Local producers more appreciated than ever

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 programmes on TV channels, yet it’s doubtful whether people are doing more home cooking.
From the start I invited a couple of guest chefs to teach a class so my students could 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.

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 doesn’t guarantee that they will be good teachers, or their recipes will work.

Once they are on TV the agent comes into the equation, so in many cases the numbers become unrealistic and uneconomic. Nonetheless we 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 over the years she perfected a repertoire of easy, slow cooked dishes using less expensive cuts of meat that can be prepared days ahead and served in a variety of ways.

We loved her butternut squash soup, pulled lamb shoulder with pomegranates seeds and pickled onions.

She also did several great salads based on grains, rice and pasta. This delicious lentil salad was bursting with flavour.

Mary Jo has a food blog too — mjcuisine.wordpress.com.

Butternut Squash Soup

Serves 6-8

800-900g (1¾-2lbs) butternut squash or other orange-fleshed winter squash should give

600g (1¼lbs) peeled, cubed squash (a generous quart)

25g (1oz) butter

1½ inch (4cm) Ceylon cinnamon, canela or 1cm (½ 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)

¼ tsp chopped fresh red chilli, or pinch crushed red pepper

2-3 whole cloves garlic, smashed

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

½ tsp garam masala* (see below)

3/8tsp turmeric

350ml (12fl oz) chicken stock

600ml (1 pint) water

1 tsp salt

1 tsp brown sugar (optional)

Freshly grated nutmeg

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

To prepare the squash, cut off ends, slice into 1 inch (2.5 cm) circles.

Scoop out seeds, peel off the rind and cut the squash into large cubes. Set aside. Heat 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 vegetables over a gentle heat 10-20 minutes or until carrots are limp and tender, but not brown.

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

Cool slightly, remove cinnamon sticks, and add the cream. Purée the soup in small batches in a blender and use a small ladle to swirl soup through the strainer to remove celery strings and chilli seeds.

Correct seasonings, add salt, pepper, sugar and freshly grated nutmeg to taste. Thin to 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 tbsp whole green cardamom, including husk

1½ tbsp crumbled Ceylon cinnamon or l broken cinnamon stick

¾ tbsp whole cloves

¼ tbsp black peppercorns

Roast 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 tsp salt

3-4½ tbsp Strong Vinaigrette (see recipe)

A small bunch of chopped green onion

¾ tbsp chopped fresh dill or parsley

Finely chopped chilli 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 flavour 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 tsp garlic paste

175ml (6fl oz) red wine vinegar

2 tsp Dijon mustard

¾ tsp 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 and Pickled Onions

Serves 4-6

800g (1¾lbs) boneless lamb shoulder

1½ – 2 tbsp olive oil

l large onion, peeled and diced

1 carrot peeled and diced

¼ – ½ fresh chilli, sliced (optional) or 1 tsp Aleppo pepper

4cm (1½ inches) canela (cinnamon) coil or several large shards

1 tbsp 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

2½ tbsp pomegranate molasses

¾ tbsp lime or lemon juice

If possible trim and salt the lamb the night before cooking. Film a heavy frying pan with ¾ tablespoons oil and quickly brown lamb chunks and the bones.

Place in a heavy enamelled iron casserole.

Distribute bones around the edges and meat chunks in the centre.

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 chilli, 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 150C/300F/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 fat.

Return 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.

Strain the stock, allow fat to rise to the surface. Chill until the fat is hardened so it may be removed totally.

Reduce the meat stock to almost a demi-glace (around 110ml (4fl oz).

Season meat glaze with 2½ tablespoons pomegranate molasses and ¾ tablespoon fresh lime or lemon juice plus salt.

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 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. T

he onions should be pink and crunchy.

Store in fridge when cool.

Hot tips

Dates for the Diary – The Galway Food Festival is on Friday, Apr 6, to Sunday, Apr 8. Details at www.galwayfoodfestival.com.

The Waterford Festival of Food takes place in Dungarvan, from Thursday to Sunday, Apr 12-15. Details at www.waterfordfestivaloffood.com

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?” Published by Woodlands Publishing www.woodlandpublishing.co.uk


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