It’s that unique twist, that unique taste, that addition of a special ingredient that makes the difference

Last updated: February 18. 2014 2:02PM - 2338 Views
By Lucie R. Willsie lwillsie@civitasmedia.com



Tomato Pie
Tomato Pie
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This is the first of two parts on local cook Alison Johnson.


Corned beef and cabbage and mashed potatoes.


This was Lizzie Morrison’s favorite birthday meal request.


Filet mignon fondue and twiced baked potato.


This was her brother’s.


Each of the four siblings — three girls and a boy — in the Johnson family had their own special palate pleasers, Morrison said.


And their mom, Alison Johnson, was the central figure in, first, starting the tradition of special birthday meal requests, but also in creating each and every one.


She grew up in a big household, and enjoys having a lot of people around, but that’s not how Alison Johnson, now a Realtor at Rogers Realty, got to be a gourmet cook. Contrary to what one might assume, Johnson revealed she really never learned much about cooking while growing up at home.


“I would not say that my family was gourmet at all. I remember a lot of Spam,” she said. “To this day — I still can’t eat that stuff.”


She does remember one of her first forays into baking was making her own bread during the time she attended Juniata College. She baked bread mainly because she liked the taste of freshly baked bread. She didn’t cook or bake much of anything else, however.


“I would not say that I was a good cook back then,” she added.


In fact, she remembers how bad a cook she actually started out to be when she tried to cook her first turkey. Very bad in fact, she admitted.


“The very first turkey I cooked — I boiled it,” she started to explain. “… I boiled my chicken so I figured that would work … I had a girlfriend that came over and saw me boiling this bird and she told me that we needed to get it out of there and bake it, so we did. It came out nice and brown, but when you went to cut it, the meat fell off. It still was good though.”


But this wasn’t the first nor the last cooking disaster story Johnson remembers with a grimace on her face. Pizza covered with artichoke hearts. Inedible, she confessed. Beans cooked without stringing them. Hard as a rock black-eyed peas. The list continued as Johnson giggled, remembering each comical cooking scenario.


“I always attempted to cook,” she confessed, “… but kids force you to cook.”


And, for all of you beginning cooks out there, Johnson gives the following revelation: “There comes a point when you realize you can do it better, and a lot cheaper at home … and can feed a lot more people.”


One secret, she revealed, of her cooking includes the use of fresh herbs, which she grows now in her own garden. This allows her to use very little, if any, salt, she said.


“You don’t need the salt if you’ve got the rest,” she said.


In addition to the fresh herbs, Johnson also likes to use cracked pepper.


“But whatever I do, it’s easy,” Johnson said. Her favorite recipes consist of six ingredients or less. In fact, her favorite recipe book is titled “I Hate to Cook Cookbook” by Peg Bracken. Almost a family tradition at this point, Johnson’s mom gave this same recipe book to her grandma back in 1962. The Chicken Artichoke Casserole recipe included in this article comes from this cookbook.


Another secret to her cooking is to add more flavor and reduce the size of the portions. The typically too-large portions most folks eat can be reduced when dishes are more flavorful and tasty, she said, helping folks to eat healthier and consume fewer calories.


“And just by cooking fresh foods,” she added.


But her creativity has been the essential component of her culinary journey.


“I just don’t remember when it first started, the transition from Chunky soups to Skewered Scallops,” she admitted, “from Beenie Weenies in my kids lunches to bagels with salmon, cream cheese and capers.” She tried to rack her brain as to how and when the transition happened. Slowly, to be sure, she added, but how and when her cooking and baking changed to her current sophisticated style, she just can’t remember. “It also was a lot of fun to watch my kids food choices change over the years.”


RECIPES


TOMATO PIE


FROM ALISON JOHNSON


REALTOR AT ROGERS REALTY


INGREDIENTS


1 frozen 9-inch pastry shell


4 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, sliced 1/2 -inch thick


1/4 cup of chopped chives or scallions


1 teaspoon of chopped fresh basil or 1/4 teaspoon of dried basil


1/4 teaspoon of salt


1 /4 teaspoon of pepper


1 cup of grated Swiss cheese


1/4 cup of mayonnaise


DIRECTIONS


Preheat the oven to 425-degrees Fahrenheit. Bake the pastry shell for 5 minutes. Remove it from oven. Reduce the heat to 400-degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the tomato slices in half and place them on the bottom of the shell. Sprinkle them with the chives, basil, salt and pepper (CHEF’S NOTE: In the summer, when I have fresh herbs, I throw all the herbs all over the tomatoes.). Next, combine the cheese and the mayo, and carefully spread the mixture evenly over the tomatoes, making sure it reaches the edges of the pie crust and seals in the tomatoes completely. Bake the pie for 35 minutes or until brown and bubbly. Allow it to sit outside the oven for 5 to 10 minutes.


CHICKEN ARTICHOKE CASSEROLE


FROM ALISON JOHNSON


REALTOR AT ROGERS REALTY


FROM HER “I HATE TO COOK COOKBOOK”


INGREDIENTS


4 to 6 boned chicken breast


1 1/2 teaspoons of salt


1/2 teaspoon of paprika


1/4 teaspoon of pepper


6 Tablespoon of butter


1/4 pound of mushrooms, cut in large pieces


12 to 15 ounces of artichoke hearts


2 Tablespoons of flour


2/3 cup of chicken bouillon or chicken broth


3 Tablespoons of sherry


DIRECTIONS


Salt, pepper and paprika the chicken. Brown the chicken in 4 Tablespoons of the butter and put them in a casserole. Now put the other 2 Tablespoons of butter into the frying pan and sauté the mushrooms for 5 minutes. Then sprinkle the flour over them and stir in the chicken broth and the sherry. While this cooks, open the can of artichokes and arrange them between the chicken pieces. Then pour the mushroom-sherry sauce over them, cover and bake at 375-degrees Fahrenheit for an hour or more, depending on the size of the chicken pieces. (CHEF’S NOTE: I serve this over rice.)


TOMATO AND PENNE NOODLES


FROM ALISON JOHNSON


REALTOR AT ROGERS REALTY


INGREDIENTS


Salt and pepper


1 pound of penne


1/4 cup of olive oil


2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced


2 cups of cherry tomatoes, halved


1 teaspoon of dried oregano


1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper


1/4 cup of Kalamata olives, pitted and sliced


1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley


1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving


DIRECTIONS


In large pot of boiling salted water, cook the penne noodles according to the package directions until al dente (or about 13 minutes). Drain. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic, and cook, stirring until golden — or about one minute. Add cherry tomatoes, oregano, crushed red pepper, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring until the tomato juices run, or about 3 minutes. Add the penne, olives, parsley and 1/4 cup of Parmesan to the skillet. Toss to combine. Serve with more cheese, if desired.


STEAMED CLAMS


FROM ALISON JOHNSON


REALTOR AT ROGERS REALTY


INGREDIENTS


Smallest clams available


Garlic cloves


Butter


DIRECTIONS


Put the clams in a roasting pan. Slice up some garlic cloves and put a little butter on them in chunks. Then cover the clams with a paper towel. Pour clam juice all over the paper towels. Cover the whole thing with aluminum and put it on the grill for about 30 minutes until you hear them steaming. If it’s too cold — throw them in the oven. When they are open, they are good to go. (CHEF’S NOTE: They are the best fresh at the ocean cooked over the grill.)


CHICKEN, AVOCADO AND ORANGE SALAD


FROM ALISON JOHNSON


REALTOR AT ROGERS REALTY


INGREDIENTS


2 Tablespoons of red wine vinegar


2 Tablespoons of orange juice


6 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.


Kosher salt


Freshly ground pepper


4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves


2 large naval oranges


1 small red onion, thinly sliced


Mixed greens


1 firm, ripe avocado


Radishes, optional


A hard-boiled egg, optional


DIRECTIONS


In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, orange juice, oil and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/8 teaspoon of pepper until well blended. Cook the chicken breast in boiling salted water for 20 minutes or until the chicken is no longer pink inside. Remove the chicken and cool it for 5 minutes before slicing into strips. Transfer the chicken to a bowl and toss with a few Tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper. Slice up the oranges, avocados (and whatever else you want to put in there) and place it on a bed of salad. Add the chicken and sprinkle with the remaining vinaigrette.


SOUR CREAM CORN BREAD


FROM ALISON JOHNSON


REALTOR AT ROGERS REALTY


INGREDIENTS


1 cup of self-rising corn meal


1 cup of sour cream


1 small can (8 3/4 ounces) of creamed corn


2 eggs


1/2 cup of salad oil


1 small can of chopped green chilies


DIRECTIONS


Mix it all up together. Bake it in a greased 9-inch pan at 400-degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. The corn bread also can be baked in muffin tins and it will take a little less time.


Lucie R. Willsie can be reached at 336-719-1930 or on Twitter at LucieRWillsie.


 
 
 
 
 
 
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