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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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….
- 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
Serves 3 -4 to share
- 400 g bavette of beef
- 1 egg white, lightly beaten
- About 4 tbs of potato flour (cornflour can be substituted)
- Pinch of fine salt
- Pinch of baking powder
- 1 larger or 2 small carrots cut into thin matchsticks
- Sunflower oil
- Small handful of dried chilli pieces (to taste depending on the heat of your chillies and your fondness for chilli heat!)
- 1 tbs light soy sauce
- 2 tbs sweet chilli sauce
- Juice and zest of half a large orange
- Small handful of peanuts, dry roasted
- Small head of fresh lettuce, such as romaine, shredded
- Cut the beef into wafer thin slices.
- Dip into egg white and mix with your hand, leaving to rest for a few minutes.
- Mix the potato flour with salt and baking powder.
- Drain off any excess egg white and dip the beef strips into the flour mix shaking off any excess.
- Blanch the carrots in boiling water for 1 minute or so then drain under cold running water and set aside.
- Fill a wok a quarter full with oil and heat to 180 degrees, (see earlier recipe for Crispy Chilli Beef – you can guess this by watching for bubbles forming on the surface of the oil).
- Cook the beef for 3 – 4 minutes, adding a few strips at a time stirring to separate the strands until it is really crispy (I find a pair of wooden chopsticks is ideal for this task). Remove with a mesh strainer or slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.
- Pour most of the oil from the wok into an empty saucepan, leaving about 1 tbs.
- When ready to serve, re-heat the remaining oil over high heat until very hot. Add the carrot strips and dried chilli pieces and stir-fry for a few moments until sizzling and heated through.
- Add the soy sauce, chilli sauce and orange juice and stir until the sauce has come to the boil and thickened.
- Return the beef to the pan to coat with the sauce and heat through over a high heat.
- Serve on a bed of lettuce garnished with peanuts and orange zest with a side dish of cucumber pickle.
Sweet Cucumber Pickle
- 1 cucumber
- pinch of salt
- 50 ml white rice vinegar
- 50 g castor sugar
- 1 tsp sweet chilli sauce
- Thinly slice the cucumber (a mandolin is ideal if you have one).
- Add a pinch of salt to the cucumber and leave it to rest in a colander.
- Meanwhile bring the vinegar and chilli sauce to the boil in a small pan and reduce for about 30 seconds. Allow to cool completely.
- Rinse the cucumber slices and pat dry. Place in a bowl and add the cooled liquid. The relish will keep in a fridge for 2 to 3 days.