ArchiveMarch 24, 2012

Guest Chef Mary Jo McMillin

Much has changed on the Irish food scene since I started the Ballymaloe Cookery School in September 1983. There is a much greater appreciation of the produce of local farmers, fishermen and artisan food producers. Local and seasonal are the sexiest words in food and Farmers Markets have created an alternative to the supermarket. Virtually every night, there’s a choice of at least one and often several cooking programs on the various widely available TV channels, yet it’s doubtful whether people are doing more home cooking.

From the start I invited a couple of guest chefs to come to teach a class so my students could have the opportunity to meet and learn from iconic cooks and chefs from around the world, many like Jane Grigson, Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden, Rick Bayliss, Maggie Beer were known to curious cooks, others like our own John Desmond from Heir Island and Mickael Viljanen from Gregans Castle were not so well known but were brilliant teachers. Even if students hadn’t previously heard of the guest chef they trusted that if I had included them on the Ballymaloe Cookery School course schedule they would unquestionably be worth coming to see.

However in the era of the celebrity chef it’s much more difficult to fill a guest chef course unless the person has a TV series or a strong media presence which certainly doesn’t guarantee that they will be good teachers or for that matter that their recipes will work. Once they are on TV, the agent comes into the equation so in many cases the numbers become unrealistic not to mention uneconomic. Nonetheless we continue to have several guest chefs every year.  This month Mary Jo McMillin – a beautiful cook from Chicago, known only to a handful of people over here – delighted us with a carefully chosen selection of the recipes she has honed over a lifetime of cooking both at home and in her restaurant and catering business ‘Mary Jo’s Cuisine’. She is a particularly brilliant ‘Slow Cook’ and by that I mean that over the years she has perfected among other things a repertoire of easy slow cooked dishes using less expensive cuts of meat that can also be prepared even days ahead and served in a variety of ways. She packed a phenomenal amount into the day …

We particularly loved her butternut squash soup, pulled lamb shoulder with pomegranates seeds and pickled onions and American chocolate cake with a dark shiny icing. She also did several great salads based on grains, rice and pasta. I’ll choose just one; this delicious lentil salad was bursting with flavour. Mary Jo has a food blog too


Butternut Squash Soup


Serves 6-8


800-900g (1 3/4-2lbs) butternut squash or other orange-fleshed winter squash should give

600g (1 1/4lbs) peeled, cubed squash (a generous quart)

25g (1oz) butter

1 1/2 inch (4cm) Ceylon cinnamon, canela or 1cm (1/2 inch) stick cinnamon

175g (6oz) onion, peeled and sliced (1 medium onion)

75g (3oz) carrot, peeled and sliced (1 medium carrot)

75g (3oz) celery, sliced (2 ribs)

1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh red chilli, or pinch crushed red pepper

2-3 whole cloves garlic, smashed

25g (1oz) fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated (2 tablespoons)

1/2 teaspoon garam masala* (see below)

3/8 teaspoon turmeric

350ml (12fl oz) chicken stock

600ml (1 pint) water

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon brown sugar (optional)

freshly grated nutmeg

125ml (4 1/2fl oz) cream, half-and-half or whole milk


To prepare the squash, cut off the ends, slice into 1 inch (2.5 cm) circles. Scoop out the seeds, peel off the rind with paring knife, and cut the squash into large cubes. Set aside.


Heat the butter in a large soup pot; add the cinnamon, then toss in sliced onions, carrot, celery, chili and garlic. Cover with butter papers and sweat the vegetables over a gentle heat 10-20 minutes or until carrots are limp and tender, but not brown.


Add the grated ginger, garam masala, turmeric, and stir until fragrant. Mix in the prepared squash; add the chicken stock, water, salt, cover and bring to a boil. Simmer steadily until the squash and carrots are very tender, 15-20 minutes.


Cool slightly, remove the cinnamon sticks, and add the cream. Purée the soup in small batches at a time in a blender and use a small ladle to swirl the soup through the strainer to remove the celery strings and chilli seeds. Correct the seasonings, adding salt, pepper, sugar and freshly grated nutmeg to taste. Thin to desired consistency with water, stock or milk.


* Garam Masala (an Indian spice blend)


Makes approximately 25g (1oz)


l small nutmeg, broken with side of chef’s knife

1 tablespoon whole green cardamom, including husk

1 1/2 tablespoons crumbled Ceylon cinnamon or l broken cinnamon stick

3/4 tablespoon whole cloves

1/4 tablespoon black peppercorns


Roast the spices in a dry iron skillet until fragrant. Cool slightly and grind to a powder in a spice grinder, sift and store in small jar with tight fitting lid.


Lentil Salad


Serves 4-6


200g (7oz) French Puy lentils or regular brown lentils

700ml (24fl oz) water

1 teaspoon salt

3-4 1/2 tablespoons Strong Vinaigrette (see recipe)

a small bunch of chopped green onion

3/4 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or parsley

finely chopped chili or freshly ground pepper to taste


Cover the lentils with the water, bring to boil and simmer, covered for 12-15 minutes, or until tender but not mushy. Add the salt and remove from the heat. Allow to stand with salt for 5 minutes.


Drain the lentils shaking off the cooking liquid. Place in a bowl and add the vinaigrette, chopped onion. Allow to stand l5 minutes to absorb seasoning. Add fresh herbs, chili or pepper and more salt if necessary.


Note: It is important to get the dressing on the lentils while they are still hot for the flavor to be absorbed. Feel free to add mint, coriander, basil, or chervil in season. The salad may be extended with diced tomato, sweet peppers, cucumber or sliced, blanched green beans. A generous sprinkling of crumbled feta and a few olives make the lentil salad a full meal.


Strong Vinaigrette


Makes approximately 475ml (16fl oz)


This vinaigrette has more vinegar. Use for all pasta, rice, chicken, vegetable and potato salads.


1 teaspoon garlic paste

175ml (6fl oz) red wine vinegar

2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

3/4 teaspoon salt

225ml (8fl oz) sunflower oil or a combination of olive and vegetable oils


Prepare using the method above.



Pulled Braised Lamb Shoulder with Pomegranate Molasses


Serves 4-6


800g (1 3/4lbs) boneless lamb shoulder (a 1.3kg (3lb) square-cut bone-in shoulder will provide this amount and the added bones make a better sauce.)

1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons olive oil

l large onion, peeled and diced

1 carrot peeled and diced

1/4 – 1/2 fresh chilli, sliced (optional) or 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper

4cm (1 1/2 inches) canela (cinnamon) coil or several large shards

1 tablespoon fresh ginger thinly sliced and julienned

4-5 cloves garlic chopped

large sprig of fresh thyme

4-5 peeled fresh tomatoes chopped or 1 cup tinned tomatoes

225ml (8fl oz) red wine

salt and pepper

2 1/2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

3/4 tablespoon lime or lemon juice


If possible trim and salt the lamb the night before cooking.


Film a heavy frying pan with 3/4 tablespoons oil and quickly brown the lamb chunks and the bones. Place in a heavy enameled iron casserole. Distribute the bones around the edges and the meat chunks in the center.


Pour off any fat left in the frying pan. Add a little more olive oil and sauté the onion and carrot until limp and lightly browned. Add the chili, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, a bit more salt and pepper and continue to sauté until the seasonings smell fragrant. Stir in the tomatoes, wine; bring to a boil and pour over meat in the casserole.


Cover tightly and simmer on the stovetop or braise in a preheated oven 150ºC/300ºF/Gas Mark 2 oven for 2-3 hours or until fork tender. Remove the meat and bones from the braising dish when cool enough to handle. Carefully strip any bits of meat from the bones and pull the lamb chunks removing all bits of fat. Return the bones and odd bits to the braising pan, add a little stock or water and bring to a simmer for 30 minutes, if time allows. Stain the stock, allow the fat to rise to the surface. Chill until the fat hardened so it may be removed totally.


Reduce the meat stock to almost a demi-glace (around 110ml (4fl oz). Season the meat glaze with 2 1/2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses and 3/4 tablespoon fresh lime or lemon juice plus salt if needed.


Fold the room temperature sauce into the room temperature meat. Serve garnished with pickled red onion, pomegranate seeds and coriander leaves.


Pickled Red Onions


450g (1lb) red onions, peeled and thinly sliced on a mandolin

225ml (8fl oz) white vinegar

110g (4oz) sugar

pinch of salt

3 whole cloves

broken cinnamon

dried chilli


Bring the white vinegar and sugar to a simmer with a pinch of salt and 3 whole cloves, broken cinnamon bits, dried chili, etc. Add the onions to the simmering liquid one-third at a time. As soon as the onions are pink and wilted, lift them out into a clean jam jar. Continue until all onions have been wilted. Cover the onions in jars with the brine. The onions should be pink and crunchy. Store in fridge when cool.


American Chocolate Layer Cake


A 10-inch cake will make 20 slices.


100g (3 1/2oz) cocoa powder

300ml (10fl oz) boiling water

50ml (2fl oz) milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

235g (8 1/2oz) plain flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

225g (8oz) very soft unsalted butter

200g (7oz) soft brown sugar

200g (7oz) caster sugar

4 eggs


Cut parchment circles to line the bottoms of 2 x 25.5cm (10 inch) by 5cm (2 inch) cake tins, or 3 x 20.5cm or 23cm (8 or 9 inch) by 5cm (2 inch) tins. Butter and flour tin inside edges and paper lining and set aside.


Preheat the oven to 170ºC/325°F/Gas Mark 3.


In small bowl whisk the cocoa and boiling the water until smooth, add the milk and vanilla. In another bowl sift flour, salt and baking soda.


In a deep mixing bowl, cream the butter adding both sugars (make sure to rub out any lumps in brown sugar) and whip until light. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time. Alternately blend in the flour and cocoa mixtures in three additions.


Divide the batter into the prepared tins and bake in a preheated oven for 20-30 minutes or until the cake pulls from sides of the tin and feels springy. To remain moist as it cools, the chocolate cake may seem slightly undercooked.   Allow to cool 5 minutes in the tins. Turn out onto cooling racks, remove the parchment paper intact. Top with a  second rack and reverse the layers, leaving the cakes upright to cool.


Note: To make a smaller cake – 2 x 20.5cm (8 inch) layers – use 40g (1 3/4oz) cocoa, 150ml (5fl oz) boiling water, 1 1/2 tablespoons milk, 120g (4 1/4oz) cake flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 3/8 teaspoon soda, 110g (4oz), 80g (3 1/2oz) each white and brown sugars and 2 eggs.


Cream Filling


225ml (8fl oz) heavy cream

3/4 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla


Whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form. Sandwich the cake layers, both tops facing the filling with whipped cream. Press you hand around the edges of top of cake to insure the filling levels out to the sides, even the edge with palate knife. To crumb-coat the cake, use some softened ganache (left from previous batch), butter cream, or apricot glaze and spread thinly over the sides and top of cake. Chill the filled cake before pouring over ganache.




150ml (5fl oz) heavy cream

1 teaspoon honey or corn syrup (optional)

175g (6oz) chopped bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, preferably discs.


In a small saucepan scald the cream and honey almost to the boil. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate. Stir gently until the chocolate is evenly melted. Cool slightly and pour over the cold, filled layer cake, evenly spreading the ganache around the sides. (A turntable cake stand is helpful for this step.)  Once icing begins to set, use the bottom of the tart tin to lift the cake onto a plate. The iced cake may be held at cool room temperature for an hour or chilled. To cut in even slices, use a thin knife dipped in very hot water and wiped dry.


Hot Tips


Dates for the Diary – Spring Food Festivals

Galway Food Festival, Friday 6th- Sunday 8th April 2012,
Waterford Festival of Food, Dungarvan, Thursday 12th to Sunday 15th April 2012

For those who find recipe measures and conversions difficult, Shirley Bond has self-published a brilliant and simple to use handbook ‘How do you Measure Up? All Your Measuring and Weighing Questions Answered’ which deals with tricky questions like…”can you convert Imperial measures to and from metric measures and cup capacities so you can enjoy any recipe regardless of how it is written?” or “How long will a turkey take to defrost and then cook?” There are handy shopping, labelling and storage guides too. Published by Woodlands Publishing


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