COOK OF THE WEEK: Tupelo businesswoman says simpler is better in kitchen


PHOTO: Sonya Keith of Tupelo says her Shrimp Scampi gets part of its delicate flavor from her light, tender homemade pasta. (C. Todd Sherman)

By Ginna Parsons

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Sonya Keith learned at an early age that compliments go a long way toward motivating a cook.

“My big thing growing up was making salads,” said Keith, 49, of Tupelo. “Daddy loved my salads and always praised them. He would brag so much. I think that’s when I started liking to please people with food.”

The salads she makes today are still awesome – she’s been making a Cauliflower Salad for more than 20 years and she continues to get requests for the recipe whenever she makes it. But she’s gone above and beyond the green stuff and now, one of her passions, is homemade pasta.

“I took a class from Xan Pilgrim at A Cook’s Place on making your own pasta in 2005,” Keith said. “I had always liked making homemade bread, so I thought I’d like this, too. It is so easy to do. I make pasta a couple of times a month now. I put it in beef stroganoff, chicken soup, shrimp scampi. It’s so much better than store-bought pasta.”

When Keith’s three children were growing up, she, like many moms, put a hot meal on the table most every night. But now that it’s just Keith and her husband, Ronnie, at home, she doesn’t trot out her culinary skills but three or four times a week.

You can she’ll prepare fish for at least two of those meals – they enjoy tilapia, salmon, shrimp and scallops – and they like chicken and lean beef. They don’t eat much pork, except bacon.

“I like to cook simply,” she said. “Fish, simple meats, fresh steamed vegetables. I fry very few things. I do fry squash in the summer because you just have to do that.”

Keith also keeps her figure trim by walking when she can and swimming in her pool during the summer. And she keeps a bowl of fresh fruit on her kitchen counter because – well, because her mother always kept a bowl of fresh fruit in the house.

“My husband doesn’t eat fruit and I certainly can’t eat that whole bowl, but I have it there even if I have to throw some of it away,” she said of the mound of bananas, apples and tangerines.

Keeping it fresh, simple

One recent weeknight, Keith made roasted salmon with fresh rosemary, baked sweet potato wedges and steamed broccoli. Another night, they had shrimp scampi, garlic bread and a green salad with tomatoes and cucumbers.

“Shrimp scampi is so easy to make,” she said. “I keep frozen shrimp so I can make that anytime.” Keith and her husband have two businesses – Mortgage Pro and Tax Pro – so dinner often has to be quick.

While there are people out there who consider cooking a chore, Keith takes delight in it.

“To me, cooking is almost therapy,” she said. “It’s therapeutic to make something that looks good and smells good that people will like. I get a lot of joy out of making something and having somebody say, ‘Mmm, that was good,’ and I just smile and say, ‘Thank you.’”

Cook of the Week Recipes

Shrimp Dip

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

4-ounce can New Orleans small shrimp or 3.5-ounce pouch Chicken of the Sea shrimp, drained and mashed*

½ sweet onion, finely grated

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

Juice of half a lemon

½ teaspoon garlic salt

½ teaspoon Lawry’s season salt

Combine all ingredients and chill at least 4 hours. Serve with Sociable crackers.

* Note: When you drain the shrimp, reserve the juice and add it back to the dip after all the ingredients are combined if the dip seems too thick.

Blueberry Muffins

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/3 cup whole milk

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

¾ teaspoon vanilla extract

1½ cups all-purpose flour

¾ cup sugar

1½ teaspoons baking powder

¾ teaspoon salt

2 cups (12 ounces) blueberries

Put a rack in upper third of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Generously butter muffin cups.

Melt butter in a small saucepan over moderately low heat; remove from heat. Whisk in milk, egg, yolk and vanilla until well combined.

Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Add milk mixture and stir until just combined. Gently but thoroughly fold in blueberries. Divide batter among muffin cups.

Bake until golden and crisp and a wooden pick inserted into the center of the muffin comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes. Cool in pan for 15 minutes, then run a knife around edges of muffin tops and carefully remove from cups.

Makes 12.

Cauliflower Salad

1 head romaine lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces

1 head cauliflower, broken into bite-size pieces

½ cup shredded carrots

1 package frozen English peas

1 package Good Seasons Italian salad dressing mix (dry)

¾ cup mayonnaise

In a large salad bowl, layer lettuce, cauliflower, carrots and frozen peas. Sprinkle dry dressing mix over peas. Spread mayonnaise over the top of the peas. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Mix well just before serving.

Butternut Squash

with Shallots and Sage

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 shallots, halved lengthwise, then cut crosswise into ¼-inch-thick slices

1 butternut squash, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into ½-inch cubes

½ cup reduced-sodium chicken broth or water

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

½ teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

¼ teaspoon black pepper

Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then cook shallots and squash, stirring, until shallots are softened, about 5 minutes.

Add broth, brown sugar, sage and salt, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until squash is tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vinegar and pepper.

Serves 4.

Shrimp Scampi

4 tablespoons butter, divided

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling

1 large shallot, finely diced

5 cloves garlic, sliced

Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)

1 pound (about 20) large shrimp, peeled and deveined, with tails on

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

½ cup dry white wine

Juice of 1 lemon

¼ cup finely chopped parsley leaves

Pasta (see recipe below)

In a large skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter in 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Sauté the shallots, garlic and red pepper flakes until the shallots are translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper; add them to the pan and cook until they have turned pink, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove shrimp from pan; set aside and keep warm.

Add wine and lemon juice to pan and bring to a boil. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons oil. When butter has melted, return the shrimp to the pan along with the parsley, cooked pasta and ½ cup reserved pasta water. Stir well and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle a bit more olive oil on top and serve immediately.

Homemade Pasta

3 large eggs, room temperature

2 cups White Lily all-purpose flour

Combine eggs and flour and knead the dough until soft. Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for at least 20 minutes. Divide dough into 3 sections. Pass each section through a pasta machine at least 7 times, changing the setting one degree higher each time. Allow pasta to dry on a rack for about 10 minutes. Pass the dough through the pasta machine again to cut into strips. Cook pasta in boiling water until it floats, about 2 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.

Notes: If you knead the dough on a cold surface, such as marble or Corian, the dough will be tough. The exact amount of flour used will depend on the size of the eggs and the moisture content of the flour. Pasta making is very much like making homemade bread, the more you make it, the easier it becomes.

Do you know a good cook? Send your nominations to Ginna Parsons, Cook of the Week, P.O. Box 909, Tupelo, MS 38802. Or you can fax them to 662-842-2233 or e-mail them to Each Cook of the Week will receive $10 from the Daily Journal.

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