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Ceiliúradh – Celebration


Sit back while I tell you a story. It’s not about China or food for once. It’s about something that runs deep within all of us – our sense of identity.

In 1994 I was a civil servant. Part of my job involved working with women’s groups and trying to find ways of tackling the problem of domestic violence against women. I got to know wonderful, strong women in representative and community groups all over the country. Some of them thought it would be good for me to meet with women in the disadvantaged Catholic communities in Belfast. At that time a ceasefire was underway and an unexpected consequence was an increase in violence against women in the communities from which the terrorists came. These women were working with their  colleagues in the south to try and identify the root causes of this upsurge in violence and to harness the energies of the women and men in more positive ways.

I spent some time meeting women in the Falls Road and other Catholic areas as they told me of their stories and struggles and the efforts they were making to reach out to women’s groups in Protestant working class areas who were facing similar challenges. This was a courageous strategy at the time. The fragile peace was far from stable and they risked the wrath of their menfolk and the wider community if their efforts to build bridges became known.

Two of the women took me in their car through a network of back streets across the Peace Line to meet women working in community groups on the Shankill Road, women struggling with the same challenges of deprivation and disconnection and the violence that permeated their lives. The Protestant women spoke to me with openness and passion about the problems in their community and the risks they were taking to build common ground. Their fears proved well-founded. One of the groups I met had their premises burnt out a short time later for fraternising with Catholics.

Those women, Protestant and Catholic, were ahead of their time. Long before their men found ways of accommodating one another they were quietly building understanding and empathy and getting to know one another’s hopes and dreams. They are the unsung heroes of the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

One thing led to another and through my new friends I met Jackie, a community worker who was trying to establish a men’s group on the Shankill Road to engage the men who found themselves at a loose end as a result of the cessation of violence. Like many an Irish woman who grew up in the south I was struggling to fully understand what the conflict was all about and wondering could the ceasefire hold.

One day he asked me if I was sure I really wanted to get an insight into the men’s thinking. I nodded a cautious assent. He took me high above the Shankill Road to a spot in Glencairn where Ulster Defence Association men gathered. The atmosphere was hostile. I was nervous. They were wary of a woman from the Republic who was most likely a Catholic (and I was unsure which of those three characteristics was the most problematic from their perspective). After an uneasy start they began to open up and talk, really talk… about the importance to them of flags and emblems, about the significance of the first world war in their history and how they felt it was ignored in the south, about their fears about their culture being absorbed in a nationalist Irish State, about their resentment of what they saw as the unfair treatment of the Protestant working class, decimated by the loss of jobs in traditional industries such as ship-building.

When the time came for me to leave, one of them appeared from a back room and placed a gun in my hands. In an attempt at levity he said “here, tell your boss it’s the first instalment of the consignment”. My boss at the time was Dick Spring the then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and a leading player in the tentative peace process. I sincerely hope that that gun, with my finger prints on it, has long since been decommissioned along with all the other weapons of that troubled time.

I came down from that eerie spot and fell into the Palace Bar in Belfast to meet friends for a pint, shaken by the experience but with the beginnings of understanding of how far we all had to travel on these islands to build reconciliation. The tinkle of glasses, the lights of the city jolted me back into normality but I never forgot those encounters.

I thought of those women and men the other evening when I sat in the Albert Hall and witnessed Ceiliúradh - Celebration an evening of music, spoken word and dance lovingly curated by Philip King on the occasion of the State Visit of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins to Britain. I thought of them and a lump welled up in my throat as Amhrán na Bhfiann and God Save the Queen rang out in succession in that august building and, in my minds eye, I saw the Tricolour and the Union Jack hanging proudly side by side on the streets of Windsor. As I listened to the words of writer Joe O’Connor I thought of all those people who have found themselves dislocated or dispossessed be they Irish emigrants in London or natives of Belfast caught, as they saw it, on the wrong side of the divide.

I thought of my great aunts Bella and Sheila who went to London to earn their living in the early 1950s and came back to sepia-coloured Wexford every summer with suitcases of exotic clothes and shoes from shops we could only dream of. I remembered my first trip to London on the mail boat with my Mum and Dad in the early 1960s and the novelty of triangular cartons of milk from dispensing machines in the Underground and seats in the “gods” at the London Palladium. I reflected on my mother and her family’s obvious regard for the royal family and all things British, tuning into ITV Wales and the BBC for preference, while my Dad’s father’s who fought in the War of Independence, spent time in Brixton prison and then fought his fellow countrymen in the Civil War, had photos of Michael Collins on his wall.

I spared a special thought for David Irvine leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, a former Ulster Volunteer Force member who became convinced of the importance of peace. I had flashbacks to an evening I spent with him in The Four Provinces pub in Washington at the time of the White House Economic Conference in May 1995 when he told me his life story and what drove him to want a better Northern Ireland for all. I wished he had lived to witness this evening along side John Major, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

I watched the obvious delight of Princess Michael of Kent at the evenings entertainment and as the members of the Irish Defence Forces Pipe Band and the Band of the Irish Guards rang out “The Minstrel Boy” in unison the hairs stood on the back of my neck. The tears welled up once more when Olivia O’Leary spoke of recognising the small part we Irish and British will always be of one another noting “It’s official, we’re allowed to like the British now” only to return again at the grand finale – the voices of the choir from the Irish Community in London raised as one in “The Parting Glass”.

As we gathered our belongings to leave, the Irish man beside me who has lived in London for twenty years wanted to know where I was from in Ireland, as in exactly where I was from, right down to the parish. Despite his years in London he was Irish to the core but this week he felt as if he truly belonged in his adopted city.

I wonder now about the women I met in the Falls Road and the Shankill and the men I met in Glencairn all those years ago. I hope the intervening years have been good to them.

They can be justly proud of the part they played in bringing about peace and making our Ceiliúradh – our celebration -possible 20 years later. We have travelled so far on a pathway to peace and reconciliation, proud of our separate identities and appreciating what we have in common. Let the journey continue.

“Ar scath a chéile a mhairimíd. The shadow of the past has become the shelter of the present.” 

President Michael D. Higgins, April, 2014

5,000 people who care about Ireland under one roof

5,000 people who care about Ireland under one roof

A flash of the Tri-colour at the Royal Albert Hall

A flash of the Tri-colour at the Royal Albert Hall

President and Mrs Higgins with their royal highnesses Prince and Princess Michael of Kent

President and Mrs Higgins with their Royal Highnesses Prince and Princess Michael of Kent

Anticipation at the Royal Albert Hall

Anticipation at the Royal Albert Hall

You can watch Ceiliúradh – a Celebration on the RTE Player wherever you are in the world at this link.


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Barbecue Joe comes to Cloughjordan House

It’s strange the way good things happen. On Friday afternoon last, a quiet weekend in prospect, I dropped into The Corkscrew on Chatham Row and spotted that signed copies of Neven Maguire’s MacNean Restaurant Cookbook were on special offer for €15. I hopped on Twitter to broadcast this good news – this great cookbook includes lots of the recipes that feature in Neven’s latest series on RTE in which he makes his more complex dishes accessible and gives you the confidence that you can recreate them at home. At that price his book is a steal and includes recommendations for wines to match the recipes which you can pick up at The Corkscrew. But I digress…

I don’t usually visit Twitter at that time on a Friday afternoon but skimming through my time line I spotted a tweet from @sarahbakercooks with a competition for a free cancellation place at a barbecue class at Cloughjordan House the following day. Now I’ve been meaning to visit that cookery school for some time so the prospect of a barbecue course, just as I need inspiration to get going on my Big Green Egg for the summer season – was enough to make me willing to drop everything and re-arrange my weekend. And so when Sarah tweeted later that evening that I had won the place I did just that and headed off at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning to North Tipperary. Derry came along to take the photos.

"Hmm is any of that for me?"

“Hmm is any of that for me?”

The course was given by Brendan of BBQ Joe who specialises in low ‘n slow cooking. Ireland being such a small place it turned out that I had met Brendan once before when he was restaurant manager at Sheen Falls in Kenmare. He has now re-invented himself and caters for weddings and other large events, cooking the best of Irish produce on his own custom built charcoal grills, smokers and pits. Watch out for him later this year when he barbecues on a grand scale for visiting american footballers and their fans.

I was delighted when we arrived to discover that he would be cooking on a Grill Dome. This Kamado style ceramic barbecue is very similar in concept and performance to the Big Green Egg so I felt right at home. I remain devoted to my Egg but it’s great to know that there are alternative products on the market that fulfil a similar function.

This was Brendan’s first cookery demo and I loved his relaxed and informal style as he shared his passion for barbecuing and the tips and insights he has picked up as he builds up his business. He has travelled widely to study techniques in places as different as Texas, Turkey and Georgia.  He works alongside professional chefs but brings his own un-cheffy and intuitive approach to producing tasty food for sharing.

Picking up a tip or two

Picking up a tip or two from a master

Brendan took some time at the beginning of the class to talk about different types of charcoal fuel and ways of lighting your barbecue – a “weed burner” has been added to my wish list as a result. He confirmed that it’s important to use the best quality lump wood charcoal you can get hold of – the heavier and denser the better. I’ve been using Big Green Egg Organic Lump Charcoal and Big K Restaurant Charcoal with good results. Both are available for delivery from A Room Outside in Limerick. Brendan also encourages the use of local wood shavings as a way of adding flavour – a handful of oak wood shavings or left over wood chips from whiskey barrels from your local distillery can work wonders. My next door neighbour in Duncannon left me in a bag of oak wood shavings  recently which I will now put to good use.

Then he spent some time on the basics of putting together a good BBQ Rub and BBQ Sauce as well as how to prepare a Charcoal Salt which is a nifty way of adding a little delicate charcoal flavour to your meats.

Micro-planing a little charcoal into the salt

Micro-planing a little charcoal into the salt

First up in the cooking, Brendan showed us how to prepare pulled pork – that quintessential barbecue dish beloved of Texans. While it cooked away low and slow, and Brendan explained the internal temperature “plateau” at around 70 degrees c which scares the wits out of most wannabe BBQ chefs the first time we encounter it, he produced one he prepared earlier (as all good cookery teachers do!) and showed us how to serve it in buns mixed with barbecue sauce and layered with a fresh crisp coleslaw including fennel and some paprika mayonnaise. That was our brunch – or breakfast in my case.

Pulled pork in a bun

Pulled pork in a bun

The edge taken off our appetite we went on to prepare rib eye steaks on the bone, each about 6 cms thick. We seasoned them simply with charcoal salt, cooked them over high direct heat, flipping them often and rested them on a board dressing of oil, parsley, pepper, garlic and chilli. The trick here lay in the quality of the well-aged steak and simple seasonings that allowed the flavour of the meat to come through.

Now that's what I call a steak

Now that’s what I call a steak

Or three..

Or three..

All dressed up and ready to serve

All dressed up and ready to serve

We tried out a few other dishes to prove the point that barbecues don’t have to be all about expensive meats. A pork bomb made with minced pork and stuffed with sauerkraut and wrapped in a bacon lattice held its shape beautifully and worked well with barbecue sauce.

Unwrapping the pork bomb

Unwrapping the pork bomb for the BBQ

Easing the pork onto the BBQ

Easing the pork bomb onto the BBQ

Pork bomb stuffed with sauerkraut

Done – pork bomb stuffed with sauerkraut

Chicken koftas made with thigh meat were glazed with pomegranate molasses and served with a satay sauce and some tzatziki.

Rustling up a satay sauce

Rustling up a satay sauce

Prawns and chorizo made an eye catching kebab needing little more than lime juice and zest to dress them.

Prawns and chorizo ready to cook

Prawns and chorizo ready to cook

Salmon was cooked skinless on a buttered tray and drizzled with flavoured honey and red pepper corns or lime to add a little flavour.

Salmon two ways

Salmon two ways

In barbecues the focus is firmly on the protein with side dishes playing a supporting role but we prepared portobello mushrooms with a filling of baba ganoush made from barbecued aubergine which would keep many a vegetarian happy. It can be teamed with haloumi cheese and roasted peppers for a more filling vegetarian option.

Aubergines roasting around the pork for baba ganoush

Aubergines roasting around the pork for baba ganoush

Portobello mushrooms on the grill extender

Portobello mushrooms on the grill extender

Side dishes were designed to add colour and we made a mango salsa and feta and watermelon salad that provided a light and refreshing contrast to the main event.

Mango salsa

Mango salsa

All through the day Brendan shared great tips such as using half an onion on a fork dipped in rapeseed oil, star anise, bay leaf and peppercorns as a “brush” for your grill, using apple juice and cider vinegar as a spray to moisten your meat, oiling the barbecue not the meat, cleaning your griddle with a wedge of lime, making board dressings… all of these will stay with me as I experiment in the coming months and try to develop my own personal style. “Taste and correct” will become my BBQ mantra. He taught us how to make the best use of space on the grill and sequence our dishes so that we got the maximum value from our charcoal.

As the day wore on and we got chatting to the other participants on the course, I was chuffed to discover that Greg from the nearby eco-village in Cloughjordan had used my recipe for turkey on the Big Green Egg to prepare Christmas dinner for his family and friends and it had worked for him too. Sometimes when you write a food blog you wonder if anyone out there is reading it and it’s so lovely to meet someone who has stumbled on it when googling for a recipe. Thank you Greg for making my day.

Cloughjordan House Cookery School is a very pleasant space in which to work for and is particularly popular as a venue for transition and fifth year students  where cooking is combined with gathering fresh produce from the community farm. The main house is 400 years old and also offers bed and breakfast and a wedding venue. Some of the participants in the course had stayed over the night before and I look forward to returning for a more leisurely visit and a taste of Sarah and Peter’s hospitality.

Thank you Sarah and Peter of Cloughjordan House Cookery School and  Brendan of BBQ Joe for a great day out and lots of inspiration to which I hope to give a Chinese twist in weeks to come.

Meanwhile to whet your appetite here’s Brendan’s basic recipe for BBQ Sauce which can be adapted to personal taste. For instance you can spice it up with chilli powder if you wish

BBQ Joe’s Sauce


  • 2 cans tomatoes
  • 20ml worcestershire sauce
  • 45g castor sugar
  • 50g treacle
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 30g barbecue rub (use your personal favourite)
  • ½ tin of pineapple drained
  • 150ml apple cider vinegar
  • 160 ml water


Combine all ingredients in a pot. Bring to a simmer over gentle heat to ensure the sugar has dissolved. Blitz with a hand blender to a smooth consistency.


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Somewhere over the Rainbow – Asian Seared Beef with Stir-fried Vegetables

Mothers and daughters

Mothers and daughters – a rare moment of 3 generations together

Mother’s Day. It’s a strange one, especially if your off-spring are scattered around the world. It’s a day for reflecting on what it means to be a mother and a daughter, always on alert, never quite letting go of the ties that bind, a tiny part of your heart and mind constantly paying attention to their cares and concerns, wondering how they are right now.

It’s a day to spare a thought for those who long to be a mother and for whom the joys and strains of motherhood are still somewhere over the rainbow.

Fathers and Sons

Fathers and sons – Shane and Dermot in Beijing last week

Claire tweeted me a greeting first thing this morning which began “Every day I become a little bit more like my mother…” She made my day. I love that my children have made happy, successful lives for themselves on the other side of the world but I miss them, especially on days like this.

I couldn’t get down to Wexford to my own Mum who was out to lunch with one of my brothers so we had a quiet day which began with calls from Claire and Shane and ended with a short walk along Bray seafront to take in the “grand stretch in the evening”. There was a hint of summer in the air as families with young children wandered the promenade with their first ice creams of the year and the aroma of vinegar and chips mingled with the smells and sounds of wheeling seagulls.

Heading back home I wasn’t in the mood to cook an elaborate dinner. I had a longing for something simple, light and fresh with lots of colour and flavour, something I could eat with my eyes as the Chinese would say. I needed the kick of Asian flavours but I also felt like cooking my steak in a more western way so that I could serve it somewhere on the spectrum from rare to medium rather than well done as is traditional with meat in China.

So the dish below is one I based on a recipe from a little cookbook  that Claire introduced me to Kate Harrison’s The Ultimate 5:2 Recipe Book. This is a recipe book for the Fast Diet but it includes some tasty recipes with Asian influences that can be easily adapted for those not counting calories.

A belated Happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere and to those who wish they were.

Asian Seared Beef with a Rainbow of  Stir-fried Vegetables

Asian Seared Beef with Rainbow Vegetables

Asian Seared Beef with Rainbow Vegetables

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Spicy Steamed Beef with Stir-fried Lettuce – a new take on steak and salad

Steak and Salad anyone?

Steak and Salad anyone?

I sometimes day-dream about stepping back in time to visit Chengdu in Sichuan Province as it was when Fuchsia Dunlop learned to cook there, of wandering the narrow alleyways of the old Manchu district where spare ribs and chicken simmered in clay pots, steaming bowls of dan dan noodles were offered to passers by from makeshift snack shops and bamboo steamers towered high under the wooden eaves over huge woks of bubbling water. Fuchsia describes such scenes so vividly I almost feel as  if I really have been there as she lifts the lids off the steamers to reveal chunks of beef embraced in a layer of rice meal and scattered with spices, coriander and spring onion – a Sichuanese speciality known as fen zheng niu rou.

My suburban Dublin kitchen with its stainless steel gadgets and appliances is far removed from those atmospheric alleyways but it is still possible to create a meal in well under an hour which evokes the flavours and smells of those original pop up restaurants and in the process to be catapulted back into some global folk memory of a time and place I never knew.

Take last Friday for instance.  I arrived home pleasantly exhausted after a very busy week. I was mulling over a discussion at a lunch at PwC to celebrate International Women’s Day where Dr. Brad Harrington of Boston College speculated that the debate about work life balance has moved on from one about conflict to one about integration. That resonated with me – the more we women integrate all the different aspects of our lives into one, the more comfortable we become in our own skins. Cooking is part of that balancing act for me, an age old ritual in which I can lose myself and a way of finding an inner rhythm while I unwind and switch off the busy clamour in my head. Cooking Chinese food calms me when I’m tired, with its emphasis on balance and harmony, yin and yang and maintaining equilibrium in the body.

I had picked up some sirloin steak and a head of iceberg lettuce on the way home and I was tempted to serve up a simple steak and side salad. Instead I decided to try out something new. I’ve had a Miele Steam Oven for over a year now and, while I use it all the time for rice, vegetables and fish, I’d never steamed beef in it. I somehow imagined that meat prepared that way would be grey, anaemic and unappetising. Leafing through my copy of The Food of China for inspiration, I came across a steamed beef recipe that sounded worth a try and I had all the other ingredients in my store cupboard. 

It’s a ridiculously simple dish and, with very little added oil, it’s also very healthy. The beef is thinly sliced and marinated in a fragrant sauce of Sichuan chilli bean paste, rice wine and soy sauce then dusted with toasted glutinous rice flour mixed with aromatic spice before steaming. The result is a succulent dish of melting beef with a rich dark colour which just needed a scattering of sesame oil and spring onion to finish it off. While I cooked it in a perforated stainless steel container in my steam oven, I could have just as easily used a bamboo steamer over a wok and been one step closer to those Chengdu alleyways.

My recipe, adapted slightly from The Food of China, is below. It was only later when I started researching the origins of the recipe that I realised that I had actually cooked a reasonably authentic version of fen zheng niu rou. The major difference is that, in the original version, long-grain rice would be dry-fried for 10 to 15 minutes, perhaps with the addition of some star anise and cassia bark for flavour, and then ground down in a pestle and mortar to a texture a bit finer than couscous. This would give a slightly nuttier texture. Cheaper cuts of  beef can also be used, cut slightly thicker and steamed for several hours. It’s almost impossible to overcook this dish. You will find some nice variations in Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery.

Now that I’ve discovered the joys of steaming meat this way, I plan experimenting – grinding the rice myself in a food processor, using ground star anise or five spice powder with pork and ground sichuan pepper with beef or lamb, adding in some chilli flakes, placing some chunks of carrots or butternut squash on top of the meat in the steamer. The possibilities are endless.

As for the iceberg lettuce, I took a tip from my daughter in law Shan – the Chinese always cook their lettuce – and served it hot tossed in oyster sauce and sesame oil as described below, along with some steamed rice.

Steamed Beef with Rice Flour –  fen zheng niu rou - 粉蒸牛肉

fen zheng niu rou

fen zheng niu rou


  • 450g sirloin steak


  • 1 tbs light soy sauce
  • 1 tbs dark soy sauce
  • 1 tbs Pixian chilli bean paste*
  • 1 tbs Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 thumb ginger, finely chopped
  • 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
  • 1 tbs ground nut oil

Rice flour paste

  • 125 g glutinous rice flour*
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 spring onion shredded


  1. Cut the steak across the grain into thin slices and each slice into bite size pieces.
  2. Combine the marinade ingredients, mix well with the steak and leave to rest for at least 30 minutes at room temperature.
  3. Dry-fry the rice flour in a non-stick frying pan or a wok over medium heat, stirring frequently until it is brown and smells roasted. Add the cinnamon and mix well.
  4. Drain any excess marinade from the beef slices and toss them in the flour and cinnamon mix.
  5. Place the beef in a bamboo or metal steamer lined with greaseproof paper punched with holes and steam over simmering water for 20 minutes.
  6. Toss with sesame oil and garnish with spring onion. Serve with stir-fried lettuce and steamed rice.

Stir-fried Lettuce in Oyster Sauce - hao you sheng cai – 蚝油生菜


Steaming stir-fried lettuce

Steaming stir-fried lettuce


  • 1 head of iceberg lettuce
  • 1 tbs groundnut oil
  • 4 tbs oyster sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil


  1. Remove the root from the lettuce, cut it in half and shred into wide strips. If you need to wash it make sure to dry it thoroughly so it will stir-fry rather than steam.
  2. Heat a wok over high heat and add the oil. When the oil is very hot, add the lettuce and stir-fry until wilted. Then add the oyster sauce and stir to heat through. Remove from heat, toss with sesame oil and season to taste.

A word on ingredients

*Pixian chilli bean paste is made with broad beans fermented with chillies and salt to give a rich tangy sauce.  It is named for the town of Pixian in Sichuan Province and is know locally as the “soul of Sichuan cuisine”. It is described in pin yin as douban jiang. You will find it in jars or sachets in your local Asia supermarket. Watch out for the four characters on the packets below.

Pixian Douban Jiang

Pixian Douban Jiang

Pixian Broad Bean Paste

This one is called Pixian Broad Bean Paste

If you can’t find Pixian chilli bean paste, you can substitute Lee Kum Kee chilli bean sauce (also known as toban djan or toban jiang) which is widely available. You can also substitute Laoganma chilli bean paste made with soya (black) beans if you are stuck. Or leave a comment on the blog and I will send a sachet of the authentic version to you by post from my stash of supplies from Beijing.

Glutinous rice flour is not the same as ordinary rice flour. It is made from a particular variety of sticky rice that has a glue-like consistency when cooked. It does not contain gluten. I have included a photo of the brand I use below.

Glutinous rice flour

Glutinous Rice Flour


In other news my grandson Dermot decided to start walking in Beijing last week, just a day or two short of 13 months old. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology he was able to show off his new found skill to me via Face Time five minutes later. Thank you Shan for having the thought to share that special moment with his long distance Nai Nai. It meant more than words can say. I’ve just added a video clip of his first steps below. I’ve watched it over and over and I still get a lump in my throat each time.

Dermot walking

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Shananigans Crispy Sweet and Sour Chicken

I haven’t been creating many new Chinese recipes recently. That’s partly a reaction to all the cooking I did over the Twelve Days of Shananigans Christmas.  But I have also been pining a little for my family returned to China and Australia and I have been busy with work.

Things are getting back to normal now in our three Shananigans households. Shan, Dermot and her Mama will return from Urumqi to Beijing tomorrow night to be reunited with Shane. He has used the time they stayed on with her family in Xinjiang Province to catch up on work and watch lots of films but he has had enough of the semi-batchelor life for now and is looking forward to their hugs and company.

Meanwhile in Sydney, Claire and Mike have become home owners for the first time. Australian citizens, now owning a house there – I guess their Australian adventure is set to last.

A place to call home

A place to call home

There is something about your first-born child buying a house that makes you acutely aware that she is all grown up – a responsible adult with a mortgage, many impressive spreadsheets compiled by Mike to cover all the budgetary implications and a life of her own on the other side of the world. I am so delighted for the two of them as they set out on this next stage of their lives together. Two young emigrants from Ireland and Wales who made good.

I fell in love with their Federation house in Randwick in the suburbs of Sydney as soon as I set eyes on the photos. It is a happy place that must store its share of good memories deep in its walls. In my imagination I can already glimpse the memories still waiting to be made there like shadows dancing around the still empty rooms, rooms waiting for their photos, their souvenirs, their infectious energy. All going well this is where we will celebrate Christmas 2014 with Shane, Shan and Dermot.

I love the natural light in the house which flows past bedrooms and a living/ dining room to a large kitchen and a patio out the back. And I am green with envy of the six burner gas hob in her kitchen. Claire tells me that  I can get lots of practice on it in December. That was enough to set me thinking about what I would cook for them all.

The recipe that gets most hits on the blog is Shananigans Crispy Chilli Beef. I know that lots of readers substitute chicken for beef in this dish and several have wondered if it would be possible to make a version of it without chillies. Well here is a variation based on a traditional Beijing recipe for sweet and sour pork. This is not the cloying sauce you might associate with chinese takeaways. Instead black vinegar, sugar and light soy sauce provide the delicate, tangy balance. No chillies need apply.

As for Claire and Mike, much as I miss them, how can I be anything but happy for the life they have built on the other side of the world. Claire sent me this Sunday morning photo earlier today as they celebrated their house purchase with an early swim at Icebergs near Bondi Beach. She captioned it simply “gratitude”.



Shananigans Crispy Sweet and Sour Chicken

Crispy chicken steaming from the wok

Crispy chicken steaming from the wok


  • 300g chicken breasts or chicken thighs, off the bone
  • 1 egg white, beaten
  • Good pinch of salt
  • About 3 tbs potato flour or cornflour
  • A pinch of baking powder
  • Oil for deep frying – use good quality sunflower or groundnut oil
  • 2 carrots cut into thin matchsticks and blanched for 1 minute
  • 2 heads little gem lettuce, root removed and leaves torn into shreds (optional)
  • 2 tsp garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp leek or the white part of spring onions, finely chopped

For the sauce:

  • 65 g caster sugar
  • 120 ml of Chinese black vinegar or Chinkiang vinegar
  • 2 tsp light soy sauce
  • 80 ml water
  • 2 tsp cornflour mixed with a little water
  • Roasted black and white sesame seeds  and the green part of spring onions, sliced to garnish (optional)


  1. Cut the chicken into slices against the grain and then into thin shreds.
  2. Dip in the egg white and mix with your hand, leaving it to rest for a few minutes.
  3. Mix the potato flour with salt and baking powder.
  4. Drain off any excess egg white and dip the beef strips in the flour mix, shaking off any excess.
  5. Mix the sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and water in a small jug and stir to combine and dissolve the sugar.


  1. Fill a wok quarter full with oil and heat to 140 degrees.
  2. Add the chicken, using your fingers to separate the pieces as they go down in the wok. Let them sit for about 30 seconds until the batter hardens, then use a ladle or chopsticks to separate the strands. Cook the for 3 – 4 minutes, stirring to keep the strands separate, until the chicken is crispy and golden.
  3. Remove with a mesh strainer or slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Drain off most of the oil from the wok
  4. Reheat the remaining oil over medium/ high heat and cook the carrot for 1½ minutes before removing and draining on kitchen paper. Add the little gem lettuce and stir-fry for a few minutes until wilted and set aside with the carrots.
  5. Add another small amount of oil to the wok if necessary and re-heat over a medium heat.  Add the leek or spring onion and garlic. Stir-fry for about 5 seconds to release the aromas.
  6. Increase the heat to high, add the sauce mix and stir for 20 seconds or until the solution bubbles. Add the cornflour water mix and stir thoroughly.
  7. Add back the chicken, carrots and lettuce and toss to coat and heat through. Add a dash of sesame oil for shine, garnish with sesame seeds and the green part of spring onions sliced at an angle and serve with steamed rice.


  1. You can substitute pak choi, green beans are sugar snap peas for the lettuce. If using the beans or peas blanch them first. You can also substitute beef or pork for the chicken.
  2. Check the seasoning when you add the sauce and balance to your taste with a little more soy sauce, sugar or vinegar if necessary.
  3. You will find Chinkiang vinegar in the Asia Market, any Asian supermarket and some good greengrocers. At a pinch you could substitute balsamic vinegar but the flavour will be different. Check out my post on Chinese Kitchen Essentials for a handy check list of Chinese ingredients.
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Spring Festival Pizza – Confit Duck with Chilli Jam, Pickled Peppers and Goats Cheese

Confit Duck Pizza

Confit Duck Pizza

It’s snowing outside here in Shankill – well just a flurry but it is real snow. In Urumqi it’s -19 degrees C, too cold for Dermot to venture out but Shan tells me he loves to play with the texture of a snowball gathered from the window ledge and stares in intense concentration as it dissolves in his warm fingers. Shane is already back working in Beijing where it is a mere -7. The Spring Festival is drawing to a close this weekend and China is grinding back to it’s normal winter rhythm.

I’ve had many Chinese meals over the past two weeks including the superb New Year’s Banquet at China Sichuan Dublin where we celebrated both the Chinese New Year and, in his absence, Dermot’s first birthday on 5th February. But I had this notion that I wanted to create a Chinese Pizza to mark the arrival of the Year of the Horse, one that I could cook on the Big Green Egg.

I love making pizza dough and normally use the recipe in this post for the base but, thanks to my Italian friend Solange, I’ve recently discovered Pizza da Piero by the Artisan Pizza company whose products are hand made in Rathmines. These thin, light bases short-circuit the work of preparing a pizza, especially on a stormy Monday night when the rain is teeming down outside. They come in resealable packs of three and cook in about 10 minutes to crisp perfection.

I had decided to build my topping around confit duck and I had consulted Twitter about what else to include in it. I got lots of interesting suggestions and my favourite came from Tom Walsh, head chef at Samphire@theWaterside. And so Confit Duck Pizza with Chilli Jam, Sweet Pickled Peppers, Goats Cheese and Rocket was born.

For ease of reference, I’ve set out all the steps in the recipe below. But in practice I make this pizza the day after I’ve cooked a batch of confit duck legs. I roast some off in the oven that day and serve them with puy lentils or duck fat roast potatoes and pickled red cabbage. I save the rest to make confit duck hash and pizzas.

Tom Chef’s chilli jam and sweet pickled peppers can also be made well in advance and these days I always have some of each in the fridge in kilner jars. You will find you can put them to all sorts of uses in Asian and western dishes.

With these ingredients to hand it takes just moments to make up the pizza and you can relax while your oven heats to temperature. In my case the most challenging bit of preparing the pizza was the dash outside to the Big Green Egg in the lashing rain. But then I delegated that… and proved, once again, that the Big Green Egg can cope with any extremes of weather, even if I can’t!

Confit Duck Pizza with Chilli Jam , Sweet Pickled Peppers, Goats Cheese and Rocket

(makes 3 pizzas)


  • 3 Pizza da Piero bases
  • 2 confit duck legs
  • Tom Chef”s Chilli Jam
  • Tom Chef’s sweet pickled peppers
  • 1 log of soft goat’s cheese
  • a large red onion thinly sliced
  • 3 large handfuls of rocket


  1. If using a Big Green Egg, place your pizza stone on stainless steel grill over the plate setter legs up and heat to about 220 degrees c. Alternatively heat your oven to 250 degrees c.
  2. Shred your duck legs including some of the crispy skin.
  3. Spread a thin layer of chilli jam on each base.
  4. Scatter over pickled peppers, confit duck and sliced onion.
  5. Break up some goats cheese and dot over the top of the pizza.
  6. Bake for 7 to 12 minutes depending on your oven temperature until the base is crispy and the goats cheese just melting.
  7. Scatter with rocket and serve.

Confit Duck Legs


  • 6 duck legs
  • Enough duck fat to cover the duck legs when melted (about 4 jars)
  • About 6 cloves garlic
  • about 4 Star anise
  • Some springs of rosemary and thyme
  • A few bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper


  1. Dry out the duck legs at room temperature. Tuck the cloves of garlic, star anise, rosemary, thyme and bay leaves around them, season with salt and pepper and cover with melted duck fat.
  2. Slow-roast them in the oven at 120 to 130 degrees for 3 to 4 hours until the meat is melting off the bone. Allow them to cool until the duck fat has set.
  3. When ready to use, gently prise the duck legs out of the fat, saving the infused fat for glorious duck roast potatoes. Reheated the confit duck legs in the oven for about 15 minutes by starting them at 170 degrees C and crisping off the skin at 230 degrees C.

Tom Chef’s Chilli Jam


  • 6-8 red chilli peppers chopped roughly
  • 300g castor sugar
  • 300g white wine vinegar


  1. Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan, bring to the boil and  cook gently to reduce to a syrupy, jam-like consistency being careful not to burn.
  2. Blend with a stick blender.
  3. Store in a sealed container in the fridge.

Tom Chef’s Sweet Pickled Peppers


  • 4 to 6 long pointy red peppers
  • 400g white wine vinegar
  • 400g castor sugar
  • 6 star anise
  • a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil


  1. Slice the peppers into thin strips.
  2. Pace the vinegar, sugar and star anise in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, add the pepper strips.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool slowly.
  3. When cool add a drizzle of olive oil to taste and store in a sealed container in the fridge.

The birthday boy

Dermot's first birthday

Dermot aged one year

On Dermot’s first birthday he fulfilled the Chinese tradition of choosing his “destiny” from an array of objects – a ritual  remarkably similar to the Romanian one we witnessed for twins Oli and Fredi at their first birthday party and which I wrote about in Images and Flavours of Tuscany last August.

What does my future hold, I wonder

What does my future hold, I wonder?

From the array of items on display, Dermot first chose a golden pig (wealth), a statue (power) and then a jade bracelet.  So much for literary pursuits (sigh). Ah sure go on Dermot… at this stage of your young life, you may as well aim to rule the world.



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Dumpling Pop-Up on the Eve of the Year of the Horse

Pan-fried Jiaozi

Pan-fried Jiaozi - Photo: Solange Daini

It’s the Year of the Horse , the Wood Horse to be precise. According to China Sichuan it will be a time of fast victories and unexpected adventure, a great year for travel when energy is high and productivity is rewarded, a year when decisive action brings victory. You have to act fast in a Horse year but be careful not to gallop. My daughter in law Shan is a “Horse”. This will be an auspicious year for her, she will wear something red every day to bring good luck.

This year I was more conscious than ever of the importance of the Spring Festival to Chinese people wherever they are in the world. On January 30th, New Year’s Eve, Shane, Shan and Dermot were back in China, enjoying dumplings with the Gao clan in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province. Claire was celebrating her birthday in Sydney and eating jiaozi at Din Tai Fung. I was preparing dumplings in Dublin Business School. Three continents – one world.

I was feeling the absence of my off-spring on the other side of the world on the day when all Chinese people, wherever they are, mark the importance of family. A random email from Anne who lectures in marketing at Dublin Business School had diverted me from melancholy thoughts. Would I make dumplings for her class of 2o students who are volunteering for the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival, she wondered, as the college wanted to mark the Spring Festival.

Now I love making dumplings but I’m still only learning and wasn’t confident about my ability to do a live demonstration. So I asked my friend Wei Wei to help. Wei Wei lives here in Ireland with her Irish husband Oisin. She was Shan’s bridesmaid at their wedding in December.  She has her own blog Wei Wei’s Chinese Kitchen and has been cooking since she was a young girl in Tianjin.

We got together  in my house the night before and prepared some jiaozi and fillings. I loved working alongside her and hearing her stories of growing up in China and how her family celebrate the New Year. Last year she had spent the holiday with them and, like me, she was missing her family. You can read her blog post about Chinese New Year here. Wei Wei is a natural, intuitive cook and I learned a lot just from watching her work.

At 11:00 on New Year’s Eve morning we set up our pop-up stall in the Common Room in Dublin Business School in Castle House in Dublin. In a weird coincidence, this was the same open-plan space where I had my first desk as a very young civil servant in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners back in the early 1970s. The memories came flooding back. How strangely the years turn.

It was Fresher’s Week and the group of marketing students quickly morphed into a much larger crowd of hungry young people who caught the aroma of jiaozi cooking. Our little stall was overrun. Mao Restaurant supplied platters of spring rolls and other appetisers to keep the hunger at bay. Some of the students rolled up their sleeves and set to helping us meet the demand. The Chinese girls among them proved to be a dab hand with the cleaver but we also had help from Vietnamese, Irish and other students willing to learn how to roll out and fill the dumpling wrappers.

My photographer friend Solange Daini was on hand to capture the atmosphere. A small selection of her photos is below  - click on them to see the full image.

By 3 pm Wei Wei and I had prepared hundreds of dumplings, boiled, pan-fried and pot-sticker style. We used five fillings in all. Wei Wei had prepared her special “Three Treasures” filling of egg, prawns and Chinese chives and another of beef, carrot and onion. I made Shan’s First Auntie’s recipe - Da Gu’s ‘ pork, Chinese cabbage and star anise - as well as my two favourite  Black Sesame Kitchen Fillings - vegetarian tofu, carrot, shitake and lamb with cumin and Sichuan pepper. You will find another of  Wei Wei’s dumpling recipes here as well as her special dipping sauce.

Our last customer was one of the lecturers who had heard rumours filtering through the college of strange goings on in the students Common Room… and free food.

We were tired at the end of the day but I felt a real sense of satisfaction at being part of a global Chinese celebration of family, friendship and good food. It was a fitting way to enter the Year of the Horse.

Thank you Wei Wei, Solange, Anne and the students of Dublin Business School.

The Spring Festival continues for two weeks and you will find recipes every day on the Taste of China section of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival website.

Chun jie kuai le - happy Spring Festival.

Ma dao chong dong - wishing you success in the Year of the Horse.

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