll find no baklava, petit fours or other intricate confections. However, if you’re after challa bread, potato rolls, light & sweet whole wheat or crusty white bread, I’m your gal.

I used to indulge in sour dough when I lived in Nebraska, but have never gotten the hang of it here in Florida. More often than not, the starter rots, turns black & molds. I’m a good cook, too.

Here again, you won’t find gourmet delights to titillate the palate. You will find hearty stews, homemade chicken soup with alphabet pasta, red beans and rice that will make you weep, it’s so delicious. I also make fabulous cornbread – not the sweet Yankee kind. My husband’s Deep South tastebuds would perish.

I chose to do the cooking in our family because I’m good at it and my husband can only be trusted to prep food for cooking (at which he excels) but not actually putting the ingredients together in an edible way. If I need vegetables peeled, chopped or diced, he’s my go-to guy. He worked as a prep chef in a fancy restaurant for awhile. He’s also the chief bottle (and everything else) washer. I fix the food, he cleans up. It’s a great system.

All this being said, I’m appalled at the number of people who can’t cook. I’m not blaming women—entirely. Men can and should learn to cook too. It shouldn’t always be the “woman’s place” to put a meal on the table. Making a bowl of canned ravioli or boiling up a packet of ramen noodles doesn’t count. Even scrambling an egg is better than nuking frozen burritos.

My home economics teacher used to say, “If you can read, you can cook.” Nice in theory, but not entirely true. I’ve known plenty of well educated people who could read Tolstoy and couldn’t fry bacon. One must have a modicum of skill and desire. Kind of like sex. You might be able to do the act, but with no enthusiasm or finesse, you’re just another bad lay. My home economics teacher would not have put it that way, but she was far more ladylike than I am.

Cooking isn’t hard. And despite all the things Paula Dean and Rachel Ray espouse about having the correct equipment in your kitchen, if you have a bowl, a spoon and a saucepan, you can work wonders. A little imagination and desire helps. All you need are a few simple ingredients and you can assure yourself that you won’t starve.

I hadn’t intended to make this about cooking. I had a profound, earth shatteringly important philosophical message to deliver, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it was now. So—about cooking. Below are a few very simple meals that I’ve used over the years. They aren’t fancy, but they’re filling—that’s what I tell my family all the time.

One of the most useful, cooking perfect rice, is based on a recipe I picked up in New Orleans. It was on a postcard sporting the recipe for red beans and rice. But as it said on the card, even the best red beans can be ruined by bad rice. I’ve changed it somewhat to suit my own needs, so here it is.

Perfect Rice Every Time – I Guarantee! Using your trusty kettle or large saucepan, fill it ¾ of the way full of water. Add an 1/8 tsp of salt. Set it on the stove to boil. Measure a cup of rice and set it aside. One cup of dry rice makes approximately 3 cups of cooked rice. If you’re feeding a big crowd, use a bigger pot and add more rice. Get the water boiling good and hard. Add the rice, stirring to keep it from sticking.

Leave the lid off the pot, reduce to medium or medium-high heat. You want it to bubble, but not boil over. Cook for EXACTLY 18 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse with cold water to get the extra starch off. To reheat, leave in the colander and add an inch or so of water to the pan. Put it back on medium heat and place the colander over the water, covered with the pot lid, until the steam reheats it. This will only work if it’s a metal colander—don’t try with plastic. I shouldn’t even have to say that, but my sons have taught me that I have to. My daughter, thankfully, never made that mistake. Rice is a great side dish. It’s also wonderful if you have only a little topping and need something to fill up hungry people.

Rice is a versatile food. You can add a little meat and some vegetables to make stir-fry. Throw in some herbs and spices to make a flavorful side dish. There are some spice mixes by Goya that can be added to cooked rice. They provide some variety and color to a meal. Look for them in the international foods aisle at the grocery store. Please note, this recipe only applies to WHITE RICE! Brown rice is a whole other ballgame that requires half your lifetime to get right. I don’t have that kind of time to waste, so I don’t usually cook it.

Another simple recipe that anyone can fix – chicken salad. It’s easy to prepare, though it does require chopping skills on the part of the person putting it together. Canned chicken can often be found fairly inexpensively. I pick it up when it’s on sale. You can use fresh cooked chicken, but that depends upon knowing how to boil chicken. That might be above your current skill set.

Best Ever Chicken Salad

1 can of chunk chicken – the brand doesn’t matter

1 small onion

1 stalk of celery (optional)

dried cranberries (optional, but delicious or you can substitute raisins or sliced grapes)

1 small apple, chopped

mayonnaise

pepper

mustard

salt (optional)

pecans or walnuts, chopped (optional)

I know what you’re thinking – I have a can of chicken and a whole lot of fruit. What? Trust me. Empty the chicken into your trusty colander and rinse a little. Put in a bowl and break up any big chunks.

Carefully cut up the onion. (I’ll give instructions below on the best way to do this.) Add to the bowl. Rinse the stalk of celery. Cut off the bottom about ¼ inch from the base. Trim the top the same amount. Pull off any leaves. Chop up the celery. Add to the bowl.

Take a generous handful of the dried cranberries. Add them to the bowl – no need to chop. Add mayonnaise to taste. Some people like a lot, some a little. Start with a generous mixing spoon full and go from there. Just a dab of mustard. You want a little flavor but not a lot. Pepper and salt to taste. I usually leave out the salt. Most canned chicken doesn’t need it. If you’re using the nuts, chop and add them now. Mix well.

Wash and cut up the small apple. You want little pieces like you did with the onion and celery. You don’t have to peel it. The color of the peel adds to the visual appeal of the food. I prefer a red apple, but granny smith or yellow apples work too. Mix well. Allow the salad to sit in the fridge about 30 minutes and serve with bread or lettuce, as you like.

This serves 2 people well, 3 less so. Easy to double or triple the recipe.

Egg Salad – The Largely Under Appreciated Meal

6 – 12 eggs (depends on how much you want to make)

1 onion (size depends on how many eggs)

mayonnaise

mustard

pickle relish

salt & pepper

celery (optional)

I hope you know how to hard boil eggs. If not, here’s a method that works for me, though it’s not fool proof. Older eggs, for some reason, work better than newer ones. They are far easier to peel. So, if you’ve got some eggs near extinction, use them. If not, buy some and let them sit a few days before using them.

Poke a hole in the fat end of the egg. Why? To keep the eggs from exploding while they cook. This can be done with a pin, preferably one with a large plastic head so you don’t hurt your fingers. I have a nifty-neat little egg hole poker thingy that my father-in-law bought for his wife and she never used. It’s wonderful. Hold the eggs carefully and apply equal pressure when you push in the pin. Otherwise, it gets messy fast!

Place the eggs in your saucepan and cover with cold water from the tap. Set the pan on the stove and put it on high. Bring the eggs to a full, rolling boil. Turn down to medium high. Leave the lid on and let them boil 7 minutes. (That’s an arbitrary number. I do anything from 5 – 10) Turn off the pan and let them sit in the hot water about 15 minutes more.

Carefully drain the hot water. You can use a colander if you like, though it’s tricky. It’s actually easier to remove the eggs with tongs and put them in a bowl, then pour out the boiling water. Now that the eggs are in a bowl, they need to cool. Run cold tap water over them. You can add ice or ice packs to speed things along. Let them cool completely. Peeling a hot egg is dangerous. Don’t do it!

To peel the eggs, tap them on a plate or counter. I prefer a plate because they sometimes spew. DO NOT SMASH! Once it’s good and cracked, squeeze it gently to raise the shell. Peel. Sometimes the shell will stick—okay, it does that fairly often. Be patient and remember that they don’t have to look pretty, you’re cutting them up anyway. Rinse and pat the eggs dry with paper towels.

Cutting up the eggs is a lot easier if you have an egg cutter. You can get these at the grocery store in the cooking utensil aisle. I cut the eggs one way, then turn them and slice the other as well. If you aren’t that coordinated, you can cut them once. Dump that in a bowl.

Cut you your onion & celery. Add to the bowl. Add the other ingredients to taste. Again, go easy on the mustard. Stir well and chill. Can be served as sandwiches or just a scoop on lettuce. It’s cheap, easy and filling.

Scrambled Eggs

Some folks don’t add milk to scrambled eggs. I always have. Partly, it makes them lighter and fluffier, also, it makes the eggs go farther than they would if you just use eggs. This basic combination can be used for omelettes or French toast. It’s a nice, standard blend. Whether for one egg or a dozen, the basic ratio is the same for each egg, add about 2T of milk.

Grant you, I don’t measure anything, so this is a rough guess. You want almost an even amount of milk & eggs. If you have to, break the eggs into a measuring cup. See how much there is and add that amount of milk (or slightly less). Or you can eye-ball it, which is what I do.

Break the eggs into a smaller bowl before adding to the larger one. Why? Two reasons: once in awhile you get a bad egg. (PEW) other times, you get shell in there. It’s easier to get a piece from a small bowl than a large one. (If you get a piece of shell in there, poke your finger into the bowl, targeting the shell. Press down and slide your finger up the side of the bowl, don’t try to pick it out, that’s much harder.)

Before adding the milk, take a fork or wire whisk and break the eggs, mixing them together. The milk mixes in better if the eggs are already whisked. Add your milk. Now, you have a variety of choices. I like to add a dash of cinnamon and a very small shake of nutmeg to our eggs. I also add salt and pepper to taste. Sometimes, I add a little garlic & onion powder or some original flavor Mrs. Dash. It all depends on the character of the finished eggs. You can also leave all that out and just scramble them plain, but I’m here to tell you, you’re missing out.

To cook the eggs, use a skillet on medium. Don’t cook higher or the eggs could separate or burn. Cooking spray is very helpful, then a tablespoon of butter or margarine for a little flavor. When the pan is hot, add the eggs and keep them moving either with a fork or a pancake turner. We like ours dry, but there are some folks who like moist scrambled eggs. (GAG) Decide how done you like them and serve immediately.

I like to add some cheese right before serving. Throw some grated cheddar on top and let it sit a moment to melt. Delicious!

To make an omelette, chop any fillings first. We like western omelettes at our house, so we prep our onion, bell pepper and ham before we start to cook the eggs. I like to lightly sauté the onions and peppers before adding them. If you don’t know what that is, probably better that you don’t attempt it your first time.

Set up your skillet like you would for scrambled eggs, with cooking spray and a tablespoon or so of butter. Coat the pan with the butter and add the eggs when the skillet is hot. Reduce the heat to medium low and cover for a couple minutes. Make sure that the egg mixture has lost the wet look before you add vegetables. Once it looks fairly dry, add your cheese, vegetables, meat, etc.

Turn the heat off and cover again and let sit—NOT ON THE BURNER for three minutes or until the cheese melts. Carefully ease the eggs up with a pancake turner and fold the omelette. Serve immediately.

The nice thing about omelettes, you can make them for any meal. You can jazz up the presentation with toast, home fries or, if at dinner, with a light wine. They can be as fancy or simple as you want.

To make French Toast: mix the eggs as above.

Pour some of the egg mixture into a pie pan or shallow, wide bowl. Dip the bread quickly, don’t let it soak. Set on a piping hot skillet that has been lightly sprayed with cooking spray. Usually about 2 minutes a side gets it nicely done, but a lot depends on how high your skillet is. Medium-high is usually a good setting.

Powdered sugar is good on French Toast instead of syrup. My kids have used honey as well. A friend of mine used powdered sugar and orange juice – hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. It’s kind of mushy, but it’s good.

Grilled Cheese – and Beyond

Another meal that inexperienced cooks should know how to make – a grilled cheese sandwich. Okay, I know it sounds ridiculous to even mention this, but I’ve met people who had no clue how to go about it. If you can fix any of the these items, you will never starve.

Grilled cheese can be dolled up with ham, bacon or a variety of vegetables to make it not just a sandwich, but a good meal.

2 slices of bread per sandwich

1 slice of cheese per sandwich cooking spray soft margarine or mayonnaise

I know you’re looking at that ingredients list and thinking, “Mayonnaise? On grilled cheese?” Trust me. A restaurant where I grew up, did what they called a Cheese Frenchie, which was basically a grilled cheese sandwich that was made with French toast, dipped in more egg mixture and deep fried. One thing they used to give it some zing, was mayonnaise.

For a unique addition to your grilled cheese, instead of spreading the outside of the bread with margarine, use mayo. Preheat your skillet to medium high. Give it a spritz of cooking spray.

While you’re doing that, spread the margarine or mayo on your bread. Once the skillet is hot, put the bottom slices down. Make sure it’s MARGARINE (or mayo) SIDE OUT.

Quickly add the slices of cheese and top with the other slice of bread – also margarine side out. Give it a couple minutes, then check to see how done it is. If it suits you, flip it over with a pancake turner. Let it cook on that side.

Serve with canned soup, chips or your choice of sides. You can dress it up any way you like. This basic method works for Reuben sandwiches or other hot, skillet delights. I will put my mind to more interesting meals, but these are some that saw me through high school and college.

You don’t have to be a chef to prepare them, just need a modicum of sense and a tiny bit of skill. Let your imagination roam as you cook. Try new things. And remember, onions make everything better!

The Best Way to Cut Up an Onion (based on Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet)

A sharp knife

A cutting surface

An onion

Cut the bottom off first. This releases some of the gases that make your eyes water. Older onions give off more irritating fumes, so be careful. Then cut the top off. Peel off the outer skin. I usually tap the outer shell with my knife and peel off the first layer beneath the crispy outer coating. Put the onion back on the board & cut it in half. You can lay these halves face down on the board and either slice or chop as you like. Just keep cutting until they are the size you want.

To Purchase Dellani’s Books – Which aren’t about cooking – at all.

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