Mary Jo McMillin


A lovely American friend from Chicago came to visit recently, bringing lots of new recipes to share with all of us. Her name is Mary Jo McMillin whom I’ve written about in previous columns. She absolutely loves to cook for her family, friends including the members of her local church and community.
Although she is now in her 80s, she continues to test recipes and experiment throughout the seasons.
She’s been coming to Ballymaloe for over 40 years. Originally, she had a much loved restaurant in the University town of Oxford, Ohio called Mary Jo’s Cuisine. Her little bistro stood as a beacon for food of exceptional quality and artistry, devotees drove from as far away as New York and Boston to eat her delicious seasonal food.

In 2007, much to the consternation of her loyal guests, she decided to hang up her restaurant pots and pans and published a cookbook of the same name generously sharing over 200 of her patrons favourite recipes.
While Mary Jo is with us here, she wanders through the Winter gardens and greenhouses, foraging and picking little salad leaves, winter roots, kale and edible greens, and cooks delicious, gutsy dishes for all of us to enjoy. She’s a thrifty cook and succulent stews, cooked gently and slowly in the cooling heat of the bread oven after the sourdough loaves have baked are one of her specialties.
She weaves her way in and out through the school kitchens and joins the students for lunch, sharing tips and stories from her life in food.
Food unites everyone, of all ages, all nationalities, all cultures…
This week, I’ll keep my introduction short so I can share several of Mary Jo’s recipes with you all.

Rhubarb and Lamb Koresh

Koresh is the generic name for stews in Persian cuisine. There are many variations on the theme. I was intrigued by this delicious version with the addition of new season’s rhubarb – Mary Jo used lamb neck, a very succulent and inexpensive cut of meat but you could substitute pork or beef.

Serves 3

1 tbsp olive oil

450g lamb shoulder or lean neck slices (pork shoulder or beef chuck may be substituted for the lamb)

1 tbsp olive oil

225g onion, diced

2-3 cloves garlic, sliced

a few slices red chilli or a pinch of chilli flakes

2 tsp grated fresh ginger (or ½ tsp powdered ginger)

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

¼ tsp ground allspice

¼ tsp turmeric

1 tbsp chopped preserved lemon

handful of chopped mint (or parsley)

225ml water

salt and pepper to taste

225g rhubarb stalks, cut into 1cm dice

1-2 tsp brown sugar (optional)

To Serve

steamed Basmati rice

natural yoghurt

chopped mint

Trim the lamb of excess fat and cut into 2.5cm chunks (or cook on the bone and remove the bone when the meat is tender).

Heat the olive oil or rendered lamb fat in a heavy enamelled cast iron braising pot and brown the lamb evenly. Remove, pour out any browned fat, add another 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sweat the onion to soften. Add the garlic, chili and ginger. Cook briefly and add the cinnamon, allspice, turmeric, preserved lemon and mint. Return the lamb to the aromatic base, add about 225ml of water, season with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for 1 ½ – 2 hours or until the meat is tender. Remove any bones or chunks of fat.

Add the rhubarb and continue to cook until the rhubarb pulps into the sauce. Taste and add a little brown sugar if the sauce seems too tart. Simmer to combine the flavours, 15-20 minutes approx.  

To Serve

Serve with steamed Basmati rice, a dollop of plain yogurt and some chopped fresh mint.

Tapioca Pudding

I’d forgotten all about tapioca – a total blast from the past! I remember we used to disparagingly call it ‘frog spawn’…Mary Jo reintroduced us to tapioca and I couldn’t believe how delicate and delicious it was – a super easy dessert for a couple of cents.

If you can’t get quick cook tapioca, blitz the dry tapioca grains in a blender or Thermomix until smooth.

Serves 4-6  

1 egg separated

5 tbsp sugar (70g)

pinch of salt

3 tbsp quick cooking tapioca (33g)

450ml whole milk

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Mix the 4 tablespoons of sugar, egg yolk, salt, tapioca and milk in a small saucepan.

Beat the egg white with 1 tablespoon of sugar until stiff and set aside.

Bring to a full boil, stirring. Remove from the heat and fold in the beaten egg white and vanilla extract. Pour into a bowl or ladle into individual glasses. 

Delicious served with a berry purée and softly whipped cream.

Date and Walnut Meringues

These little does were super delicious with a dollop of softly whipped cream.

Makes 4-6 dozen depending on size

110ml egg whites

¼ tsp white wine vinegar

200g caster sugar

½ tsp pure vanilla extract

50g chopped walnuts

50g chopped dates (Deglet or Medjool)

Make the meringue.

In a food mixer, whisk the egg whites until they are foaming, add the vinegar.  Whisk to a light froth and begin adding the sugar one heaped tablespoon at a time.  Continue beating until stiff peaks form at the base of the whisk and the sugar has dissolved.  Beat in the vanilla extract and fold in the dates and walnuts.

Preheat the oven to 110°C/Gas Mark ¼.

Drop teaspoons of the meringue mixture on baking parchment lined trays and bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes approx. or until the meringues easily lift off the parchment – turn off the oven and allow to cool. Store in an airtight tin. The meringues will develop a marshmallow-like centre.

Rolled Baklava

These delicious Greek pastry treats keep in a covered container for weeks on end, that’s if you can resist…

175g walnuts finely ground (use a food processor)

3 tbsp caster sugar

½ tsp ground cinnamon

175g filo pastry sheets (6-7 sheets approx.)

110g butter, melted

2 tbsp olive oil


175g granulated sugar

175ml water

1 tsp crushed cardamom pods (optional)

cinnamon stick

strip lemon rind

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 tbsp honey

1 tsp rosewater (optional)

1 x 20.5cm square tin

1 wooden dowel or long chopstick

First prepare the syrup.

Boil the sugar and water with the cardamom, cinnamon stick and lemon rind to form a thick syrup.

Add the lemon juice, honey and rosewater if using. Set aside to cool.

NOTE: for absorption, cool syrup must be poured over the hot pastry.

Mix the ground walnuts with the caster sugar and the ground cinnamon.

Melt the butter with the olive oil. Butter the tin.

Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.

On a clean counter or marble slab, brush one sheet of filo with melted butter. Place one-sixth of the walnut mixture in a row 2.5cm from the buttered edge of the shorter end of the filo sheet. Place the dowel next to the nuts. Roll up the pastry like a Swiss roll keeping the dowel inside. When rolled, scrunch the pastry into a ruffled shape. Remove the dowel and place the scrunched roll in the buttered tin. Repeat with the remaining filo. Once all the rolls are in the baking dish, brush with butter, cut through them at 2.5cm intervals. (It’s important to cut the baklava before baking).

Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes; reduce the heat to 180°C/Gas Mark 4 and continue baking for 20 minutes or until golden on all sides. Remove from the oven, pour the cool syrup over the hot pastry, and listen to the syrup sing as it is absorbed.

Allow to cool and serve at room temperature.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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