Darina Allen: One of Darina's favourite comforting dishes is Chicken Masala

LOVELY Mary Jo McMillin from Chicago came to the Ballymaloe Cookery School again recently — Mary Jo has been coming to Ireland for more than 30 years. 
Darina Allen: One of Darina's favourite comforting dishes is Chicken Masala

Her idea of a holiday from her restaurant in Oxford, Ohio, was to come into the busy kitchen at Ballymaloe House for a couple of weeks each summer.

We all had fun cooking together and learned lots and lots of good things from each other.

In 2008, Mary Jo moved from Ohio to set up a new life near her children and grandchildren in Chicago.

It was back to home-cooking and the challenge of making a whole new set of friends in her retirement.

What to do? Her children’s friends were all sweet but much younger so Mary Jo joined a church choir, brought along some delicious food plus tempting cakes and cookies, which blew them all away — they wondered had she really cooked all these delicious things herself?

Immediately, there were requests for big gratin dishes of lasagne, stews, casseroles, apple tarts, and praline cakes so within a short time Mary Jo had a new bunch of friends and a thriving catering business.

Her plans for retirement were cheerfully put on hold.

Soon she was giving cooking classes in the local kitchen ware shop and that led to invitations to do private cooking classes in people’s houses.

Many people in the local community no longer had cooking skills and were overjoyed to be able to learn gorgeous comforting family dishes in an informal environment.

In many ways this is fast becoming a similar reality over here.

So at her recent cooking class on a frosty winter’s day here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School she charmed the audience with a range of delicious comforting dishes and a long list of cooking tips gleaned over many years.

Here are some of the favourites.

Chicken Masala

Serves 6

1.6kg (3½ lbs) whole chicken, cut-up, or 1.1kg (2½ lbs) chicken legs and thighs

3-4 tbsp vegetable oil (or 1½ tbsp/ butter plus oil)

1 x 7.5cm (3 inch) coiled stick Ceylon cinnamon or 1 regular cinnamon stick

5 whole cloves

3 whole green cardamoms

2 large onions (1¼ lbs.) thinly sliced

50g (2oz) fresh ginger, peeled and sliced

25g (1oz) garlic, peeled and sliced (6-8 cloves)

2 green chilies (cayenne or Serrano), seeds intact, 1 sliced, 2 whole generous tsp salt

¾ tbsp ground coriander

2 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp ground turmeric

1½ tsp garam masala (see recipe)

¼ tsp cayenne pepper

¾ tbsp curry powder (optional)

1 x 425g (14½oz) tin good quality canned tomatoes or 450g (1lb) fresh tomatoes in season, peeled, seeded and chopped

¾ tbsp tomato paste (optional)

225ml (8fl oz) water

Fresh lime juice and coriander

Pull off as much skin as possible from the chicken, trim any excess fat, pat dry with paper towels, and season with salt.

Cover and refrigerate overnight or leave ½ hour at room temperature.

Heat 3 tablespoons oil (or 1½ tbsp each butter and oil) in an enamelled casserole or heavy stewing pot; add the whole spices and sliced onion.

Sauté gently for 30-40 minutes or until the onions have reduced to a deep golden brown.

Meanwhile, prepare the crushed “green spices” and measure all the dry spices into a small cup.

Plan to grind one chilli with the ginger and garlic; cook the other chilli whole in the curry and remove when the sauce reaches desired point of heat.

To grind the green spices in a mortar, begin with one sliced chilli and a pinch of salt.

When the chilli is mashed to a paste, add ½ the ginger and another pinch of salt.

Continue with the remaining ginger, and finally add the garlic.

Crush thoroughly, pounding and grinding against the stone to produce 75g (3oz/) ginger mash.

To grind the green spices in a blender, place chopped ginger, garlic and chilli in a blender jar; add 50ml (2fl oz) of water and pulse to a smooth puree.

When the onions have reduced and browned, add the ginger mash and continue to sauté, stirring constantly, until the seasonings smell cooked and any water has evaporated.

Sprinkle in the mixed dry spices and continue stirring until the mixture is delightfully fragrant.

At this point the seasoning base will have reduced to a dark lump smaller than a baseball.

Gradually blend in the chopped tomatoes, tomato paste and water.

Add one whole chilli if desired. Simmer the sauce, covered for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, lightly brown the chicken pieces in ¾ tbsp oil and add to the sauce in the casserole.

Pour the fat off from the frying pan, deglaze with water and add to the curry.

Take care to place dark meat on the bottom and breast pieces on top, since white meat will cook faster and will need to be removed before the dark meat is ready.

(This step is optional. Many cooks add raw chicken to the prepared curry sauce for cooking; however, the effort of browning will add depth of flavour to the finished dish.)

Cover and bake in moderate oven, or simmer on the stovetop. Breast meat will be ready in 20-30 minutes; dark meat will take 45-50 minutes.

the chicken is tender, skim excess fat if necessary and taste sauce for seasoning, adding fresh lemon or lime juice and a generous amount of chopped coriander (cilantro).

Note: For a typical variation, simmer 1 large peeled, diced potato along with chicken, and just before serving, sprinkle in 130g (4¾oz/1 cup) frozen peas.

Garam Masala

Store in an airtight jar and use within a couple of weeks.

Makes scant 25g (1oz)

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

1 tbsp whole green cardamom, including husk

1½ tbsp crumbled Ceylon cinnamon or 1 broken cinnamon stick

¾ tbsp whole cloves

¼ tbsp 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 a small jar with a tight fitting lid.

Top Tip: To clean a spice grinder, add a handful of white rice, grind and discard the rice. Do not try to wash a spice grinder. An electric coffee mill makes an excellent spice grinder.

Cucumber Raita

Delicious with chicken masala or lentil and rice pilaff

1 cucumber (at least 300-350g/10-12oz) or ½ large seedless cucumber

½ teaspoon salt

225ml (8fl oz) plain whole milk yogurt, preferably homemade

1 clove garlic mashed with a little salt

1½ tablespoons chopped green onion

1½ tablespoons chopped cilantro or fresh mint, dill and parsley

½ teaspoon finely chopped green chilli, seeds intact (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Sprinkle of ground cumin

Diced fresh tomato in season (optional)

Peel the cucumber, scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon. (Leave the centre intact if using seedless cucumber.) Cut into small dice.

Place the diced cucumber in a bowl; toss with salt and allow to stand 20-30 minutes.

Rinse lightly under water; shake dry in a sieve, then place drained cucumber in a tea towel and twist to squeeze out most of water. Squeezed cucumber will be crisp, transparent and half its original volume.

Mix the garlic, onion, herbs and optional chilli into the yogurt. Fold in the cucumber.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place in a serving bowl and dust the top with ground cumin. Garnish with more coriander (cilantro) and optional tomato.

Mary Jo’s Brunch Strata

This is an absolute gem of a recipe, a savoury bread and butter pudding which can utilise all kinds of tasty bits and pieces from your fridge in a totally delicious way.

Mary Jo serves it for brunch but it would also make a delicious lunch or light supper dish with a salad of organic leaves.

Serves 8-10

350g (12oz) good French, Italian or sourdough bread

1 jumbo onion (350g/12oz) peeled and cut in small dice

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

¾ tbsp butter

300g (10oz) fresh spinach wilted, drained and chopped

225-350g (8-12oz) fresh mushrooms sliced and sautéed in butter

3 red peppers roasted, peeled and cut in large dice

350-450g (12-16oz) sausage, cooked and diced or crumbled

good handful of fresh parsley, chopped

fresh or dried thyme

350g (12oz) grated cheese (Gruyère Cheddar)

6 eggs

450ml (16fl oz) whole milk

225ml (8fl oz) heavy cream

salt, pepper, freshly grated nutmeg, pinch of cayenne

Cut the bread into large dice, about ½ inch (1 cm).

Include crusts unless scorched. (Measures about 9 cups.)

Melt the butter in a small heavy, sauté pan and sweat onion over a low heat.

Add the chopped garlic to the top of the onion and cover with butter wrappers or a parchment circle.

The onion and garlic should not brown but will lightly colour, melt into softness and reduce by half. Allow 20-30 minutes to cook the onion.

Combine the cooked onion, garlic, drained, squeezed and chopped spinach, sautéed mushrooms, cooked sausage, parsley and thyme. Season the mixture with salt and pepper.

The vegetable/sausage mixture should weigh at least 1.1kg (2 1/2 lbs).

Beat the eggs in a large bowl; add the cream, milk and season well with salt, pepper, freshly grated nutmeg and a pinch of cayenne.

Generously butter a 39 cm x 27 cm x 6 cm oval baking dish or two 21cm x 21cm x 6cm square baking dishes.

Pour half of the egg milk mixture over the diced bread.

Spread half of the moistened bread with a slotted spoon and spread it over the bottom of the baking dish.

Distribute 2/3 of the vegetable mix over the bread and top with 2/3 of the grated cheese.

Add the second half of the moistened bread over the vegetables and sausage.

Pat everything firmly in place with your clean hands.

Pour the remaining milk and egg mixture evenly over the casserole and sprinkle over the remaining cheese.

Cover with cling film and refrigerate overnight.

Remove from the fridge an hour before cooking if possible.

Bake the Strata in a 190C/375F/Gas Mark 5 oven for 45-50 minutes or until puffed and golden. Allow to rest at room temperature 15 minutes before cutting.

Hot tips

Cooking for Baby

Natural and Wholesome Food: Everyone wants to feed their babies nourishing and wholesome food but many young mothers are completely confused and bamboozled by endless conflicting advice.

How and when do I start to offer solids? Many of us lack the understanding to make our own baby food but as a mother of four and grandmother of 10, Darina Allen is happy to pass on the tips and advice gleaned over years of feeding children and grandchildren totally without packets, cans or jars.

On Friday, February 26, we will cover everything — choosing the ingredients, recipes, preparation tips, menus, storage, health and nutrition.

Not only will it save you a small fortune but it will be infinitely better for your baby. You’ll soon discover that making your own, nourishing baby food is quick, easy and surprisingly good fun.

Also, by giving your baby lots of variety you’ll ensure that as they grow up they don’t become fussy eaters.

If you need to bring a child minder with you they are very welcome to take a walk around our gardens free of charge while you are attending the course.

This course is subsidised by the Ballymaloe Cookery School to make it more attractive to young mothers as we feel very strongly that we should all be giving our children the best start in life. www.cookingisfun.ie

Street Food Revolution:

Richard Johnson’s Street Food Revolution provides a fascinating and important read on what’s going on with British food today.

Inspired by his travels and his love of street food, Richard tells the story of street vendors across the UK, serving up fresh seasonal edgy food to the locals. Published by Kyle Books.

Cooking for a Farmers Market:

With the rise of the farmer’s market in Ireland, more and more young entrepreneurs have the chance to make their mark on the food industry without having the considerable start-up costs of a ‘bricks & mortar’ premises.

With this in mind, we’ve introduced an exciting two and a half day course to our calendar this year — Cooking for a Farmer’s Market Stall, April 6-8.

We will cover a range of easy-to-replicate recipes from zingy chutneys and pickles to rich, buttery pâtés, and decadent sweet treats, guaranteed to tempt the most discerning artisan shoppers.

www.cookingisfun.ie  or follow the blog http://www.cookingisfun.ie/items/2016/story-farmers-market-stall

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