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

Last updated: February 25. 2014 2:18PM - 2514 Views
By Lucie R. Willsie lwillsie@civitasmedia.com

Over the years Alison Johnson has collected a wide variety and large number of different spices she uses to the best advantage in her many collected recipes to bring a unique and distinctive flavor to her cooking.
Over the years Alison Johnson has collected a wide variety and large number of different spices she uses to the best advantage in her many collected recipes to bring a unique and distinctive flavor to her cooking.
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Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles looking at the cooking of Alison Johnson.

Moving to North Carolina, after Alison Johnson graduated from college in 1981 to work at Jones School, was, to her, a significant turning point. She gives much of the credit to helping her make the transition from her idea of a gourmet meal being Chunky soup over rice or pork and beans to her developed palate to her Southern mother and father-in-law, Paula and Wally Johnson. They inspired her to start cooking in earnest. “That’s when I learned to embrace Southern food. It has inspired me to improve my cooking.”

One prime example of a test of her ingenuity was when she had a great recipe for raisin pumpkin muffins that she found about 15 years ago in the “Mount Airy News.” Yum, she thought. Very tasty, she envisioned.

Unfortunately, none of her four kids liked raisins. At least, they didn’t like the taste of whole raisins. Mom almost was stumped. What to do? What to do? Many moms can relate to this dilemma. Johnson came up with an idea. Instead of getting rid of the raisins, and, in effect, changing, almost ruining, the recipe, she was hit by inspiration. Instead of using whole raisins she turned the raisins into mush in a food processing … and success … her kids never knew the difference.

“In fact, people who don’t like raisins at all love these muffins,” Johnson admitted. “And, now, the kids all cook because I cooked.”

Over the years she said her kids have far outpaced her own culinary expertise. They have become so versatile and sophisticated, even including her son-in-law in Oregon, “who does complicated dishes, such as stuffed beef tenderloin … Many steps are involved … But delicious.”

In fact, her own son also makes the best spaghetti sauce she has ever eaten, Johnson added.

“He actually roasts the tomatoes himself … Makes everything fresh,” she said.

Over the years, Johnson has developed and grown into an impeccable cook and baker, through necessity and through her own creative insights and imagination.

“I especially love seafood,” she said. That’s why she will try out just about any seafood recipe.

Another piece of sage culinary advice is her use of spices. Johnson has a huge drawer in her recently remodeled kitchen that holds just about any spice anyone could think of or want for any recipe.

And here’s another favorite Southern-inspired recipe Johnson has adopted, making a unique tea recipe that is based on Southern sweet tea. Just make regular sweet tea, but with about one-half the sugar, and fill another roughly one-third of this delightful concoction with lemonade, to create a refreshingly different tea alternative.

Modestly, however, Johnson doesn’t call her cooking gourmet. She calls her current style of cooking as just “edible.”

“At least, I hope it is,” she added.

Judging from the many people who have hungrily visited her house to taste her scrumptious meals — 32 friends of her daughter’s coming for a meal one night, and, in addition, during the past years, she remembers 83 friends of her son, over the course of one night, coming for another meal — her food is much more than just edible.

“You make a batch of calypso slaw and they think you are gourmet,” Johnson said. “That recipe came from my in-laws, too. Over the years, we’ve had scouts, basketball teams, church groups, book clubs, birthdays and Christmas gatherings. I want people to relax when they come here and stuff their faces. My house has always been the ‘go to’ house.”

But Johnson receives as much nourishment from cooking and serving her food to others for herself as she gives to her diners.

“Cooking is therapy,” she confirmed. “An act of love. I like cooking for people. I think it’s an expression of love and I don’t think most people realize that. When you cook for your family and your friends, it’s because you love them. There’s something about getting together to eat that is just nice for me … That’s why I don’t think it’s the cooking that is what is so special. I think it’s the atmosphere of love.”

Two last pieces of advice Johnson wants to give budding cooks out there are:

One, church cookbooks contain some of the best recipes a cook can find.

“You get the best of the best recipes in them,” she said.

And, two, check out and sign up for the “Real Simple” website.

“I like to surf various sources for recipes,” she said. Some of her favorites come from this daily email. The penne recipe came from that site and the family loves it. Same with the chicken and avocado salad. Both easy. I’m a big believer using ingredients that I recognize. If it calls for something that I have no idea what it is — forget it.”

Now the kids are grown, she still loves cooking for them, she admitted. But, what is even more wonderful is that they like cooking for her.

“All of them are really good cooks,” she said, beaming proudly. Her second oldest took the penne recipe and added capers and artichoke hearts. Another daughter makes a killer sausage/spinach pie. And my son can grill.”

And Johnson’s last piece of advice is: Cooking should be a fun experience and not a chore.

This is really not the end, but only the beginning.

The recipe for the future is still waiting to be created.






1 pound of scallops

2 large green peppers

1 pint of cherry tomatoes




1/3 cup of fresh lemon juice

3 Tablespoons of honey

2 Tablespoons of prepared mustard

1 1/2 teaspoons of curry powder

1 Tablespoons of oil

1 package of wooden skewers


Soak the wooden skewers in water. Preheat the broiler. Rinse and clean the scallops. Alternate the scallops and whatever vegetables you want onto the skewers. Place on aluminum-foil-lined broiler pan. Combine the remaining ingredients to make a sauce. Brush the kabobs with about 1/3 of the sauce. Broil approximately 4-inches from the heat for 5 to 7 minutes. Turn and brush on another 1/3 of the sauce. Broil another 5 to 7 minutes longer, basting once. (CHEF’S NOTE: I serve this over a bed of arugula and use the last 1/3 of the sauce as a light dressing.)




A shoulder roast — browned and cubed

2 cans (28 ounces) of crushed tomato

2 cans of V-8 juice

2 cans of beef broth

2 (16 ounce) packages of frozen vegetables


Onions, diced

2 cans of cream of tomato soup


Mix all ingredients together and crock pot it for the day.




4 cups of chopped cabbage

1 (12 ounce) can of Mexicorn

1/2 cup of chopped onion

1/4 cup of shredded cheddar cheese

2 Tablespoons of sliced black olives

1 cup of mayo

2 Tablespoons of sugar

2 Tablespoons of vinegar

4 teaspoons of prepared mustard

1/2 teaspoons of celery seed


Just mix it all together.




4 eggs

1 can of cheddar cheese soup

1/2 cup of light cream

1 cup of shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1/2 cup of diced cooked ham

1/2 cup of drained, cooked chopped broccoli

1 9-inch unbaked pie crust

Ground nutmeg


In medium bowl, beat the eggs until foamy. Gradually add the soup and cream, mixing well. Sprinkle with the cheese, meat and vegetable evenly over the pie crust. Pour the soup mixture over it. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake at 350-degrees Fahrenheit for 50 minutes or until the center is set. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.





1 cup of raisins

1/2 cup of water

2 eggs

1 cup of pumpkin

1 1/2 cups of sugar

3/4 teaspoons of cloves

3/4 teaspoons of cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon of salt

1/3 cup of vegetable oil

1 3/4 cups of flour

1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder

1/2 teaspoon of soda


Soak the raisins in 1/2 cup of water for 5 minutes. Do not drain. In large bowl, beat the eggs, and add the pumpkin, sugar, cloves, cinnamon and salt. Add the oil and mix well. Stir together the soda, baking powder and flour. Add the dry ingredients to the pumpkin mixture and stir well. (CHEF’S NOTE — Now the recipe says to throw the raisin/water mixture in next, but because no one liked raisins in my house and I told my family there were no raisins in here. Instead, I would run the water and the raisins through the processor and turn it into mush. Then I would add the mush. You get the flavor and the moisture and no one knew there were raisins in here.) Next, fill greased muffin pans about 2/3 full. Bake at 400-degrees Fahrenheit until the top springs back (or about 12 to 15 minutes).




Brie cheese


Wrap the brie up in rolled out crescent rolls and bake it for whatever the directions instruct on the side of the crescent roll can. (CHEF’S NOTE: I put some honey on top and serve it with crackers and apples.)

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

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