When food is love connecting families

I love my two children and their ability to bring a smile to my face (or even a tear to my eye) from the other side of the world.
When Claire is in one of her bubbly moods, her enthusiasm is infectious. And Shane has a soft side that tugs at my heart strings. In the last two days both of them took on new cooking challenges.
When Claire visited home briefly in September she got bitten by the Chinese cooking bug and she took a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice back with her to Oz. If I was to recommend just one book from the list I set out in Chinese Kitchen Essentials it would be this one. It is packed with straight-forward and easy to follow recipes for Chinese home-cooking and is a great spring-board for experimentation.
Anyway yesterday Claire cooked a meal for Mike who has just started a new job and her sequence of  emails from Sydney about her latest culinary exploits went something like this:
“Oh my, I may actually be the best chef ever!!
“Fuschia Dunlop is a genius! We’ve just wolfed down her menu for two – twice cooked pork, smacked cucumber in garlicky sauce and pak choy with fresh shiitake. So good, more photos to follow!”

Claire cooking off the  veg for twice-cooked pork

“This was the easiest meal to cook and prepare.
I boiled the pork belly last night and it went in the fridge so today it was just a matter of chopping up the veg and getting everything prepped.
The pork belly is just so, so tasty. I added lots of red and green pepper as we had a few sitting round and I can’t get over how far 200g of pork belly can go!”

Preparing the pak choy with shitake mushrooms

“The fresh shiitake and pak-choy side dish is great with the lashings of garlic and ginger. I maybe under cooked it just a little.

 Like you I love the Chinese cucumber dishes, I added extra chilli as I had no chilli oil and it was refreshing but with a kick.”

“Yummy dishes!” says Claire

And Claire’s verdict: “Altogether a spectacular feast for a Tuesday night! Poor Mike has been made tell me in many ways how much he enjoyed it. I feel like a domestic goddess! xx”
“Dinner is served.”

“P.S. if it’s not obvious from excessive photos, I would like praise please! xx”
Praise granted Claire and we have also noted that the photos were taken with your brand new iPhone 5 🙂
If you would like to cook Fuchsia’s recipes, go out and by her book which is readily available in Ireland and elsewhere. You will also find variations of the three recipes Claire cooked in these links on the blog – twice-cooked pork, bashed cucumber and pak choi with shitake mushrooms.
Meanwhile, over in Beijing, Shane was helping Shan celebrate her first birthday as his wife today. I spoke to Shan earlier and she was very excited that her MaMa was cooking Big Plate Chicken with home made wide flat noodles for her birthday dinner. But Shane had another surprise up his sleeve. He took himself off to a baking school near his office and made his first ever cake to mark the occasion.
I think Shane looks just a little bit pleased with himself!

I spoke to Shane, Shan and MaMa on Skype just before their guests arrived for dinner. MaMa was waving at me in great excitement and telling me in Mandarin to hurry back to Beijing soon where she will show me how to make those wide flat noodles. Sometimes I wish I had a “beam me up Scottie” transporter so that I could just share those special moments.
Anyway Shane says “The cake was a success, as was (more importantly) Shan’s impromptu Birthday dinner”. Aww… he’s a romatic is my lovely son…
A Chinese birthday cake with an Irish twist

Hunan Style Crispy Chilli Beef

We amateur cooks are very lucky here in Ireland to have so many options if we want to improve our skills. Apart from a great selection of home-grown food programmes on TV, with our very own celebrity chefs, there are places right across the country offering courses to suit all tastes and levels of ability . These include venues like the Dublin Cookery School and Cooks Academy whose courses range from an evening to several months and cookery schools attached to restaurants and hotels where well known chefs share their expertise and secrets. Food Festivals like Savour Kilkenny, which I attended last month, are also a great opportunity to see well-known chefs demonstrate their skills in action.
Over the past month or so I’ve managed to sample a small selection of what is on offer. This included a demonstration of authentic Thai cooking, the Butchery Demonstration I described in the last post,  an evening knife skills course (much needed – at least I can now julienne a carrot and finely dice garlic and ginger!) and a two day master class with Chef Paul Flynn at the Tannery Cookery School. I rounded it off last Saturday with a visit to the Miele Gallery for a demonstration of steam cooking by Rozanne Stevens which led to a serious bout of kitchen envy.
Apart from picking up some new techniques and tips, I’ve gotten a number of insights which I’ve begun to distil and integrate into my approach to cooking and which I hope will boost my confidence in the kitchen. I’m especially grateful to Paul Flynn of The Tannery for sharing something of his 30 years of expertise in the kitchen, with good humour and style. The seven most important lessons I’ve learned or had re-inforced are:

  1. Trust your instincts and your tastebuds – stop using a recipe like a crutch,  all amounts for ingredients and all temperatures are approximate, taste and taste again until you are satisfied with the balance of hot, sweet, sour and savoury. This is true of all cuisines but is especially the case when cooking Thai or Chinese food and is the way Shan and her mother cook. At very best the recipe should only be used as a guide.
  2. Be courageous and experiment – use your instincts to vary a recipe or come up with new ones, become confident in your knowledge of what foods go well with one another, watch for the marriages made in heaven, know what herbs go with what meats or fish for instance and learn to layer flavour on flavour. When something doesn’t quite work out, reflect on what went wrong and try again.
  3. Most expensive is not always best – this is especially true where meat is concerned. Any part of the animal that moves is likely to be tastier than the parts that don’t move. So chicken thigh will be tastier than breast, pork shoulder more full of flavour than fillet and there are a whole host of tender tasty beef cuts I didn’t even know existed that can outperform the more expensive cuts.
  4. Think local – whenever you can, eat the food of the place prepared by the people of the place. This is the best way of ensuring the  quality and freshness of your raw material, sustaining jobs and traditional food producing skills in your local community and is often better value too.
  5. Pay attention to preparation – take the stress out of cooking by getting as much as possible done in advance. Think through all the shortcuts that you can take so that you can enjoy the last minute preparation of your meal for family or friends.
  6. Tidy up as you go – now you wouldn’t think I’d taken that  to heart if you saw the state of my kitchen last night but I was struck by the attention all the chefs I’ve seen in action pay to keeping their workstation tidy and to hygiene and food safety. I’m working on being a less messy cook….
  7. Hate waste – plan your shopping ahead for what you intend to cook and see every by-product of your cooking as having potential – left over stock  or cooking juices as a base for soup for instance or rice as a base for fried rice the next day. Throw vegetable trimmings into a freezer bag to use the next time you make stock.

So I arrived back from Dungarvan with a head full of ideas, an iPad full of new recipes, buzzing with enthusiasm and longing to get back into the kitchen again. Before I headed to the shops, I grabbed the first of my Chinese cookbooks that came to hand, Exploring China, A Culinary Adventure from Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang’s recent BBC series and I took a quick look at what was left over in the fridge – a few cooked duck legs and some carrots.
This is what I rustled together for a quick and tasty Saturday night supper:

  • Pancakes filled with shredded duck and a Sichuan-style sauce (recipe to follow)
  • A sweet, spicy, zesty Crispy Chilli Beef with an orange sauce and peanut garnish – this is based on a Hunan-style recipe from Ching-He Huang but adapted to the method I’ve used to cook Crispy Chilli Beef successfully in the past ,which has proved to be the most popular recipe on the blog so far
  • A sweet cucumber pickle similar to a recipe Paul Flynn’s showed us but using Chinese white rice wine vinegar rather than ordinary white wine vinegar, and
  • Beetroot relish (recipe to follow), a Chinese take on a Paul Flynn recipe which I made to go with a lamb dish tomorrow night but sure we couldn’t resist a taste.

The last time I made Crispy Chilli Beef I used very expensive fillet steak. This time I used Bavette of Beef from Dunnes of Donnybrook who were recently awarded the Star Shop of the Year by the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland. It was Pat Whelan who introduced me to this cut at the Butchery Demo earlier this week. Fintan Dunne tells me it is very popular with his Chinese customers because the cut does not ooze blood and juices. It comes from the flank or belly muscle of the cow and is full of flavour. it is a relatively long and flat cut which makes it ideal for thin slicing across the grain. It was such a cheap cut that I was afraid it would be tough without marinating. In fact it was absolutely delicious – a different texture entirely to fillet or sirloin it worked perfectly in its crispy coating. Sirloin or rump steak can be used as a substitute.
The sweet cucumber pickle was a better foil for the spiciness of this dish than Shan’s Bashed Cucumber which works well as a side dish with some of her milder main courses.
Hunan Style Crispy Chilli Beef – Xiang Wei Cui Niu Rou – 湘味脆牛肉

Crispy chilli beef with orange and peanuts

Continue reading Hunan Style Crispy Chilli Beef

The ancient art of butchery

Butcher David contemplates a side of beef

As I said when I started writing this blog, I’m not a trained cook. I’m just someone who loves good food and I’m feeling my way towards a deeper understanding of the raw materials that I use to try and create authentic Chinese cuisine using the best of Irish ingredients.
I decided to take some time out this month to attend a few cookery courses and demonstrations that might help me improve my basic knowledge and technique.  Last night I went along to an evening butchery demonstration in Avoca Food Market Dublin, home to the Dublin branch of James Whelan Butchers.
Over the course of the evening we were shown how to butcher an entire side of pork before turning our attention to a side of beef. A eureka moment for me was realising that there are a whole range of cuts of meat  that I could be using instead of the ones I am more familiar with. This gives me the possibility of creating even better flavour and getting value for money from lesser known cuts. It is also in keeping with the Chinese way of doing things where every part of the animal is used. So the next time I cook Shananigans’ Crispy Chilli Beef, for instance, I will use bavette of beef rather than the more expensive fillet or sirloin.
While his young colleague David demonstrated his butchery skills, Pat had plenty of useful tips for the would-be chef  but he also spoke passionately about every stage of the butchery process from rearing animals right through to innovative ways of cooking various cuts of meat. He weaved a magical story of how the world of butchery has evolved in Ireland over the years and  emphasised the importance of thinking local – eating food from the place prepared by the people of the place.
What was most striking was the respect he feels towards the animals that he rears on his farm, slaughters and delivers to our table in the form of the highest quality meat. As he put it “the animal dies so we may live. It’s the ultimate sacrifice”. To him the animal and the meat it yields are both things of beauty. It reminds me of a story Fuchsia Dunlop tells in her memoir Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper of coming upon an unusual exhibit in the National Palace Museum in Taipei – a perfect sculpture of a chunk of tender cooked pork, carved in agate and one of the most prized imperial treasures spirited away from the Forbidden City when China was consumed by war – meat as art.
Many of us have an uneasy relationship with the food we eat, especially if we are carnivores. We prefer not to think too much about where the meat came from and the living breathing animal it once was. So much so that I winced when Pat told us that the rump of wagyu beef that I had used to make my Shananigans’ slow-cooked wagyu stew came from a frisky wagyu bull that was beginning to be a danger to his 80 year old Dad and a threat to the chastity of his wagyu cows. And yet part of the need I feel to get back to basics and to understand our relationship with the land, compels me to confront this essential part of the process of getting food onto our tables.
The butchery demo brought back vivid memories of an experience in China last summer where I first witnessed the slaughter of an animal and the insight that gave me into the culture of my new in-laws. None of the photos are too graphic but if you are a vegetarian, or squeamish about such matters, you may not want to read on. Continue reading The ancient art of butchery

Red Braised Lamb Stew

The arrival of Shan’s Mum in Beijing from her home in Urumqi in Xinjiang Autonomous Region has brought back memories of our visit last Summer to that intriguing area. I will be writing of some of our experiences there over coming days.

This and That Satisfactory Supermarket

In Urumqi and throughout the region the influence of the Uighur people, who are Turkic speaking Sunni Muslims, is very evident. Lamb dominates the local diet and the nomadic history of other Turkic minorities who live in the area – the Kazakhs and the Kirgiz for instance – is also evident in the food which has echoes of east and west. Their noodles and dumpling link them with the wheat flour – mian – eaters of northern China, with its resonances of Italian pasta. Their spice stalls sell all my Chinese favourites like Sichuan pepper and star anise but also cardamon, cinnamon, cumin, saffron and other aromatic flavours more commonly associated with Central Asia and the middle east and there are raisins and other dried fruits in abundance
They love their tea but their nomadic heritage is evident in their fondness for yoghurt and other dairy foods. These dietary preferences have influenced the Han Chinese too. Shan’s Mum’s breakfast tipple is milky, salted tea. Their vegetables include carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, peppers. Their golden naan bread makes you feel you have stumbled into a Persia of another era. This is a melting pot of cuisines with its own unique characteristics.
Lamb biriyani served with yoghurt

That first day we spent there we had lunch in a Uighur restaurant beside the “This and That Satisfactory Chain Supermarket” – lamb kebabs with sesame seeds – chuan’r – a biryani rice dish with lamb and a dish of lamb with pasta like Shan’s Xinjiang spaghetti with lamb. We washed it down with a yoghurt drink and, of course, tea.
Continue reading Red Braised Lamb Stew

Pot-sticker dumplings

Preparing chicken and leek jiaozi at home in Dublin

Ah jiaozi… on the last day of our visit to Shan’s family in Urumqi the capital of Xinjiang Province, we listened, as Shan translated for her mother. She explained that it is traditional to serve these dumplings to family members before they depart from home, to remind them that family wraps itself around you even when you are far away.
That good lady is on my mind today as she has just journeyed thousands of miles from her home in Urumqi to be with Shane and Shan in Beijing until the birth of her (our) grandchild, fulfilling the Chinese tradition of ensuring the expectant mother is well-nourished during her pregnancy. It is an abiding part of family values in China that mothers give up their own lifestyle and their own friendships to be with their daughter at this time.
Not only did Shan’s mother serve us dumplings, she showed us how to make them and the making was also a family affair, rooted in age old traditions. Even Shan’s niece, little Xuan Xuan aged 5, was already learning how to prepare them from her mother and grandmother – her “nai nai“.
So this post is a small tribute to Shan’s Mum whose life experience is a world away from my own but with whom I have a share in a new life carrying both our genes. I hope she will be pleased that she has already taught me how to use some of her skills, on the other side of the world, before I become a nai nai myself.
Three generations of strong women – Shan with her Mum and niece

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Crispy Chilli Beef

Every now and again I am about to write a blog post about one aspect of Chinese cooking and I get diverted by another idea. This is one such occasion.

Homestyle crispy chili beef

Since we returned from China in early July, Chinese takeaways have been banned in our house but there’s one particular dish I’ve had a hankering for recently. When I used to give in and order takeaway, crispy chilli beef was alway a favourite, because of it’s rich, tangy flavour, but no sooner would I have eaten it than I would regret it as the heavy batter settled on my stomach and my wheat intolerance kicked in. Recently I’ve being thinking of ways to give this takeaway staple a lighter, Shananigans makeover and, after several half-successful attempts, I finally got it right a few nights ago.
I’m not sure of the origins of this dish – I suspect it’s not pure Sichuan or Hunan but a European adapatation. While this may not be as healthy as some of the dishes I cook, I would be confident that it’s a lot lower in fat and carbohydrate content than some of its takeout counterparts and it certainly passes the taste test, with no added MSG or gloopy sauces.
I love shopping in neighbourhood shops and, on weekdays, when I am commuting in and out of the city centre of Dublin, Donnybrook is a perfect staging point on my bus journey home. Dunnes of Donnybrook, recently awarded Star Shop of the Year by the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland, and Roy Fox Gourmet Food can provide, between them, all the meat, vegetables and condiments I need. Roy Fox is particularly good on stocks of Asian spices, sauces and noodles and carries many of the items I usually have to seek out in an Asian Market – a boon for those daunted by the overwhelming range of stock in those markets.
Credit where due at Dunnes of Donnybrook

So on the way home from town I picked up a few excellent fillet steaks from Fintan Dunne and my vegetables from Roy Fox. This is what I did with them:
Shananigans Crispy Chilli Beef – Xiang ciu niu rou pian – 香脆牛肉片
Serves 3 – 4
Continue reading Crispy Chilli Beef

Savouring Savour Kilkenny

I wrote this guest blog post today for my good friends and colleagues in MCSquared so that they could share with their friends and clients some of the fun of Savour Kilkenny. I thought some of my regular reviewers at home and abroad might also enjoy an insight into a special Irish food festival and the power of local volunteering.

What makes a good food festival great? Well take one of Ireland’s most beautiful cities, a community well versed in getting behind a shared passion and an engaging approach from the volunteer organisers that gets young and old, professional chefs and amateur cooks, local producers and consumers all involved in a weekend of fun and good food. Invite in some celebrity chefs, a few respected food critics and lots of enthusiastic food producers and bloggers. Throw in excellent dinners prepared by the best local chefs and a dash of beautiful Autumn weather on an October bank holiday weekend and you have all the makings of a fun and entertaining event.

Desert or Miro painting?

After a sublime meal on Thursday night in 3 AA rosette The Lady Helen restaurant at Mount Juliet to launch the 2012 Festival, I spoke at Foodcamp at Savour Kilkenny about Shananigans Blog early the next morning.
Friday morning session at Foodcamp

The aim of my talk was to convince the audience that it is possible to make authentic Chinese food with the best of Irish ingredients.  A slow-cooked Chinese stew made with Irish produced wagyu beef, from James Whelan Butchers’ herd in Garrentemple, Co. Tipperary , simmering on the hotplate in the background, helped lure the punters in. I enjoyed telling the story of the blog and of the fun I have had experimenting with using products as diverse as Flahavan’s Porridge Oats from the Love Irish Foodbrand and Irish artisan beers in regional Chinese cuisine.
No sooner had the session finished than I was whisked off to KCLR to The Sue Nunn Show. There I waited in turn to be interviewed after a wonderful bunch of young students who had been through a foodie boot camp with celebrity chefs Anne Neary and Edward Hayden and were to sell their produce in the Young Food Producers Market on The Parade the next day. Their confidence and enthusiasm was inspiring. It seems that every young Kilkenny person aspires to be a chef or play for Kilkenny.
Food art at Savour Kilkenny

It was only slightly daunting to have my wagyu stew “stolen” and tasted live on radio by Chef Anne Neary as soon as my back was turned.
Live tasting on local radio – all part of the fun at Savour Kilkenny

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Chairman Mao's Red-braised Pork

Let me start by saying I love this dish, with a passion. There is something about the unctuous golden fat and the carmelised, melting pork which create a taste sensation – umami at its best. I didn’t think it would be possible to create such aromatic magic in a relatively short time with a cut of meat – belly of pork – that often requires long slow cooking.
It was Joanne (@dudara) who first alerted me to the cuisine of the southern Chinese province of Hunan and suggested we seek it out when we were in Beijing last June. Hunan is the region Mao Zedong came from. It is a region of bold, spicy flavours, fond of its chillies, and the fiery food seems to shape the spirit of its inhabitants. We didn’t manage to track down a Hunan restaurant in Beijing but, when I got back, Joanne encouraged me to get hold of of Fucshia Dunlop‘s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, a seminal book on the food of that region.
When I was in London recently, she pointed me in the direction of Ba Shan Restaurant at 24 Romilly Street, London W1.  Sometimes referred to as Bashan, it has a menu of Hunan dishes and is a sister restaurant to the nearby Sichuan Bar Shu. Fuchsia Dunlop advised both restaurants on their menus and Ba Shan features a number of dishes based on those in her book. See Jay Rayner’s review here.
Laoise (@cuisinegenie) joined me for dinner and we tried Chairman Mao’s red-braised pork which is one of the signature dishes of the region. The recipe below, which features in a Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, came from Mao Anping, a nephew of Chairman Mao. Mao Zedong loved this dish and allegedly ate 2 bowls of it a day to keep his intellect in shape, insisting on it being prepared for him in Beijing.
The Chinese like to attribute medicinal properties to every dish but, to me, this is just aromatic, sticky, treacly and delicious. I was determined to try it out myself and the result was sublime. I actually prefer the recipe below to the version I tasted in Ba Shan which may have been adapted for restaurant use.
Now three months into the blog, most of the recipes I post are Shan’s or my own but, when I started out, I asked Fuchsia Dunlop’s permission to re-print a few recipes from her books. I hope that sharing with you this particular recipe, which is just too perfect to mess with, will encourage you to buy the book which is packed full of Hunan delights.
To make the dish I used a beautiful piece of Irish belly of pork, chosen for me by Fintan at Dunne’s of Donnybrook, Dublin 4 which was recently awarded the Star Shop of the Year by the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland.
Chairman Mao’s Red-braised Pork – mao shi hong shao rou – 毛氏红烧肉

Chairman Mao’s Pork

Continue reading Chairman Mao's Red-braised Pork