Elise Johnson: Tales of Well Fed Family

Winter 2012 • Category: Lead Story Print This Page Print This Page

Elise Johnson has cooked native cuisine from all around the world, ranging from her ancestral home of Portugal, to India, Uzbekistan, South Africa, and of course, North Carolina.

No matter how simple or complicated the dish, Johnson declares that every one of her recipes and cooking techniques all contain the same ingredient.

“Love,” she says about cooking, a passion that’s led to awards, successful fundraisers, classes, a website and a soon to be published book, Tales of a Well Fed Family.

Johnson says, “I hope I encourage people to cook. My whole mission is the well-fed family. Every time someone on Facebook or the website leaves a message, I can’t even tell you. I literally get choked up. Even if it’s just one person, that’s how strongly I feel about this mission.

“I see how it’s affected my whole family, sitting down at the dinner table and having that quality time,” she continues. “Families need to know cooking doesn’t cost much. Cooking with your children doesn’t cost much. You’ve got to eat anyway, right?”

Origins of Cooking with Elise
Before she ever had a website Tales of Well Fed Family or segments on television, Johnson grew up in the kitchen with her Portuguese grandmother, who immigrated to the United States but didn’t speak English.

The unofficial cooking training took place in a multiple-story dwelling near Boston in Fall River, Mass., where Johnson’s grandparents occupied one floor and her parents and siblings lived on another. Johnson sought refuge in her grandmother’s kitchen because her schoolwork was a struggle. Johnson talked little because she battled a speech impediment until about age 17.

“I survived school,” Johnson says. “Having dealt with the speech impediment for years, I would come home and visit with my grandmother and just relax and cook.”

While there might not have been much verbal communication, Johnson says she learned many of the cooking fundamentals she uses and shares today in classes and videos on her website, “Cooking With Elise.”

Johnson recalls there was only one rule in her grandmother’s kitchen.

“Her biggest rule was hair up because I had really long hair, or you’re not in the kitchen,” Johnson says.

“I think a lot of what I did with my grandmother is I just followed her example,” she continues. “Whatever she was doing, I would try to do. I certainly couldn’t do it well or as well as she did, but she let me do it, which was a big deal. It was her letting me do it with her, like peel the potatoes and wash them, stir pots and whatnot. A lot of times she didn’t have to speak. It was the case if I had paid attention enough, I would get it. It might have taken me a while, but I eventually got it.

“That’s one of the things I tell parents when they come to my classes— you have to let the children actually do it,” Johnson adds.

Teaching Others to Cook
Johnson has been married toher husband, Michael, for 20 years and has two sons, Nathaniel and Alexander, who now attend college. Keeping the household humming while homeschooling her children kept Johnson busy during a stretch that included a move to North Carolina—first to Asheville then Raleigh.

It was in Western North Carolina that the possibility of teaching others to cook became a reality.

Johnson often shared treats with her new neighbors, having become one of the first families to move into a rapidly growing subdivision. Word spread through the community of more than 500 households that the delicious baked goods and casseroles came from Johnson’s kitchen.

“The next thing I knew, they wanted to order the food,” Johnson says. “I told them, ‘I don’t take orders. That’s not what I do, but I can show you how to make it.’”

Neighbors and members of her church were Johnson’s first cooking students. She looked to tailor her classes toward the attendee demographic— young adults learning the basics or parents with finicky eaters in
their household.

One successful class led to another, then another. Johnson then rolled out a website and uploaded tutorial videos. Her reputation grew even more when she entered charity cooking competitions and defeated chefs from
highly respected culinary academies. Then for more than a year, she had a regular segment on “My Carolina Today,” a lifestyle television show on WNCN-TV in the Triangle.

“For me, cooking is the way I love people,” says Johnson, who also has been featured on the Food Network. “When I cook for people, strangers, anybody, I see cooking as the one thing I can do really, really well. It’s the one thing I can enjoy and can include everyone in it.”

North Carolina Connection
Now residing in this state for more than 10 years and firmly entrenched in North Carolina, Johnson described what she likes most about what the Tar Heel State has to offer.

“One of the things I appreciate about North Carolina is the farmers. I’ve become friends with farmers,” Johnson says.

“I tr y to weave the products I can get locally into the recipes I make,” she continues. “I think a lot of people enjoy that because they might have just picked up their ingredients elsewhere but instead they can go to the farmer’s market.

“It’s fun to be able to highlight the local farmers,” Johnson adds. “I really try to get to know them by name.”

Whether it’s farmraised beef and vegetables or nuts and fruits from a nearby orchard , Johnson stressed those are the ingredients that make the best dishes.

“It’s a big deal. The intensity of the flavor is incredible. It’s always better for you because you’re getting the nutrients at their best,” Johnson says.

“I’m big on the locally grown products,” she adds. “You’re going to help your neighbor. You’re going to help the people that this is their livelihood. This is how they feed their families. You know the difference when you bite into something local.”

My Grandmother’s Meatballs
On certain evenings the phone would ring in our apartment upstairs from my grandmother. My grandmother would say, “Come downstairs and eat, sweetheart!” She was serving one of my favorite meals…Spaghetti and Meatballs! I’d look up at my Mom with a huge smile across my face and say, “Mom, I’ll be back!”

1 lb. ground beef
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
Handful of fresh chopped parsley
About 1 cup of fresh bread soaked in a little milk (squeeze out excess milk)

Combine all of the ingredients. Bake the meatballs in a 350 degree oven until the meatballs have browned a bit. The meatballs will continue cooking in the sauce, so I never cook them all the way through in the oven. Cooking them the rest of the way in the sauce adds an immense amount of flavor! I bake the meatballs only until they are browned enough on the outside so that they do not fall apart when simmering in the sauce or gravy.

My Grandmother’s Spaghetti Sauce
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes
1 (14 oz) can stewed tomatoes, broken up with your fingers
1 (6 oz) can tomato paste
2 bay leaves
Garlic and onion powder (my grandmother would put it in so that it looks like she’d dusted the top of the sauce with it)
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon Italian seasonings (crushed between your fingers to release the flavors)
1 teaspoon dried red crushed pepper
A pinch of sugar to round out the flavors

In a large skillet or Dutch oven, saute the onion, green pepper in olive oil until softened. Add garlic and cook a minute more. Add remaining ingredients and let simmer on low. Add the meatballs and let simmer for one hour making sure the sauce and meatballs do not burn on the bottom of the pan.

Garlic Knots
1 1/2 tablespoons dry active yeast
3/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Sea salt as a finishing touch

In a large bowl, combine warm water, yeast, sugar and oil. Let proof for about five minutes until the mixture is nice and foamy.

Begin adding flour, one cup at a time, and the salt. Stir just a bit after each addition of flour. When all of the flour has been added, turn onto a board or counter using a little flour. Begin kneading the dough and add only a little extra flour when needed. Only add extra flour when the dough gets too sticky to handle.

Wash out your bowl with warm water, dry and place dough inside.

Cover with a clean dishtowel and set in a draft-free place.

Allow the dough to double in size, which could take between one and two hours.

When your dough has doubled in size, lightly grease two baking stones or sheets and have them ready for use.

Cut your beautiful dough in half to make it easier to work with. Place a little flour on the counter and roll out the dough to a rectangular shape approximately 10 x 6-inches. Using a pizza cutter, cut the dough into 1-inch x 6-inch strips. You should have about 10 bread sticks at this point. This recipe makes approximately 20 Garlic Knots.

Working one piece at a time, roll the dough back and forth until you have a piece of rope. Pick up the rope and make a knot by turning one side over the other and then placing one end through the hole. Some folks like to tuck the ends underneath, but my oldest son Nathaniel and I like the rustic look of the knot and simply leave them that way.

Place each knot on your two greased baking stones or sheets about 2 inches apart. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 13 to 14 minutes or until golden brown. You may have to begin baking your bread in the middle of your oven and then move your stones or sheets to the bottom rack during the last couple of minutes to insure proper browning on the bottom of each roll.

While baking, make your garlic butter:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons salted butter
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup freshly chopped parsley

Simmer all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat and cook for five minutes.

As soon as your knots come out of the oven, brush them with your delicious garlic butter. Finish with a grind of sea salt over top and enjoy!

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2 Responses »

  1. I loved this article and the photo itself got me anxious to try new recipes. I have a few questions. On the Garlic Knots, 3/4 C water is not enough. Should it be 1 3/4 C water to the 5 C flour? And how long should I knead- just til blended or until elastic consistency? I search your site for the biscotti recipe shown in the picture, but no luck. Any chance you’ll share it? Thank you for the wonderful read and mouth watering recipes.

  2. Hello Anne, you are correct! I apologize. It is 1 3/4 cups water…hope you love them!

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