I’m sitting here by the fire having a glass of wine. Shane is finalising the details of his and Shan’s wedding service and Dermot’s christening next Saturday. My husband and daughter in law have headed for the airport to collect the first of her arriving relatives – her cousin Wei Wei from Shanghai with her three year old daughter You You. The rest of Shan’s family arrive tomorrow evening and then, finally, my daughter Claire and Mike from Australia via Manchester at 9 am on Christmas Eve.
It has been a blessed time – seven days of having Dermot living in our house, watching him go from clinging nervously to Shane and burying his head in his chest, shy at all the new faces around him, to clambering over every surface, diving under the coffee table to appear cheekily with a sweet paper, crawling across the room at breakneck speed for a reading of “That’s not my Santa”, finding any surface on which to make music.
We have passed to him, the youngest member of our family, the tradition of placing the angel on top of the Christmas tree – that’s on the Christmas tree Dermot – not off!
All the plans are made, the menus are finalised. Tomorrow I swing into cooking action. Tomorrow it all begins.
Only one mishap so far – a puncture in Duncannon – but guess what, the world didn’t fall in. It will be alright on the night.
Tomorrow’s menu for our travel-weary guests has a distinctly Chinese theme – I’ve included links to where the recipes where have already been posted on the blog:
Wish me luck! Beer duck – Pi jiu ya
Beer duck is a recipe I learned at Hutong Cusine in Beijing in October. It is simple and delicious.
1 kg duck skinned and chopped into 4 cm pieces – use a whole duck or duck legs but not lean breast on its own
Cooking oil (groundnut or sunflower)
5g ginger sliced
4 garlic cloves peeled and smashed
2 spring onions, white part only
1 star anise
½ tsp Sichuan pepper
1 thumb size piece of cinnamon
4 bay leaves
4 tsp broad bean chilli paste – douban jiang
1½ tbs light soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
1 bottle or can of Tsingtao beer or other lager
A few pieces of coriander cut into sections
Blanch the duck pieces in a pot of boiling water until the scum rises. Remove from pan, wash to remove any remaining impurities and pat dry.
Season the wok with one tbs oil over medium heat. Add the duck pieces and fry until the duck brings out about 2 tbs oil and the pieces are lightly browned (if the duck is too lean to release oil, add up to 2 tbs to the wok).
Push the duck to the side of the wok let the oil make a well at the centre, add the broad bean paste until the oil colours, then the remaining spices and cook for one minute until fragrant.
Turn the heat to high, mix the spices and duck together. Add enough beer to barely cover the duck, then add the soy sauce and sugar.
Bring to the boil then cover and simmer on a low heat for about 1½ hours until the sauce has nearly all gone. Stir in the coriander and serve.
Today, over breakfast, my daughter in law Shan told me a story.
When she was a little girl, she visited her auntie – her Mum’s sister – in the countryside somewhere in China. Her auntie kept chickens. That year an illness had struck the chickens and all but one hen and one chick had died. Both were very weak.
High outside Shan’s bedroom window there was a nest of bees, long bees that looked more like wasps. Shan used to like to poke a stick into the nest to get some honey. Sometimes she would fish larvae out instead of honey. She would feed the larvae to the hen. Every time she did so the hen would carry them in her beak to where the weak chick quivered on the ground and feed the chick with them. Both the hen and the chick survived.
Shan told me this story today to explain why some day she would like to keep chickens, not on the balcony of their 21st floor apartment in Beijing because that would be cruel, but some day, maybe even here in Ireland. The story was prompted because we were eating a confit duck hash made with eggs sent down to us by my sister-in-law Colette who has recently taken to keeping chickens in her garden in Ardee.
It’s just a little story but, in the heightened emotions flowing in our household at the moment, it has been on my mind all day as a parable of the redeeming and selfless power of a mother’s love for her child and the innate kindness of children.
This week has the eerie feel of the calm before the storm – a brief pause when Shane, Shan and Dermot can recover from a 23 hour journey and winter head colds, spend some quiet time with us and adjust to the rhythm of life in Ireland before Shan’s family arrive to join us for Christmas and the wedding celebrations.
For baby Dermot this is an awfully big adventure. When he first visited Ireland in June he was almost too young to know the difference. Now aged 10 months and 12 days, he is disconcerted by the sudden change, missing his daily routine, his other Nai Nai and the Chinese voices and faces that usually surround him. You can see him somewhat homesick, warily trying to make sense of the smells, sights and sounds of an Irish Christmas and so many new faces. But he is curious and resilient and even in two days he is beginning to settle.
If you read my last blog post you will know that I have planned nearly every detail of the meals for the two weeks our Chinese visitors will spend here but this week there is an element of pot luck about what we eat including some traditional family favourites – shepherd’s pie lovingly prepared by Shane’s Dad for their arrival late on Sunday night, steaks grilled on the Big Green Egg served with potatoes roast in duck fat yesterday, Shan’s version of spaghetti bolognese today. Confit Duck Legs
Yesterday I prepped confit duck legs to make Confit Duck Spring Rolls for my Mum when she visits us from Wexford for lunch tomorrow to be reunited with her only great grand child. That recipe came from Tom Walsh my good friend who is chef at Samphire@theWaterside in Donobate.
To confit the duck legs I simply dried them out at room temperature, tucked some cloves of garlic, star anise, rosemary and thyme around them, seasoned them with salt and pepper and covered them with melted duck fat. I slow-roasted them in the oven at 120 degrees for 5 or 6 hours until the meat was melting off the bone. I allowed them to cool until the duck fat had set and gently prised them out of it, saving the infused fat for glorious duck roast potatoes. Confit Duck Hash
Over the weekend I had been reading Niamh Shield’s beautifully written blog post Duck Confit Hash for Sunday Breakfast on eatlikeagirl.com. Her “recipe” posts are much more than that – they are an ode to the sensuous pleasure of home-cooked food. This one reads like a dream of the perfect Sunday breakfast.
So here I was on a Monday night with left over duck fat roast potatoes, two spare confit duck legs, a glut of flat leaf parsley in the garden thanks to the mild winter, organic eggs from my sister-in-law, a jet-lagged son and daughter in law and a grandson who likes nothing better than to gnaw on the bone of a duck leg. The combination was just irresistible.
Taking Niamh’s advice via Twitter – you will find her @eatlikeagirl – I reheated two of my confit duck legs in the oven this morning by starting them at 170 degrees C and crisping off the skin at 230 degrees C. After that I followed her recipe – sautéing two thinly sliced onions slowly in duck fat in a large, deep frying pan until caramelised, then whacking up the heat and adding in chunks of roast potatoes and shreds of duck meat and crispy skin. When it was all nice and crispy I created spaces for the eggs and broke them in to cook until set. A scattering of sea salt and parsley and I had a reasonable approximation of Niamh’s creation.
What’s more Shan and Shane loved the dish and the recipe will travel back with them to China to Shan’s MaMa, completing a circle that began with a little girl fishing for larvae to feed a sick hen. Food and travel and love merge together in mysterious ways.
I always wanted to cook for a crowd at Christmas. With just two children in our household, the day was sometimes on the quiet side and I would glance with envy across the road to where our neighbours had uproarious parties until the early hours – charades and karaoke – while we dozed in front of the fire, sleeping off enough food to feed a cast of thousands. I used to feel tempted to rush out into the streets to rustle up a crowd but the most I ever served for dinner was six and one year it was just the two of us. I still produced the full Christmas dinner but it just didn’t seem quite right.
Well this year my dream looks set to come true in more ways than one. Santa is to make a return visit to our house for the first time in over 20 years, to do the needful for our little grandson’s first Christmas. Dermot, now aged 10 months, is arriving next Sunday from Beijing with his Mum and Dad, but that’s only the start of it. The following weekend eight of his Chinese aunties uncles and cousins and his Chinese Nai Nai join us to celebrate Christmas, Shane and Shan’s wedding and Dermot’s christening. And as if that’s not enough, our daughter Claire and her Welsh husband Mike, who have just acquired Australian citizenship, will arrive on Christmas Eve, Claire’s first time home for Christmas Day since she emigrated to Sydney six years ago.
But it’s not just a matter of cooking for Christmas Day. For most of Twelve Days of Christmas I will need to put together a meal for 18 people or more and make sure everyone has somewhere to lay their head at night. My excitement is building to fever pitch and planning has reached a nearly obsessive level as I make my lists and check them at least twice so that I can be well-prepared and able to join in the fun. As it’s Shan’s family’s first trip outside China we want to give them a real taste of an Irish Christmas and wedding but with a few touches that might make them feel a bit more at home.
So here’s the plan so far. Day 1 – 23rd December – Chinese welcome buffet in Shankill
Shan’s relatives will arrive in the early evening, tired from their long-haul journey and we will have a Chinese meal ready for them before they transfer to Duncannon in Wexford – Beer Duck, Gong Bao Chicken, Braised Pork and a nice selection of vegetable dishes to ease them into the newness of Ireland. Day 2 – Christmas Eve in Duncannon
Oh and maybe some Jamie’s Italian Meatballs because it has been our family tradition for Claire to cook these on Christmas Eve whenever she is at home. She will be on the meatball detail. Day 3 – traditional Christmas Day dinner
The works, but cooked 0n the Big Green Egg. I’ve had a practice run at cooking this for 17 in October and know I can pull it off if nothing goes wrong. Here’s the menu. Day 4 – Lá le Stiofain
Cook will be on strike but there will be lots of leftovers and perhaps we can rustle up the turkey version of Bang Bang Chicken I never got to make last year. Day 5 – Pizzas on the Big Green Egg
I figure if Shan’s MaMa could teach me how to make dumplings, I can return the favour by showing our visitors how to make pizza dough using Birra Moretti. Some of the pizzas we will bake on the Big Green Egg are in these blog posts – Lamb and Aubergine Pizza with a nod in the direction of the Old Silk Road with more typical italian toppings here. Day 6 – Wedding Day
The 28th December, is Shane and Shan’s wedding day so the cook gets the day off , we all head for my hometown Wexford town to be joined by a much wider group of family and friends. Eunice Power will do the cooking in a unique Irish/ Asian fusion feast. Yeah! Day 7 – Morning After BBQ Shane and Shan’s friends from Beijing will be descending on an unsuspecting Duncannon and we will put together a casual BBQ including some typical Chinese street food to feed them all up before they adjourn to a local hostelry. The Big Green Egg and our old gas barbecue will be on the go all day. Cook will attempt to stay awake. Day 8 – A Great Big Stew
This is the day we all return to Dublin so that our Chinese guests can sample some of the treasures of our capital city and environs. It’s also the day Claire and Mike will leave to visit Mike’s family in the UK. A VERY kind friend has volunteered to make a very large stew for me that day which we will serve with lots of vegetables and mash. Day 9 – New Year’s Eve Buffet
I was a bit stuck for ideas as to how best to celebrate ringing in the new year so I used up my Rewarding Times voucher for Donnybrook Fair Cookery School yesterday and learned from my good friend Robert Jacob how to put together a New Year’s Eve buffet with bling. Sorted! Now all I have to do is cook it. Day 10 – New Year’s Day Dumplings
We will greet the New Year in the manner familiar to our Chinese guests by making jiaozi. I’m hoping my guests will get stuck in when they come home from sight seeing and we can have a dumpling party. Lots of recipes for fillings are here. Day 11 – Hotpot
Lot’s of coming and going planned for this day with a few side trips from Dublin so the meal will have to be easy to prepare – I’m thinking of variations on the hotpot I prepared for Claire’s friends last year.
The following day our visitors will spend the night in Kilkenny enjoying the hospitality of the Pembroke Kilkenny and an Italian meal at Rinuccinis. That day is also the first anniversary of my mother in law’s sad passing so it will be important for us to take some time out from the celebrations. It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly a year since I wrote this grief-numbed post about her – In Memory of Alice. Day 12 – A Farewell Banquet at China Sichuan
Our guests return to Dublin to pack for their long trip back to Beijing, Shanghai and Urumqi. What better way to end their visit than with a farewell meal at China Sichuan Dublin. I’ve no doubt that Kevin Hui and his team will give them the send off they deserve with a unique Irish take on the tastes of home. Shane, Shan and Dermot get to stay on in Ireland for another few weeks so we will have time to re-group with them and absorb the memories of what promises to be a most extraordinary Christmas. Table Talk at Donnybrook Fair
Now about that New Year’s Eve buffet, well Robert Jacob’s class yesterday was an inspiration and great fun too. He has a lovely, relaxed teaching style and it wasn’t just the food but his ideas for presentation that made this class special. Thanks to him my party menu will go something like this:
Cherry Red Gazpacho with Prawns
Maple Syrup and Mustard Glazed Wexford Ham
Smoked Haddock Leek and Gruyere Tart
Winter Pear and Goat’s Cheese Salad
Crab Salad with Goatsbridge Trout Caviar
Remoulade of Celeriac and Green Apples
Carrot and Broccoli Salad
Blingy Chocolate Chestnut Log
Peach and Raspberry Mock Trifle
That was a lot learnt in a four hour class. The chefs at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School including Niall Murphy and Robert put on a great selection of courses and they have lots of interesting guest chefs and food writers too. I want to attend them all!
In fact Robert and I are collaborating on a Discover China evening on 18th January. It will be Part 1 of their new Table Talk series. I will talk about Chinese food, he will cook recipes from the blog and dinner will be served afterwards. The honeymoon couple Shane and Shan will still be in Ireland so they will come along to share some of their insights and reminiscences about the food of Shan’s homeland. it would be lovely to see some of you there.
You can find out more about the classes here on DonnybrookFair.ie. It’s a great website for last minute Christmas gift vouchers for the food lover in your life.
Enjoy the run up to Christmas lovely readers. I will pop in from time to time to report on progress and the inevitable mishaps.