Moments don’t come much sweeter.
Throughout the 18 hour journey from Dublin I quelled my nervous anticipation about meeting Dermot again. I practised my “happy face” to mask my disappointment when he reacted warily to me. I warned myself to hold back, not crowd him or drown him in slobbery kisses while he connected the face and the voice with a pixellating image he is vaguely aware of once a week on an iPad and perhaps some tiny memory of his visit to Ireland nearly five months ago.
Shane was at Beijing International Airport to greet me with a hug. MaMa, my quin jia, had a bowl of noodle soup on the table when I was barely in the door of their 21st floor apartment. Shan was waiting to show me my room (Dermot’s room really) . More hugs and smiles. I felt a swooshing release of tension at arriving at my Beijing home. Dermot was having his afternoon nap.
So I waited some more, weary after the journey and with the surreal sense that I had come all this way and perhaps my beloved grandson was a figment of my imagination despite the baby paraphernalia all about. I snuck a look at his sleeping form to reassure myself . He was indeed real.
An hour later a sleepy whimper… I held back as Shane went in to release him from his sleeping bag and lift him over the bars of his cot. Surfacing out of sleep he turned to me, frowned for a moment as the wheels whirred in his little brain and then broke into excited burbles and giggles of pleasure, reaching into my arms.
Moments don’t come much sweeter and Shane had an iPhone in hand to capture it.
What is it with an eight month old baby? a familiar voice, a memory of touch and smell, of me crooning to him out of tune in the early hours in Duncannon last June, a recognition of his father in me? All I know is that when our eyes locked we were connected again as if by an invisible thread. For the next hour he examined me closely, my face, my hands, my finger nails painted a suitable Chinese red “ooh, tasty…”, my rings, my watch, as if he too wanted to confirm that I was real.
And now we are pals again, getting to know the Gruffalo and a noisy toy guitar, him careering around the apartment in his walker for nai nai hugs – our very own “Derminator”, plopped on the floor of his play room with my quin jia and a neighbouring nai nai with her one year old grandson PePe, swapping words using Google Translate so that his grannies can tell him the names of animals and numbers in Mandarin and English. And when we are on Skype to his Grandad in Dublin, he cranes his neck to look back up at me and stares intently at the iPad screen as if to say “ah, now I’m beginning to get this Skype lark.”
Shan’s MaMa, my quin jia, is a special woman, warm, generous and with an engaging sense of fun. We have found a way of making sense to one another when alone and then Shan and Shane fill the gaps when they are at home. She has been trying out pizzas in their tiny electric oven since Shane introduced her to the concept at a local Italian here in Beijing and she is very enthusiastic about helping me make them in Duncannon at Christmas.
So here, as promised, are the three other toppings I tried with the Pizza Stone on the Big Green Egg recently. Continue reading Happy reunions and three more ways with Pizza on the Big Green Egg
I’m in Dubai Airport waiting to board a flight for Beijing. As I sit here between two worlds in the surreal environment that is the transit area of a major international airport, the temperature is a sauna-like 30 degrees at 2 in the morning and a half moon is sitting like a smiley in the sky, glowing red from the dessert sands. In this part of the world I can’t be too far from the old silk road along which travellers took many moons to reach their destination in places like Xinjiang province in remote, northwest China where my daughter in law Shan was born.
Here the camels have been replaced by A380 planes. Big, lumbering beasts of burden that become suddenly graceful when they soar into the air.
Would you look at who’s waiting for me when I get to my destination – Dermot, camping in the living room so that his Nai Nai can take over his room.
Over the next two weeks I will get to spend lots of time with him, Shane, Shan and MaMa. I’m travelling to Beijing to speak at the Beijing Forum at Peking University next weekend but, of course, I’m adding on lots of extra days to have time with them.
I also hope to take some more Chinese cooking lessons, including spending whole days with Shan’s MaMa. She and I don’t yet have language in common but we can communicate through a mutual love of food and cooking. I’ve been thinking about how I can return the favour when she and her sisters in law and nieces visit Ireland for Shane and Shan’s wedding in December.
MaMa enjoyed showing me how to make noodles and dumplings the last time I was in Beijing so I thought that it could be fun to spend a day making pizza with her and the other ladies of the family. Although, come to think of it, with nine Chinese girls and women, ranging from age 3 upwards in our little house in Duncannon, none of whom speak English except Shan, it might have to be a demo rather than a hands on lesson!
Right down to the youngest girl, Chinese women are naturals at working with dough – flatbread, noodles and dumplings get whipped up from scratch every day – but they don’t have access to ovens and don’t use yeast. I think they would love the rhythm of working with yeast dough and stretching it to make a perfect thin, pizza round.
So cue experiment time. What happens if you take a very Italian pizza base, a topping with the flavours of Xinjiang province loved by Shan’s family and a Big Green Egg and put them together? Magic is the answer. Even if cooked outside in the dark in Duncannon, during a lightning storm, on a wild Autumn evening. Continue reading When East Meets West on the Old Silk Road – Lamb and Aubergine Pizza
Forty one years. It’s not a very auspicious anniversary. If it was a marriage you would find it hard to identify the appropriate gift – land I believe. In China the number would probably be regarded as unlucky because it includes a four. But the thought struck me when I woke up this morning. Forty one years ago to this day I crossed the threshold of the Civil Service Commission and joined the Irish civil service.
I had just turned 17 (I know you can do the sums but I don’t mind). I had no real intention of becoming a civil servant, I just did the “Junior Ex” exams to get a day off school. I travelled up from Wexford with my Mammy and Daddy, my three younger brothers, my Granny and Grandad and my Great Aunt Bella. All of them were crying about the prospect of leaving me behind in Dublin, clueless about how to get around from my hostel in Ranelagh. They were right – the first time I tried to walk home from my office in Hume House in Ballsbridge I ended up in Ringsend because I turned right instead of left at the canal.
I remember every detail of that day – the drab beige walls in the Commission’s office in Parnell Square, the cramped waiting room, the cursory interview – They: “What kind of job do you want to do?” Me: “I want to work with people” (so they put me in the Revenue Commissioners) – pulling up in the car outside Dublin Castle and poring over a map to make sure that we had the right location, trying to figure out what bus I would take to town and what small change I would need to pay for my ticket, running to leap on the back step of the 46A for my first ever journey alone, the unfamiliar “ding ding” to alert the driver, meeting my new friend Mary from Tipperary, she even younger than me and sharing our terror at the world of work, but excited at the same time at the heady prospect of freedom and a wage packet of our own.
That was the year Ireland joined the European Community. Dublin was a sleepy place catching up with the sixties, the civil service was about to be lurched into action by the impact of our EC membership. The marriage bar was still intact. My pay was less than the guys taken on at the same time as me. I only planned staying a year…
The next 37 years passed in a whirl. Over that time Ireland changed as we grew in confidence with our EU membership, shook off the shackles of dependence on our nearest neighbour, found our feet as a nation and almost lost them again. I changed. I went from being a naive culchee to a city slicker (well kind of), to wife and mother, to senior civil servant and now, four years out the other side, I’ve had fun reinventing again. And it all seems to have happened in a flash. As for the one year that became 37, I don’t regret a moment. For all the knocking it gets, the public service gave me a fantastic career across eight government departments and a huge learning opportunity.
Anyway all that came to mind because I’ve been trying to put together a paper to deliver at the Beijing Forum at the beginning of October on how Europe has transformed itself in an ever changing world and working on it has triggered a trip down memory lane. More of that when I get to Beijing in a little over a week’s time (and to see Shane and Shan and my gorgeous grandson Dermot. Wheeeeee….). But meanwhile my cooking has suffered as I get lost in research.
So here is just a simple recipe to keep you going while I find time to write up my other culinary experiments of recent weeks. This is the starter I plan serving to 17 of us on Christmas day including 9 of Shan’s family over from China. Continue reading A 41 Year Flash Back and Smoked Prawn Salad from the Big Green Egg
Safety gate on deck? Check. Breakables out of reach? Check. Floors scrubbed and vetted for hazards? Check. Box of matches in hands of toddler with cheeky grin? Oops I missed that one! How come toddlers have an unerring ability to find the one dangerous item you overlook?
Last weekend in Duncannon was a trial run in more ways than one. If our little yellow house could withstand the onslaught of 14 month identical twin boys it will surely cope with a 10 month old Dermot’s first Christmas. And if I could cook a 9 kg turkey on the Big Green Egg for our Italian friend Solange, her Argentinian husband Agustin, their twins Oli and Fredi and 11 of my family who are always willing to be guinea pigs for my culinary experiments, then I should be able to cope with the same number of guests from China and Australia on Christmas day. At least that’s the theory…
While I cooked up an early Christmas dinner in Duncannon, Shane and Shan prepared shellfish for friends in Beijing and Claire and Mike ate an anniversary meal at the fabulous Spice Temple Chinese restaurant in Sydney. So our multi-cultural family food odyssey continued on three continents, our very own version of fusion dining.
As for the turkey – well with the patient assistance of Liam from A Room Outside in Limerick who supplied our Egg, it was a great success. He even answered my texts on Sunday morning when I began to fret about the temperature level in the Egg (note to self: I really will have to stop running in and out to the deck to check every few minutes once the temperature drops from the balmy 17 degrees of the weekend to something approaching our normal Christmas lows. Or at least I will have to wrap up in a warm scarf.)
I’ve cooked turkey using my tried and tested Delia Smith recipe for more than 30 years. I needed to take a deep breath and make a leap of faith to cook it in a very different way on the Big Green Egg. I can honestly say that Liam’s technique resulted in a bird that was succulent, moist and tender with a beautiful even skin colour. It held its heat wrapped in foil for nearly two hours after it was cooked. My favourite stuffing recipe also cooked to perfection inside the cavity.
We served the turkey with the apple and rosemary stuffing, maple roasted parsnips, buttered leeks, carrots and peas. With lots of oven space in the kitchen, it was easy to time the roasting of the potatoes and parsnips.
A big thank you to Liam and also to Seamus in Wallace’s SuperValu Wellington Bridge who tracked down a fresh turkey and sold me the large 9 kg one, which was the only one he could find, at the price of the smaller one I had ordered. We are still on turkey leftovers in our house tonight.
Now that I know what to expect, I can look forward to Christmas Day. And my biggest wish is that the next time I serve this meal our little far flung family will be united in one place to enjoy it. Big Green Egg Turkey
1 large turkey at room temperature (the large BGE can easily handle up to a 10 kg turkey)
Salt and pepper to season
A few carrots, onions and cloves garlic
A few sprigs of thyme and bay leaves
500 g of your favourite turkey stuffing*
100 g softened butter
Fill the Egg with sufficient lump wood for a 5 to 6 hour cook – BGE Lump Charcoal is best for this as it gives a lovely even heat – and set it up for indirect heat with the plate setter legs up at a temperature of 170ºC.
Peel and roughly chop a few onions and carrots and bruise a few whole cloves of garlic. Place the vegetables and herbs in a deep roasting tin, fill it almost to the brim with water and place on the plate setter. Place the stainless steel cooking grid over the roasting tin.
Wipe out the turkey cavity and stuff with your favourite stuffing. Butter the turkey legs and season the turkey well with salt and pepper. Cover the turkey legs with foil to slow down their cooking.
Place the turkey directly on the grid, making sure the Egg’s own temperature gauge is not touching the meat as this would distort the temperature readings. Place a meat thermometer into the deepest part of the breast.
Note: The temperature of the Egg may drop to about 150ºC at this stage and rise only gradually over the next few hours. Don’t worry about this. The turkey will still brown beautifully even at that temperature.
Remove the foil from the legs after about 2 hours. Keep an eye on the level of water in the roasting tin and do not let it dry out. Top up as necessary with boiling water.
Cook the turkey until it reaches an internal temperature of 75 to 78ºC – in the case of my 9 kg turkey this took about 4½ hours but it could take up to an hour longer.
Let the turkey rest covered in foil for at least 30 minutes before carving. Any water left over in the tin can be strained to make gravy with the turkey resting juices.
My Favourite Apple and Rosemary Stuffing Ingredients:
500 g fine white breadcrumbs
1 large cooking apple or 2 small cooking apples, finely diced
1 heaped tbs finely chopped fresh rosemary
100 g butter melted
1 large egg beaten
Onion salt (or Maldon sea salt)
Ground black pepper
Mix the breadcrumbs, apple and rosemary with melted butter and beaten egg and season well with salt and pepper.
It’s been a while since I wrote a post lovely blog followers. Life and work got in the way. Meanwhile, over in Beijing, my grandson Dermot has just turned 8 months today and in the past week he has gotten his first tooth and learned how to pull himself up to standing.
Say hello to Dermot who I will get to see in Beijing this day 3 weeks. Yeah!
And hello to all my new subscribers to the blog. I suspect many of you have joined because of my experiments with all-year round barbecuing on the Big Green Egg. Well I’m at the kitchen table in Duncannon at the moment getting excited at the prospect of cooking my first ever pizza on the Egg later today, helped by my Italian friend Solange. On Sunday I’m going to have a trial run at cooking a turkey outdoors, practice for when Dermot’s Chinese family come to stay. About every second weekend I hope to try something new on the Egg, often with an Asian twist, but in between times I will continue my experiments with traditional Chinese recipes. I hope you enjoy both.
Part of my motivation at the moment is a slightly panic stricken planning ahead for my seven Chinese visitors in December – my daughter-in-law Shan’s MaMa and cousin, her bother his wife and child and first auntie and second auntie who will join us to celebrate Christmas and Shane and Shan’s Irish wedding. None of them have been outside China before and they will be relying on me to feed them for most of the two weeks they are here. There will be between 11 and 13 of us at our small kitchen table most evenings and I lie awake at night trying to dream up manageable meals for us all including some western and Chinese specialties. All suggestions and practical tips that don’t involve ordering in a Chinese takeaway are welcome…
Inspiration came in small packages recently when my young Chinese friend Tiedong brought me a gift from his home town of Harbin in north eastern China. Tiedong is studying for a PhD in Dublin and I first met him during the Dublin City Chinese New Year Festival earlier this year. He managed the website for the Taste of China which I helped coordinate. He is one of those very bright Chinese young people who make such a great addition to our increasingly multi-cultural country. He returned home to visit his family during the summer and he brought me back some boxes of Pearl Mountain Edible Black Fungus Block, a foodstuff for which Harbin is famous. It is found in the forests near Harbin where it grows on wood at the base of trees.
I had tasted black fungus in China where it is sometimes known as “wood ear” or “cloud ear”. It is packed full of nutrients and well known for its health giving properties as it is higher in iron content than green leafy vegetables and is also rich in calcium and amino acids. It is particularly good for clearing the lungs . Tiedong tells me that in his home town back in the 1950s barbers ate black fungus very often as it helped clear the dust they breathed in each day. It is also good for the digestion and circulation – in Chinese Traditional Medicine it is regarded as increasing the fluidity of the blood.
Apart from its medicinal properties, black fungus is prized for its crunchy texture and the “mouth feel” it adds to soups and stir-frys. It is purchased dried and, when soaked in water it swells to several times its volume and the dark frilly clumps resemble “ears” or “clouds”. The texture becomes silky, slippery and almost translucent, a bit like sea weed but without the associated flavour. In fact the fungus has no real flavour of its own but it readily absorbs the sauces and seasonings it is cooked with.
I have found black fungus in the Asia Market in Dublin and other Asian supermarkets where it comes in bags like dried Shitake mushrooms and can be reconstituted in warm water in 15 minutes or so. Sometimes the grittier part where it has been attached to the bark of a tree needs to be trimmed away.
The compressed Pearl Mountain variety that Tiedong brought back to me is of the highest quality. It is packaged in little boxes no bigger than a matchbox and Tiedong recommended soaking a portion in lots of luke warm water for a few hours, then rinsing it several times. Once reconstituted it was ready for use without further trimming.
Tiedong gave me the recipe below which is how he prepares it at home. The end result was full of flavour despite involving only a small number of ingredients and being very fast to prepare. We enjoyed the slippery and chewy texture the fungus added to the dish. My niece Jodie decided that it felt a bit like eating balloons, but in a good way! This dish will definitely feature on the menu for my Chinese guests and could be served alongside other spicier dishes as part of a Chinese meal. Pork with Black Fungus
(serves 3 people)
1 compressed black fungus (or a large handful of dried fungus)
2 – 3 carrots
½ a Chinese cabbage
1 pork steak
2 – 3 tbs groundnut oil
A thumb of ginger (about 3 cms)
2 – 3 cloves garlic
Salt to taste
1 – 2 tbs light soy sauce
Soak the compressed black fungus in a large bowl of warm water for several hours until it has puffed up and expanded in volume. Rinse several times under cold water and set aside.
Slice the carrot at an angle and blanche by plunging in boiled water with a pinch of salt for 5 minutes or by steaming for 2 – 3 mins. Rinse with cold water and set to one side.
Slice the Chinese cabbage and blanche by plunging in boiled water with a pinch of salt for 5 min or by steaming for 2 – 3 minutes. Rinse with cold water and set to one side.
Slice the pork steak into 1 cm slices and then, across the grain, into thin strips.
Heat 2 – 3 tbs groundnut oil in a wok over high heat. Add the pork, then add the ginger and garlic and cook over high heat until the pork has changed colour and the garlic and ginger have softened and released their fragrance.
Add the carrot and cabbage and stir-fry over high heat until the pork is cooked through.
Add the black fungus and stir -fry over high heat until heated through.
Put the lid on for 2 – 3 min, stirring regularly.
Add a pinch of salt salt and a good dash of soy sauce. Stir until very little juice is left , then taste to adjust seasoning and serve with boiled rice.