BELDEN • Shelly Johnstone was born in Washington, D.C., but raised in northwest Florida and Biloxi. So she thought she knew a thing or two about gumbo.

“The gumbo in Biloxi has what I call a peanut-butter roux – lighter in color,” Johnstone said. “It’s also thicker. The first time I had Lafayette, Louisiana, gumbo, I said, ‘This is the way to cook gumbo.’”

Over the years, Johnstone, 64, perfected her gumbo recipe, which she makes every year at Christmas for her family, which includes a daughter, Leslie Hilliard; a son, Colin Johnstone; and two granddaughters, Kate and Lily.

In fact, she received so many compliments on her gumbo that she decided to enter it in a soup/stew cook-off in Como in 2009 – and won first place.

“It was a small-town cook-off but the judges were impressive,” she said. “They were restaurant owners from Oxford and Clarksdale and the food editor from The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.”

Johnstone, a city planner by trade, lived in Hernando for many years and started the farmers’ market there. She moved back to Tupelo in 2013.

“The Hernando market is one of my proudest achievements,” she said. “It’s huge now, with 60-something vendors. You see people hungry for local, fresh food.”

Johnstone tries to cook with fresh ingredients when possible and uses very few convenience foods.

“If I try a recipe that calls for cream of mushroom soup, I make my own cream of mushroom soup,” she said.

She rarely cooks for herself, but is happy to cook for her family at least a couple of times a week.

She might prepare pork tenderloin with mashed potatoes and gravy and asparagus, or shrimp fettuccine with a salad or broccoli.

“I don’t put a lot of effort into cooking for myself,” she said. “The enjoyment is seeing someone enjoy what I’ve made. I love everything about food – the artistry, the taste. It means a lot to me.”

Johnstone, with the help of some friends, catered both her daughter’s and son’s wedding receptions.

“I wanted it to be a certain way and that was the only way it was going to happen,” she said. “If catering weren’t so exhausting, I’d love to do that for a living. I love to create things that are wonderful and tasty to people.”


1 1/2 cups chopped green bell peppers

1 cup chopped celery (reserve tops)

2 cups chopped onion (reserve skins)

6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

Salt and peppercorns

1 pound heads-on medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (reserve shells and heads)

2 whole bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground red pepper

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

3/4 cup vegetable oil

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon minced garlic

6 to 7 cups mixture of chicken and shrimp stock

1 (10-ounce) bag frozen okra or fresh

1 pound andouille or beef sausage

Hot cooked white rice

Combine bell pepper, celery and onion in a bowl and set aside.

Cook chicken thighs in enough water to cover with some onion skins, celery tops, salt and peppercorns. Strain the stock and reserve, discarding the onion skins, chicken skin, bones and celery tops. Chop chicken thigh meat into bite-size pieces and set aside.

Remove shrimp heads and peel the shrimp. Cook the heads and peels, some onion skins and some celery tops in enough water to cover to make a stock. Strain the stock and reserve the liquid, discarding the onion skins, shrimp heads and peels and celery tops. Refrigerate raw shrimp until ready to use.

In a small bowl, combine bay leaves, freshly ground peppers, oregano, salt and thyme. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet over high heat until oil begins to smoke. Gradually add the flour, whisking constantly with a long-handled wire whisk. Continue cooking, adjusting the heat as needed. (If using an electric cooktop, you may have to remove the pan from the heat occasionally to avoid burning the roux). Whisk constantly until the roux is a dark brown. Remove from heat and add the bell pepper mixture. Return pan to medium heat and cook until the vegetables are soft. Add garlic and cook a few minutes more.

Put reserved chicken and shrimp stock in a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven. Add the seasoning mixture and bring to a boil. Add the roux by spoonfuls to the boiling stock, stirring until dissolved between each addition. Turn heat to medium low.

In the same skillet in which you made the roux, saute the okra for a few minutes. Add to the gumbo mixture. Saute the sausage to render the fat. Remove it with a slotted spoon and add to gumbo. Add the cooked, chopped chicken and cook the gumbo over low heat for 2 to 4 hours. Add the shrimp close to serving time so it won’t be overcooked.

When ready to serve, remove bay leaves, mound rice in the center of a wide gumbo bowl and ladle gumbo all around the sides of the rice. Serve with French bread.



1/2 cup Ritz cracker crumbs

2 (8-ounce) blocks cream cheese

3 large eggs

1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1/2 cup sour cream

4 ounces flaked smoked salmon

1/4 cup minced purple onion

1/4 cup minced yellow or red bell pepper

1/4 cup minced green bell pepper

1 teaspoon dried dill weed

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Sprinkle cracker crumbs in the bottom of a lightly greased 9-inch springform pan. Set aside.

Beat cream cheese at medium speed with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add remaining ingredients and mix until well-blended.

Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Gently run a knife around the edge of the pan; release sides of pan. Cool completely. Refrigerate until serving time. Serve at room temperature with crackers.


1/2 stick butter

1 cup light brown sugar

1 cup sour cream

Melt butter and brown sugar in a saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat and add sour cream. Makes good fruit dip, but especially good with Fuji apples.


12 ounces pasta, such as fettuccini, spaghetti, bucatini or angel hair

4 tablespoons salt

3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in pieces

Freshly ground black pepper

Boil pasta in salted water until done. Reserve 2 cups of pasta water.

While the pasta is still cooking, add 1 cup reserved pasta water to a skillet it bring it to a boil. Whisk butter into the water 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring until it is dissolved. Add the grated cheese a little at a time and whisk it in. When the pasta is cooked al dente, remove it from the pot with tongs and stir and toss it with the sauce until the pasta is coated and creamy. If the sauce is too tight, add some more pasta water to loosen it. Serve with additional cheese and freshly ground black pepper.


4 cups walnuts, pecans, almonds or pistachios

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 pound phyllo dough

2 sticks butter, melted

1 (12-ounce) jar honey

In a food processor, process the nuts, sugar and cinnamon (not too finely). Set aside.

Grease a baking dish that fits your phyllo dough. Place one sheet of phyllo in the dish and brush with butter. Repeat to make 5 more layers of phyllo. Sprinkle with 1 cup of nut mixture.

Place one sheet of phyllo dough over the nut mixture; brush with butter. Repeat to make at 6 layers of phyllo dough, and sprinkle with 1 cup of nut mixture. Repeat process 2 more times.

With a sharp knife, cut halfway through all the layers in a diamond pattern. Bake in a 300-degree oven for 1 hour and 25 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

In a 1-quart saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the honey until hot, but not boiling. Spoon hot honey evenly over the baklava. Cool in pan on a wire rack. Cover and leave at room temperature until serving time. Finish cutting through the layers with a sharp knife.

Note: Phyllo dough is found in the frozen foods section. It dries out quickly, so you must work quickly. Keep the dough under a moist paper towel while you’re working with it. Also, if desired, you can add rose water, orange blossom water or orange zest to the honey for additional flavor.

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 call Ginna at (662) 678-1581 or email them to

Recommended for you

comments powered by Disqus