Wednesday, March 17, 2004

More than meat & potatoes

Professional makes a stouthearted St. Patrick's Day meal in 45 minutes

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Chef Mary Jo McMillin of Oxford holds her festive fare: Sirloin with Sage-Stout Sauce, Irish "champ" and glazed carrots.

After only two series episodes of "What Would a Chef Do With...?" we've discovered the biggest challenge for professional cooks may not be creating a dish using limited ingredients (including an odd one of our choosing) in 45 minutes or less.

No, the chefs usually pause the most when we tell them they have to create the dish in their home kitchen. Obviously, many - if not most - don't cook at home.

For instance, when we asked Mary Jo McMillin, chef-owner of Mary Jo's Cuisine in Oxford, to create a St. Patrick's Day dish using stout (strong, hearty Irish beer), she didn't hesitate.

"Most recipes that use stout are braises that take longer to cook," said McMillin, who has worked at the famed Ballymaloe House in Ireland's County Cork and attended its cookery school. "But I think I can do something. Maybe beef with a quick stout sauce."

Then she heard we wanted her to create her Irish-influenced dish at home.

"Oh, no," she whined. "My kitchen is so small and I hate my stove. Can't we do it here at the restaurant?"

But we stuck to our guns and McMillin agreed to cook for us at her Oxford home on a Monday afternoon - her day off. Equipped with an electric stove and ample counter space, her bright, white kitchen would please most home cooks.

"I almost never cook at home because I'm at the restaurant or I just eat leftovers here," she said.

So this little exercise led McMillin to several discoveries. Like the ceiling light just above the stove.

"Wow, I never knew that was there," she said, looking above.

The premise of "What Would a Chef Do With...?" is simple: We give a chef an ingredient (in this case, a bottle of Irish stout) and ask them to create a dish with it - and no more than seven other grocery store ingredients - in 45 minutes or less in their home kitchen.

Tell us which ingredients (canned, frozen and other convenience items are fine) to foist on the chefs. If we use your suggestion, we'll invite you to watch the master cook in action.

Send ideas to: What Would a Chef Do?, the Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202 or e-mail: Include your home neighborhood and phone number.

Mary Jo McMillin opened Mary Jo's Cuisine in Oxford in 1986. And although her menu is eclectic, often featuring dishes from France, Mexico and India, she does have a special interest in Irish cuisine. She has visited Ireland several times, worked at the famed Ballymaloe House in County Cork and attended the restaurant's cooking school.
Even though she has lived in the house for nine years, McMillin didn't remember ever searing a steak on the smoothtop stove she despises so much. It's not a high-powered gas range, but it worked fine. McMillin greased the bottom of an iron skillet ("never seared a steak in that before, either") and cooked the thick sirloin about three minutes on each side.

The chef removed the steak to a platter to keep it warm, then proceeded with her stout sauce. In the same pan, she sauteed diced onions until tender, then added a cup of chicken stock. After the stock simmered and reduced a little, McMillin added a teaspoon of chopped fresh sage, a dab of Dijon mustard, followed by a heavy splash ( 1/4 cup) of Guinness Extra Stout, squeeze of lemon juice and more butter.

"Don't use too much stout or the sauce might taste bitter," McMillin warned. "Drink the rest."

Just a little of the stout turned the sauce coffee-brown. The beer's bitter hoppiness also helped balance the rich oniony flavor of the sauce.

She finished her main dish in less than 25 minutes, but while preparing the steak and sauce, McMillin also cooked two traditional Irish side dishes: "champ" (mashed potatoes with scallions) and glazed carrots. The chef simply braised the carrots with butter in a covered heavy pot until tender, about 10 minutes.

"No need to add any liquid," McMillin explained. "The carrots make their own."

For the champ, she boiled the unpeeled potatoes in water about 30 minutes.

"The Irish always cook potatoes in their jackets," McMillin said. "Most of the nutrition is just under the skins, and they peel so easily after they're cooked."

After slipping the skins off the hot potatoes, she mashed the spuds with sliced scallions, warm milk and melted butter.

We tasted the champ for salt just as the timer buzzed. McMillin had prepared her St. Patrick's Day meal from scratch in 45 minutes. With a little direction (and her recipes), most home chefs could do the same.

When the food was plated for our photo, we finally convinced her to take a sip of Guinness.

"I prefer wine," she said.

At least we gave her the leftovers, so she wouldn't have to cook on that dreaded stove for another week.

Steak with Sage-Stout Sauce

1 large or 2 medium steaks, such as sirloin or New York strip

Salt and pepper, to taste

3 tablespoons butter, divided

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1 cup chicken stock

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 cup stout or other dark, hearty beer

1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Season steak on both sides to taste with salt and pepper. Add 1 tablespoon butter to large skillet over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add steak and sear about 3 minutes on each side, or to desired doneness. Remove steak from pan, cover with foil and keep warm.

Reduce heat to medium-low and add another tablespoon of butter to pan. Saute diced onion in butter until tender. Add chicken stock and stir briskly. Simmer until stock is reduced by about half. Add mustard, beer and sage and simmer briefly. Stir in lemon juice and remaining tablespoon of butter. Taste and correct seasonings. Slice steak, if desired, and serve warm sauce over beef. Makes 2 servings.

Irish "Champ"

3 medium unpeeled potatoes such as russets or Yellow Gold

1 cup milk, half-and-half or heavy cream

4 tablespoons butter

1 bunch scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

Cover unpeeled potatoes with cold water in pot and bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook until potatoes pierce easily with a fork, about 30 minutes. While potatoes are cooking, warm milk in a small saucepan. (Don't boil.) Add butter and chopped scallions. Keep milk mixture warm.

When potatoes are tender, drain and allow to cool briefly. Tear off potato skins and discard. In same pot or large bowl, mash potatoes and gradually add warm milk mixture, stirring until potatoes are fluffy. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm until serving. Makes 2 to 4 servings.

Mary Jo's Glazed Carrots

1 pound medium carrots, peeled, sliced thinly on diagonal

1 tablespoon butter

Salt and pepper, to taste

Add sliced carrots to heavy pan or casserole that has a lid. Stir in butter over medium heat and bring to gentle simmer. Cover pan and stir after 5 minutes cooking. Cover pan and simmer another 5 minutes, or until carrots are crisp-tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 2 to 4 servings.


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