As a young bride, Donna Dobson didn't cook much. She couldn't even make gravy.
Today, she could teach others the finer points of gravy making.
Now 56, Dobson said she was in her 30s with a young daughter when she started taking an interest in cooking. She comes from a long line of people who like to feed other people, she said, but that gene had remained dormant for Dobson until she began getting curious about recipes.
"I'm pretty self-taught," she said. "I watch some cooking shows, I read a lot of magazines."
She especially likes the Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines, because they not only provide the recipes, but explore the nuts and bolts behind them.
"They explain to you why something would be soggy or something would not work out when it should be crispy," she said. "They give you all the ways that you can do it wrong, then they give you the right way. And I experiment."
Living in Kingsley, Dobson sharecrops with a nearby farmer. In exchange for her help tending a garden, she receives fresh produce that she enjoys canning and uses to help create meals to share with family and friends.
"Let's face it, people gather around food," she said. "Just getting together — you have your cocktails, your food, you play your board games, card games, Wii — or in the summer, the pool parties, barbecues that type of thing.
"It's what my mom has always done, my grandmother has always done. They've always entertained and they've always spent time in the kitchen."
In fact, Dobson loves entertaining, and sharing her homemade salsa, hot mustard, pickled asparagus and a range of dishes that she's perfected. A favorite is a breakfast braid that she makes from frozen pizza dough, using a recipe she adapted from Cooking Light.
"I knead it down, just roll it out, then you can put anything you want in them," she said. "You can make them vegetarian, or with meat and cheese. I always put a mixture of hash browns and potatoes fried together, then some fresh jalapeno, and cheddar cheese, or maybe a couple different kinds of cheese. Then you can put your Italian sausage in there, sometimes I use ham, Canadian bacon, sweet peppers, onions."
Eggs also go into the braid, which she said is delicious served warm from the oven for a Sunday brunch.
Dobson is also proud of her onion rings, made from a recipe she found in Cook's Country as part of a quest to find just the right way to prepare them.
"I'm always looking for something new and different because I get into these food funks where you get hungry but nothing sounds good," she said.
She likes to make variations on lasagna, and enjoys preparing Mexican dishes and working with different spices. She even creates her own hot pepper sea salt by drying and grinding peppers and mixing them with coarse sea salt.
"If anybody would have told me 20 years ago that I was going to be doing this, I would have said they were nuts," she said. "Perhaps some people grow up in the kitchen and love it their entire life. I did not.
"My mom always tried to get me in the kitchen. It makes sense to me now."
Jalapeno, Sausage, Jack and Egg Breakfast Braid
1 (13.8-oz.) can refrigerated pizza crust dough (Dobson uses frozen pizza dough balls)
1 T. olive oil
¼ c. chopped onion
4 oz. chicken sausage with jalapeno peppers, chopped
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ c. (2 oz.) shredded Monterey Jack cheese
¼ c. shredded cheddar cheese
¼ c. chopped seeded jalapeno peppers
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 425°. Unroll dough onto a baking sheet coated with cooking spray, or if using frozen dough, let thaw and roll out to a 15-by-10-inch rectangle.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sausage; cook 9 minutes or until lightly browned. Stir in eggs; cook 1½ minutes or until set. Remove from heat.
Sprinkle cheese lengthwise down center of dough, leaving about 2½-inch border on each side. Spoon egg mixture evenly over cheese. Sprinkle cheddar over egg mixture. Top with peppers.
Make 2-inch-long diagonal cuts about 1 inch apart on both sides of dough to within ½ inch of filling, using a sharp knife or kitchen shears. Arrange strips over filling, alternating strips diagonally over filling. Press ends under to seal. Brush with egg white. Bake 15 minutes or until golden brown. Let stand 5 minutes. Cut crosswise into slices. Yields 6 slices/servings.
-- Cooking Light
Beer-Battered Onion Rings
2 sweet onions, peeled and sliced into ½-inch thick rounds
3 c. beer
2 t. malt vinegar
Salt and pepper
2 quarts peanut or vegetable oil
¾ c. all-purpose flour
¾ c. cornstarch
1 t. baking powder
Place onion rounds, 2 c. beer, vinegar, ½ t. salt and ½ t. pepper in zipper-lock bag. Refrigerate 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat to 350. While oil is heating, combine flour, cornstarch, baking powder, ½ t. salt and ¼ t. pepper in large bowl. Slowly whisk in ¾ c. beer until just combined (some lumps will remain). Whisk in remaining beer as needed, 1 T. at a time, until batter falls from whisk in steady stream and leaves faint trail across surface of batter.
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat to 200. Remove onions from fridge and pour off liquid. Pat onion rounds dry with paper towels and separate into rings. Transfer one-third portion of rings to batter. One at a time, carefully transfer battered rings to oil. Fry until rings are golden brown and crisp, about 5 minutes, flipping halfway through frying. Drain rings on paper towel-lined baking sheet, season with salt and pepper and transfer to oven. Return oil to 350 and repeat with remaining onion rings and batter. Serves 4-6.
-- Cook's Country
Hot Pepper Mustard
40 banana peppers (5 inches long), stems removed
4 c. prepared yellow mustard
5 c. white sugar
1 c. honey'
4 c. apple cider vinegar
1 T. salt
1 ½ c. all-purpose flour
1 c. water
Remove seeds from peppers and place into a blender or food processor. Process until smooth. Pour into a large pot and stir in mustard, sugar, honey, apple cider vinegar and salt. Bring to a boil, so that it is boiling so hard it can't be stirred down.
Stir together the flour and water until smooth. Pour into boiling mixture and continue to boil, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Pour into sterile pint jars and seal with new lids and rings. Process in a boiling water bath for five to 10 minutes, per canning recommendations.
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