Stress Free Dinner Party with Mary Risley


I’ve just learned the secret of how to give a totally stress free dinner party! So here’s how it’s done. On a recent trip to San Francisco Mary Risley invited eleven mutual friends around in my honour. It was to be an early dinner. The guests were invited for 6:30, I arrived in around 5:30, Mary was having tea – totally relaxed and there was absolutely no sign of any activity, not to mention food.

As six approached, I tentatively enquired whether I could help in any way, maybe lay the table, how about food! Mary remembered the Ballymaloe Bread with some of Bill Casey’s Shanagarry Smoked Salmon that I’d brought over – “let’s have that for starters.” I took the loaf out of the freezer and hastily popped it into the oven and as per instructions I laid the table, then ran out into the garden to pick a Meyer lemon from the tree (yes, literally!.) The doorbell rang and the guests started to arrive. Mary was totally unfazed, lots of hugging “The glasses are in the cupboard, here’s the bottle opener, Jim you open the wine”

By now the ingredients for the main course, a San Francisco Fishermen’s Stew, were on the island counter, not sure who got those out of the fridge, I was busy slicing salmon and buttering warm semi frozen bread one slice at a time then popping it back into the oven to thaw another few centimetres just enough to cut another slice.

“Paula, can you chop the onions and that fennel bulb and Kiki can you open that can of tomatoes?”  We all followed instructions, everyone was having a hilarious time plus an impromptu cooking lesson on how to make this classic San Francisco Fishermen’s Stew.

The onion, chilli, garlic, fennel, and fresh marjoram was bubbling away in a big Le Crueset Casserole. Not sure who got the job of cracking the crabs claws.

Everyone loved the smoked salmon, “Open another couple bottles of wine”, add the fish to the tomato, next the crab and clams. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Taste, maybe a bit more salt, “Who’s chopping the parsley; scatter it over the top of the pot!”

“Frances and Darina, you are in charge of the pudding – there’s a couple of (defrosted) discs of Lady Baltimore’s cakes and some raspberries over there, sandwich them together with cream and lemon curd.”

We did as we were bidden and produced an impressive looking confection in a couple of minutes, decorated with lemon balm from the garden and sprinkle of confectioners’ sugar.

By then the Cioppino was being ladled from the big red skillet into wide shallow bowls and we all tucked in, some of us even had second helpings. A green salad emerged from somewhere, not sure who or where that came from and then Frances and I produced our masterpiece to lots of appreciative noises. There was coffee, more wine and lots more convivial chat.

The washing up somehow seemed to be effortlessly done and a fantastic evening was had by all – so now we all know how to give a stress free dinner party – thank you Mary.


Mary Risley’s Cioppino


Every country has its version of a fishermen’s stew–I understand the origin of this recipe is Genoa – it’s a San Francisco tradition!


Serves 8-10


24 well-scrubbed live clams or cockles

extra virgin olive oil

coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

2 onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 fennel bulb, chopped

1.1kg (2lbs 8ozs) fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped

(or 3 x 400g (14oz) cans Italian plum tomatoes)

1 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)

450ml (16floz) dry white wine

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 3/4 tablespoons fresh marjoram, chopped

900g (2 lbs) fresh white fish (sea bass, rock cod, halibut or monkfish)

450g (1lb) sea scallops (optional)

450g (1lb) raw shrimp (or prawns), peeled

meat from 1 large cooked crab, (optional)

25g (1oz) fresh parsley, chopped


To Serve


Sourdough Bread
To steam the clams or cockles, place them in a heavy bottomed pot with 2.5cm (1 inch) of water.  Cover and cook over high heat, shaking occasionally, until the clams are open.  Keep covered until ready to use.


To make the soup base, put the onions with half a teaspoon of salt in a large casserole with a generous splash of olive oil and cook, stirring from time to time, until the onions are softened.  Stir in the garlic and continue to cook and stir another minute or two.  Stir in the fennel, then the tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, red pepper flakes, and marjoram.  Then add the broth from the steamed clams leaving the last tablespoon in the pot since it probably has sand.  Bring this mixture to the boil, stirring, and let simmer gently for 20 minutes.


Meanwhile, cut the white fish into large chunks, coat with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.


Remove the little tough part from each scallop.  Remove the shells from the shrimp.  Place these on another plate and coat with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.


To make the cioppino, fifteen minutes before you are ready to serve, bring the soup base to the boil, stirring, and stir in the fish.  Cover and let simmer 5 minutes.  Next, stir in the scallops and the shrimp and let simmer another 5 minutes.  At this point stir in the steamed clams and the crab meat, if desired.  Taste and adjust the seasoning.  Cover and let sit a minute or two. Sprinkle with lots of fresh parsley and serve in warmed bowls with sourdough bread.



Mary Risley’s Pear, Gorgonzola and Walnut Salad


Serves 6


This salad is a contrast in colour and texture: the pears are sweet and soft, the cheese is soft and salty, and the walnuts are hard strongly flavoured when toasted. To decide whether or not to peel the pears, taste the skin to see if it is acceptable. The best pears for this salad are French Butter pear, d’Anjou, or Comice.

2 heads butter or leaf lettuce, or a mixture of red and green lettuces, washed, dried and torn into 1 inch pieces


4 pears, such as French butter pear, d’Anjou, or Comice, peeled and cut into ¼ inch wide slices

225g (8oz) Gorgonzola, broken into ½ inch chunks

55g (2 ½ oz) walnut pieces, lightly toasted

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon-style prepared mustard

125ml (4fl oz) extra-virgin olive oil

coarse salt

freshly ground pepper


Put lettuces in a large salad bowl. Add the pears, cheese and walnuts. To make the vinaigrette, combine the vinegar, mustard and salt in a measuring cup. Stir to dissolve the salt. Mix in olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with a small spoon. To serve, mix the vinaigrette again and pour over the salad, tossing gently with your hands. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mound the lettuces in the centres of salad plates. With your hands arrange the pears, Gorgonzola and walnuts on top. Serve with French bread.


Lady Baltimore Cake with Raspberries and Lemon Curd


This is Mary, Frances and my adapted recipe for Lady Baltimore’s cake.


Yields two 8 inch cakes


200g (7oz) white flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

pinch salt

110g (4oz) butter, softened

275g (10oz) caster sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

180ml (6fl oz) milk

3 egg whites


450g (1lb) raspberries

lemon curd (see recipe)


300ml (10fl oz) whipped cream

fresh mint or lemon balm leaves


2 x 8-inch round cake tins


Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Mark 4.


Grease and flour two 8-inches round cake tins. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and sieve them together onto a piece of parchment paper.  Put the soft butter and sugar in a mixing bowl, and beat until smooth and well blended.

Stir the vanilla extract and the milk together and add to the butter-sugar mixture in two stages alternately with the flour mixture, beating until the batter is well blended and smooth after each addition.

In a separate mixing bowl, whisk the egg whites until they are stiff but moist.

Gently stir one-third of the beaten whites into the batter, then scoop up the remaining beaten whites, drop them onto the batter, and fold them in.

Divide between the prepared cake tins.  Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick or straw inserted in the center of a cake comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and let cool in their tins for 5 minutes, then turn them out of the tins onto a rack to cool completely.

Spread a layer of lemon curd on each cake base, sandwich together with softly whipped cream and raspberries. Spread a little cream and lemon curd on top and pile on some fresh raspberries. Decorate with a few fresh lemon balm or mint leaves and dust with a little icing sugar.


Lemon Curd


110g (4 oz) castor sugar

50g (2oz) butter

finely grated rind and juice of 2 good lemons, preferably unwaxed organic

2 eggs and 1 egg yolk (keep white aside for meringue)


On a very low heat melt the butter, add castor sugar, lemon juice and rind and then stir in well beaten eggs. Stir carefully over a gentle heat until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Draw off the heat and pour into a bowl (it will thicken as it cools.)




Today, tomorrow and Monday many of my food heroes will converge on Ballymaloe for the first ever Literary Festival of Food and Wine and the free fringe events in the Big Shed beside the Grainstore. Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden, David Thompson, David Tanis, Thomasina Miers, Camilla Plum, Stevie Parle, Rachel Allen, Sandor Katz … will all do cookery demonstrations at Ballymaloe Cookery School. It’s being described as the Glastonbury of Food and Wine Festivals, let’s hope the weather’s better but actually it doesn’t matter because virtually all the events are indoors – apart from the treasure hunts and GIY gardens – check out


Charity Vintage Tea Rooms at Saint Mary’s Church of Ireland, Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Afternoon tea as it used to be, sipped out of antique tea cups with homemade cakes and dainty sandwiches to the sounds of Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole – and all for a good cause. Every Saturday from 2 – 5pm.  Email Ria


Polytunnel Gardening Course at The Hollies, Enniskeane, Co Cork. Learn how to get the most from your poly tunnel year round, grow summer crops including sweet corn, tomatoes and peppers and extend the growing season to have fresh greens even during the winter period.  Sunday 12th May 9.30-4.30. €60.00 lunch included – 023 88 47001 or 0860883116 –


Don’t miss Saturday Pizzas and Sunday Roasts at Ballymaloe Cookery School during the Literary Festival of Food and Wine 3rd – 6th May 2013


About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


Past Letters

  • Recipes