That little ray of sunshine who is my grandson has gone back to China leaving an 0.84m high void in my life and a host of fresh memories. Shane, Shan and Dermot returned to smoggy Beijing the Friday before last. Cue a few days of moping and feeling like a lost soul without my little sticking plaster, a few days of (secretly) relishing a quiet and tidy house and a few more of re-grouping and getting back into the thick of my normal working life.
This last visit was special for the time I got to spend alone with Dermot while his Mum and Dad took a brief and very belated honeymoon and for the chance to get to know his quirky sense of fun, his ability to mimic and, even at this early stage of his life, to poke fun at himself and us. So some of his expressions have already become catchphrases in our house – the way he says “no, no, no” shaking his head ruefully when confronted by something he wants to do but knows he is not allowed to, such as dismantling the contents of a shelf of DVDs, his particular take on “myum, myum” when relishing a new food, his perfect take-off of my niece Jodie’s “atchoo”, head flung back as if he too had hair nearly down to his waist, his hopeful “chu?” at the prospect of going out.
It took a few days of listlessness before I could get into the cooking vibe again. It’s somehow easier to motivate yourself to cook for a bigger gang. But as I leafed through my latest cookbook – Grace Young’s Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge – I came upon a recipe for squid and remembered I had some in the freezer, purchased from Roberts of Dalkey which I had planned cooking for Shan but never got the chance.
Grace’s book is gorgeous. A professional food writer who grew up in a traditional Chinese household in San Francisco, she has always been fascinated by the alchemy of the wok. In this wonderful blend of stories and recipes she traces how Chinese emigrants have carried their recipes and their woks with them around the world and how stir-frying has evolved using the ingredients to hand, wherever the emigrants find themselves, so that their culture perseveres but subtle distinctions emerge in the cooking. She describes the book as being about the “universal longing for home” – a longing understood by everyone who leaves their homeland behind whether by choice or necessity, a longing felt by all of us who know that home is where our heart is, not necessarily where we live right now.
I understood that longing keenly when I talked late into the night recently with my lovely Chinese daughter-in-law about what it will mean to her to re-locate here to Ireland next year, believing that it is best for Dermot but knowing it will mean leaving behind her world, her family and her friends. It seems to be the lot of our generation and the next to always have pieces of our hearts scattered around the sky’s edge.
Anyway I don’t think Grace Young will mind that I took her recipe for squid with black bean sauce, which she in turn got from Chef Danny Chan who has lived in America since 1966, and adapted it to give it a spicier Sichuan kick. There seems to be something fitting about a recipe travelling from China to America and back to Ireland to be tweaked by an Irish nai nai to serve to her Chinese daughter-in-law when she finds her new home from home here.
Sichuan Chilli Squid with Black Beans
Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as part of a multi-course meal
I’ve tried cooking squid before but have sometimes been disappointed that it has turned out tough. What I learned from Chef Danny via Grace is that marinating squid before cooking is not a good idea as it can make it chewy. It should also have only the briefest cooking time as it can easily become over-cooked and tough. The blanching technique in the recipe below means the squid needs only a minute or two in the wok. It also means you can have most of the preparation done in advance and stir-fry a reasonable quantity of squid in just minutes. The result when I tried this was tender and delicious and packed a heady Sichuan punch for good measure.
- 450g cleaned squid
- 2 tbs fermented black beans
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 spring onions
- 1 red chilli
- Small thumb of ginger
- 1 onion
- 1 red pepper
- 100g mangetout
- Sichuan pepper oil or groundnut oil plus a teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns
- Salt and white pepper
- 1 tbs of Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 tsp sesame oil
For the sauce
- 2 tbs chicken stock
- 2 tsp oyster sauce
- 1 tbs light soy sauce
- 1 tsp dark soy sauce
- ½ tsp cornflour
- Soak the black beans in warm water for a few minutes, then rinse.
- Peel and finely chop the garlic and ginger. Finely chop the spring onion – you want roughly the equivalent amount of each.
- De-seed and thinly slice the chilli. Peel and thinly slice the onion. De-seed the red pepper and slice into julienne strips. Slice each mangetout in two at a steep angle.
- Cut each squid tube in half lengthwise. Using your cleaver or a damascus chef knife. If you feel that your knife has lost its sharpness. I would recommend you check out the step-by-step guide on how to do this on the Choppychoppy website. Lightly score the inside of the squid in a criss-cross pattern at about 1 cm intervals. Cut the squid into 4 cm squares and the tentacles, if using, into 5 cm lengths.
- Combine 1 tablespoon of the chicken stock, oyster sauce and soy sauces in a small bowl. Combine the cornflour and the remaining tablespoon of stock in another small bowl and set both to one side.
- Bring a large quantity of water to boil in a saucepan over high heat and, when the water is bubbling, add the squid pieces and blanch for about 10 seconds or until the squid turns opaque and curls. Drain immediately and set to one side on kitchen paper to blot out any excess moisture.
- Heat your wok over a medium-high heat. Swirl in 2 tablespoons of Sichuan pepper oil (or ordinary cooking oil to which you add a teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns, removing the peppercorns as soon as they release their aroma).
- To the hot, flavoured oil add the black beans, spring onions and garlic, stir-fryng for a few moments to release their aroma. Then add the ginger, chilli and onion, stir-frying until they too release their fragrance.
- After about a minute, when the onions begin to wilt, add the red pepper and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds until the red pepper just begins to soften.
- Add the rice wine, swirling it around the sides of the wok. Then add in the squid and mangetout. Give them a quick stir-fry to combine with other ingredients then swirl in the soy sauce mixture and stir-fry for no more than a minute until the mangetout are bright green.
- Give the cornflour mix a quick stir and add it to the wok, stir-frying for about 30 seconds until the squid is just cooked. Remove from the heat. Drizzle over a teaspoon of sesame oil and serve immediately.
- Frozen squid tubes work very well in this recipe. Just make sure they are well thawed before use.
- You can get preserved fermented black beans in any Asian market but a jar of black bean sauce would also work in this recipe. Or you could use a chilli black bean sauce such as Laoganma and leave out the chilli pepper.
- For a less spicy dish you could leave out both the chilli and Sichuan pepper but you will be missing out on a umami kick.