Slow-cooked Chinese Chicken "Cure a Cold" Soup

There is some instinct in women, especially mothers, that makes us want to nourish those we love and care for. Somehow we believe deep down that the right nutritious food will cure all ills. Whether we are encouraging someone to eat well for the sake of her baby yet unborn, comforting a listless toddler on our knee, visiting a friend convalescing in hospital, sitting with a sick relative or watching out for an older family member who has lost their appetite, the words “eat up, it will do you good” are never too far from our lips. It’s the urge in us to fix things even when there are some things which just cant be easily fixed.
In China more than any other cuisine, the medicinal properties of food are intrinsically linked with day to day cooking. Every time Shan or her MaMa have served me a meal or sent me a recipe, they have commented on the health-giving properties of one or other of the ingredients.  They are not unusual in this. According to The Food of China, achieving balance at every meal is an essential part of Chinese cooking. “Every ingredient is accorded a nature – hot, warm, cool and neutral – and a flavour – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and pungent – and these are matched to a person’s imbalances: a cooling food for fever, warmer food after childbirth.” The Chinese use exotic foods too, that are believed to have special properties, such as black silky chicken in special soups and preparations.
In different regions of China, people explain their food preferences in terms of the local climate and its effects on the body and the spirit, changing their diets with the season and even with age and sex. That deep understanding of the impact of different foods and spices on the body and the spirit is handed down seamlessly from generation to generation. Chicken and chicken soup features in their lexicon of cures. I remember  Ching-he Huang seeking out a traditional chicken broth when her immune system became depressed during the making of Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure.
In Shan’s recipe for Winter Chicken Ginger Stew, she and Shane explained to me how they use chicken and the the complimentary spices of garlic and ginger to “heat from the inside” during the cold days of a Beijing winter. Ginger has traditionally been used in Chinese medicine and cooking to prevent or cure the common cold and warm the body. Garlic is considered a ‘warrior’ for the body, cleansing harmful bacteria picked up in every day life and from less healthy eating.
As winter in Northern China is very dry, they generally advise against eating too much spicy food or chilli at this time of year as this can affect the balance of a body and its ability to retain moisture. Here in Ireland of course our winters are very damp and chilli can help sweat the moisture out of the body and speed up the metabolism.
The Chinese are not the only ones to believe that chicken soup is good for body, and even the soul. The phrase Chicken Soup for the Soul has become part of the vernacular and spawned a world wide movement for life improvement. We believe in the healing and preventative value of chicken soup here in Ireland too and I recall a lovely post by Mum of Invention earlier this winter whose tagline is “let food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food”. She wrote about using simmered chicken and its stock to prepare your defences against the common cold.
With all that has been going on since the beginning of the year, we’ve been feeling a bit under the weather recently and I felt as if I was about to come down with something earlier this week. I set out to find a recipe for a Chinese version of chicken soup that included garlic, ginger and chilli to open my pores and push those bugs away.
A Twitter conversation with AineD about using slow cookers got me thinking about using them in the way the Chinese might use a stock pot or clay pot for a long-simmered soup.  So I trawled a few slow cooker cookbooks and I came across the recipe below in Anthony Worrall Thompson’s Slow Cooking and tweaked it a bit.
Although this particular recipe is described as a Chinese soup, it has influences from Thailand with its use of lemongrass, red curry paste and lime. It has flavours evocative of thai red curry but without the added coconut. It packs a powerful, spicy punch and certainly clears the tubes. I made it using the stock from our free-range turkey at Christmas, a breast of free-range chicken and lots of fresh vegetables. With the addition of a nest or two of noodles, which are optional, it is a meal in itself and a perfect supper for a cold, miserable, January evening.
Chinese Chicken “cure a cold” Soup
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Sichuan Flavoured Stir-Fried Duck

There’s a Leonard Cohen song titled “Waiting for the Miracle to Come” which begins “Baby I’ve been waiting…”
That’s what I feel like these days as we anticipate the birth of Baby Shananigans while hoping that we will be waiting a little while longer. It has been more than a week since the baby first attempted to make a surprise early appearance. Shane is coping and Shan seems a model of calm and good humour as she sits it out in Beijing. I wish I could say the same for myself…
My thoughts stray to those weeks we spent in China last summer and the lovely outings we had in Xinjiang Province with Shan’s family when Baby Shananigans was just a little speck in our imaginations. We spent one of those days at Tianchi, the beautiful Heaven’s Lake perched 2,000 metres above the arid desert terrain around Urumqi. The lake is inaccessible at this time of year when it fills from the melting snow of the surrounding mountains. In summer it is a breath of fresh air and an escape from the oven-like basin below.  I have great photos of that day out which I must include in a travel blogpost sometime soon. You really do feel closer to heaven there.
Shane and Shan and baby we are wishing heavenly blessings your way and praying that all will be well.

Shane and Shan at Tianchi, Heaven’s Lake, July 2012

Despite all that’s going on, we still have to eat so I try to put together something nourishing and tasty from whatever is handy. Yesterday I found 2 barbary duck breasts in the freezer, some odds and ends of vegetables in the drawer and with them I made a variation of Dongting Stir-fried Duck Breast from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook on Hunan Cuisine.
Sichuan Favoured Stir-fried Duck
Sichuan-flavoured Stir-fried Duck

Serves 2 to 3 people
Continue reading Sichuan Flavoured Stir-Fried Duck

Favourite Shananigans Recipes from 2012

Shiny New Year

We have had a traumatic start to 2013. New Year’s Day dawned fresh and shiny and we celebrated in Duncannon by preparing a farewell meal for Shane who was returning to China later that week. It was a cheerful, happy occasion attended by 13 of my family including my mother, brothers and their children.
Sadly, just two days later, we lost my mother-in-law, a special woman who I paid tribute to in “In Memory of Alice”. Shane had just returned to Beijing, reeling from the loss of his beloved Gran, when Baby Shananigans attempted to make a premature arrival. Shan’s due date is 22nd February and she is holding on for now. We love you dearly Baby Shananigans and are really looking forward to meeting you but we can wait a little while longer. Honest!
Shane and his Gran, April 2012

As a result of this and a number of other family matters I’ve been preoccupied for the past week and I haven’t had time to write.  But I’ve found cooking therapeutic. Tasty, nourishing food is a physical necessity when the going gets rough and I’ve discovered that Chinese spices can awaken senses that are numbed by shock and worry.
During the last few days, I found myself returning to some of my favourite recipes from 2012, accessing them on my iPhone or iPad when out and about so that I could identify the ingredients I needed to rustle up a meal that evening. I have lots of new recipes to share with you as soon as I re-group and some exciting plans to celebrate the Chinese New Year in mid February but meanwhile I thought it would be useful to remind you of the links to the recipes that got the most positive reaction since I started the blog at the end of last July and to which readers return again and again.
Stir-fried beef
Beef recipes are always popular, especially those that are similar to dishes available on Chinese take-away menus but are lighter and fresh-tasting. These dishes have become firm favourites with readers and I love when I hear that you have come up with your own variations. Recently I’ve taken to using bavette of beef in these dishes because it is great value and has a lovely texture. Sirloin and fillet also work well.

Honey Sesame Beef from “Fire”

Pork cooked many ways
Pork is a staple in Chinese cooking and Chinese cooks have perfected techniques over the centuries for making even the cheapest cuts taste tender and delicious. My most popular pork recipes so far are all inspired by traditional Sichuan or Hunan recipes and variations of them can be found on the menu of the China Sichuan restaurant in Dublin whose chef gave me the fish-fragrant pork recipe below.

Chairman Mao’s Red-braised Pork

Lamb dishes are particularly prevalent in Xinjiang province where Shan was born and her family still live. In that far western province of China the influence of the Uighur Muslim community is strong. These two recipes came from Shan and her MaMa and make for simple, satisfying everyday meals.
Lamb rice served in Urumqi, Xinjiang Provicne

Shan’s Big Plate chicken is already the stuff of family legend and is the dish she and Shane use to celebrate the Full Moon Festival. Lemon chicken is a more traditional Cantonese dish and the version below is simple, tangy and light.

Cooking Shan’s Big Plate Chicken at home in Dublin

I have had great fun experimenting with giving a Chinese twist to our wonderful Irish seafood. Sichuan Seafood Duncannon Style was included in Goodalls Modern Irish Cookbook, much to my delight. I also stumbled on an interesting way of using Flahavan’s Multi-seed Oatmeal in salt and pepper seafood dishes.

Sichuan Seafood Duncannon Style

Starters and light supper dishes

Preparing Spring Rolls

Finger food Chinese style and light supper dishes can be great fun to make at home. Pot-sticker dumplings are strongly associated with celebration of the Chinese New Year where you will find them laid out on every surface ready to be cooked. For our New Year’s lunch in Duncannon I made large quantities of duck pancakes and spring rolls as a starter. They were all gobbled by appreciative adults and children. Noodles symbolise longevity in China and the Dan Dan noodle recipe below is one of those staples that I prepare whenever I need a fix of Sichuan pepper.


Wagyu Stew

Apart from learning how to cook some of the better known dishes of China, I’ve also had fun using new and lesser known cuts of meat. Thanks to Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers I’ve tried several ways of cooking his wonderful wagyu beef from his herd at Garrentemple, Co. Tipperary. I ended up having my wagyu stew tasted by local celebrity chefs live on The Sue Nunn Show on KCLR during the Savour Kilkenny festival. And with the help of many chefs who are friends on Twitter, especially Tom Walsh of Samphire at the Waterside, Donabate and Niall O’Sullivan of Isabel’s in Dublin, I have discovered some unusual ways to cook pig’s cheeks and short beef ribs (also knows as Jacobs Ladder).

And finally – where it all began

Fried green beans at home this week

I doubt if I would ever have started this blog if Shan hadn’t chosen a side dish of fried green beans in a Sichuan restaurant on our first night in Beijing last June. That was also the day she and Shane revealed to us that Baby Shananigans was on the way but that’s a whole other story. 🙂
The Sichuan peppercorns exploded in my mouth, the dried facing heaven chillies added heat, the crunchy Sichuan preserved vegetable yai cai added texture and flavour, and of course the magic trinity of garlic, ginger and spring onions provided their subtle notes. Combined they elevated this simple vegetable out of the ordinary. It was in that moment that I decided I wanted to learn and write about Chinese food. I made fried green beans as a side dish at home the other night using the yai cai, Sichuan pepper and dried chillies Shan’s MaMa sent home to me with Shane at Christmas. Comfort food to awaken the senses.
I hope you continue to enjoy the blog during 2013 and thank you for your encouragement and support.
P.S. Don’t forget you can find a convenient list of equipment and ingredients in Chinese Kitchen Essentials

In Memory of Alice

On today, Nollaig na mBan (Womens’ Christmas) I want to pay tribute to a very special woman who passed away this week, my mother-in-law Alice O’Neill.

Claire and Mike with her Gran, 17 September 2010

I ended my last post late on New Year’s Eve with an Irish prayer – go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís – may we all be alive this time next year. Just after midnight, with our millennium candle lighting to remember those we love and those we have lost since the year 2000, we phoned our family at home and abroad.
First on the list was my mother-in-law. My own Mum, who was with us for the night, spoke to her. Both were looking forward to a year in which they expect the arrival of a great-grandchild, Shane and Shan’s baby and the Irish celebration of their marriage towards the end of the year. In her inimitable style, my mother-in-law suggested the date for the wedding – Saturday 28th December – which she had worked out made most sense all round, giving us all a few days to recover from Christmas, ahead of the new year and convenient for overseas visitors. She told my Mum that as the two elders of the family they should get to call these things, a sentiment with which my Mother heartily agreed. We all spoke to her and she gave some timely advice to Shane on parenting.
Just three days later, at 2.30 pm on the 3rd of January, she passed away in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda surrounded by her 5 daughters and 5 sons, daughters-in-law and sons-in-law,  grandchildren including her youngest grandchild aged just over 2 and two close friends. While her health had been failing for some time, her death was sudden and unexpected and has left the family shattered. Her unquenchable spirit and zest for life lulled us into a false sense of security that, shortly after any health crisis, she would be sitting up having one of her many daily cups of tea.
I first met Alice O’Neill when I started dating her eldest son Derry at the tender age of 19. When I visited the family for the first time in Ardee, Co. Louth, where Derry’s Dad was a local bank manager, I’m not sure if I was more daunted by her sharp intellect and keen intelligence, the organisational skills required to manage her lively, noisy household or the almost telepathic connection in this fiercely loyal and united family.
Here was a woman who had a BSc in Maths from UCC in 1950, was heading the Maths Department of a school in England in her early 20s and had turned her back on that life to marry Sean and raise 10 children in economically difficult times in the early years. She had to move her growing family every four years as Sean was transferred from town to town across three provinces.
Here was a woman who could debate on any subject sometimes just for the fun of it, who had a knitting machine and sewing machine on the go, who could batch cook enormous quantities of mince pies and Christmas puddings and still had time for solitaire, logic puzzles, crosswords, reading and conversation.
Parties in those early days were legendary as First Communions and Confirmations gave way to 21st birthdays and weddings in rapid succession. My mother-in-law to be introduced me to home-grown alpine strawberries dipped in Tia Maria in an early “bonding” session at one of those 21st parties.
When Derry’s Dad died suddenly nearly 33 years ago, she held the family together, providing the love and affection of both parents rolled into one. She was asked once who was her favourite child and she replied “the one on my knee or the one who needs me most right now.” She was the archivist of the family who recorded every major occasion in the lives of all her children and grandchildren in carefully documented photo albums.
Over the years our relationship changed and developed as more and more “out-laws” entered the family and the number of grandchildren grew into the 30s but to me she was always “Mrs. O’Neill” or “Mum” – never Alice.
Derry gave a beautiful eulogy at her funeral yesterday on behalf of his brothers and sisters but  here I will remember her in the words of my own two children.
Shane was with her the night before she died and he had to return to Beijing the next day. He says:
“Gran has always been a huge part of my life. For me she epitomised pride and the importance of family.

Throughout my 31 years of knowing her, she carried with her an intelligence and razor sharp witShe never minced her words, and I always appreciated that since I was very young she spoke to me as an adult, directly and honestly. 

When we spoke over Christmas, I asked her if she had any tips for married life and parenthood. She told me, with tongue in cheek, that I’d had it too easy for too long that it was time for real life and responsibilities. She also told me that parenthood was the most rewarding thing that life had to offer and to enjoy every minute.
I will miss her deeply and try to do her proud every day.”

Claire was her eldest grandchild and was very sad not to be able to get back to the funeral from Australia. She says:
“On the night Granny passed away I was asked to describe her by friends … I said formidable, intelligent and strong but also in equal measure loving, fiercely loyal and with a wicked sense of adventure.
I’ve so many memories, the earliest being Ali’s (her youngest daughter) birthday and granny in the middle of the sing-along surrounded by family.
Granny, I’ll miss you sharing titbits of your past, never shrinking from a debate, setting the world to rights and going through the many photo albums over pots of tea!”
The words of one of my mother-in-law’s favourite poems sum up her own outlook on life:
Warning by Jenny Joseph
“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.”
Just a week or two ago she mentioned to one of her daughters that she was considering wearing red and purple but had decided she wasn’t old enough yet.
Ní bheidh a lethéidí arís ann ach ní imithe uainn ach imithe romhainn.
There will not be her like again but she is not gone from us but gone before us.
Ar dheis Dé a hanam uasail.
May her soul be at the right hand of God.
Mrs O’Neill, Mum, Gran, Granny, Alice – we miss you and we salute you for a life well lived.

A candle for remembrance