Barbecue Joe comes to Cloughjordan House

It’s strange the way good things happen. On Friday afternoon last, a quiet weekend in prospect, I dropped into The Corkscrew on Chatham Row and spotted that signed copies of Neven Maguire’s MacNean Restaurant Cookbook were on special offer for €15. I hopped on Twitter to broadcast this good news – this great cookbook includes lots of the recipes that feature in Neven’s latest series on RTE in which he makes his more complex dishes accessible and gives you the confidence that you can recreate them at home. At that price his book is a steal and includes recommendations for wines to match the recipes which you can pick up at The Corkscrew. But I digress…
I don’t usually visit Twitter at that time on a Friday afternoon but skimming through my time line I spotted a tweet from @sarahbakercooks with a competition for a free cancellation place at a barbecue class at Cloughjordan House the following day. Now I’ve been meaning to visit that cookery school for some time so the prospect of a barbecue course, just as I need inspiration to get going on my Big Green Egg for the summer season – was enough to make me willing to drop everything and re-arrange my weekend. And so when Sarah tweeted later that evening that I had won the place I did just that and headed off at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning to North Tipperary. Derry came along to take the photos.

"Hmm is any of that for me?"
“Hmm is any of that for me?”

The course was given by Brendan of BBQ Joe who specialises in low ‘n slow cooking. Ireland being such a small place it turned out that I had met Brendan once before when he was restaurant manager at Sheen Falls in Kenmare. He has now re-invented himself and caters for weddings and other large events, cooking the best of Irish produce on his own custom built charcoal grills, smokers and pits. Watch out for him later this year when he barbecues on a grand scale for visiting american footballers and their fans.
I was delighted when we arrived to discover that he would be cooking on a Grill Dome. This Kamado style ceramic barbecue is very similar in concept and performance to the Big Green Egg so I felt right at home. I remain devoted to my Egg but it’s great to know that there are alternative products on the market that fulfil a similar function.
This was Brendan’s first cookery demo and I loved his relaxed and informal style as he shared his passion for barbecuing and the tips and insights he has picked up as he builds up his business. He has travelled widely to study techniques in places as different as Texas, Turkey and Georgia.  He works alongside professional chefs but brings his own un-cheffy and intuitive approach to producing tasty food for sharing.
Picking up a tip or two
Picking up a tip or two from a master

Brendan took some time at the beginning of the class to talk about different types of charcoal fuel and ways of lighting your barbecue – a “weed burner” has been added to my wish list as a result. He confirmed that it’s important to use the best quality lump wood charcoal you can get hold of – the heavier and denser the better. I’ve been using Big Green Egg Organic Lump Charcoal and Big K Restaurant Charcoal with good results. Both are available for delivery from A Room Outside in Limerick. Brendan also encourages the use of local wood shavings as a way of adding flavour – a handful of oak wood shavings or left over wood chips from whiskey barrels from your local distillery can work wonders. My next door neighbour in Duncannon left me in a bag of oak wood shavings  recently which I will now put to good use.
Then he spent some time on the basics of putting together a good BBQ Rub and BBQ Sauce as well as how to prepare a Charcoal Salt which is a nifty way of adding a little delicate charcoal flavour to your meats.
Micro-planing a little charcoal into the salt
Micro-planing a little charcoal into the salt

First up in the cooking, Brendan showed us how to prepare pulled pork – that quintessential barbecue dish beloved of Texans. While it cooked away low and slow, and Brendan explained the internal temperature “plateau” at around 70 degrees c which scares the wits out of most wannabe BBQ chefs the first time we encounter it, he produced one he prepared earlier (as all good cookery teachers do!) and showed us how to serve it in buns mixed with barbecue sauce and layered with a fresh crisp coleslaw including fennel and some paprika mayonnaise. That was our brunch – or breakfast in my case.
Pulled pork in a bun
Pulled pork in a bun

The edge taken off our appetite we went on to prepare rib eye steaks on the bone, each about 6 cms thick. We seasoned them simply with charcoal salt, cooked them over high direct heat, flipping them often and rested them on a board dressing of oil, parsley, pepper, garlic and chilli. The trick here lay in the quality of the well-aged steak and simple seasonings that allowed the flavour of the meat to come through.
Now that's what I call a steak
Now that’s what I call a steak

Or three..
Or three..

All dressed up and ready to serve
All dressed up and ready to serve

We tried out a few other dishes to prove the point that barbecues don’t have to be all about expensive meats. A pork bomb made with minced pork and stuffed with sauerkraut and wrapped in a bacon lattice held its shape beautifully and worked well with barbecue sauce.
Unwrapping the pork bomb
Unwrapping the pork bomb for the BBQ

Easing the pork onto the BBQ
Easing the pork bomb onto the BBQ

Pork bomb stuffed with sauerkraut
Done – pork bomb stuffed with sauerkraut

Chicken koftas made with thigh meat were glazed with pomegranate molasses and served with a satay sauce and some tzatziki.
Rustling up a satay sauce
Rustling up a satay sauce

Prawns and chorizo made an eye catching kebab needing little more than lime juice and zest to dress them.
Prawns and chorizo ready to cook
Prawns and chorizo ready to cook

Salmon was cooked skinless on a buttered tray and drizzled with flavoured honey and red pepper corns or lime to add a little flavour.
Salmon two ways
Salmon two ways

In barbecues the focus is firmly on the protein with side dishes playing a supporting role but we prepared portobello mushrooms with a filling of baba ganoush made from barbecued aubergine which would keep many a vegetarian happy. It can be teamed with haloumi cheese and roasted peppers for a more filling vegetarian option.
Aubergines roasting around the pork for baba ganoush
Aubergines roasting around the pork for baba ganoush

Portobello mushrooms on the grill extender
Portobello mushrooms on the grill extender

Side dishes were designed to add colour and we made a mango salsa and feta and watermelon salad that provided a light and refreshing contrast to the main event.
Mango salsa
Mango salsa

All through the day Brendan shared great tips such as using half an onion on a fork dipped in rapeseed oil, star anise, bay leaf and peppercorns as a “brush” for your grill, using apple juice and cider vinegar as a spray to moisten your meat, oiling the barbecue not the meat, cleaning your griddle with a wedge of lime, making board dressings… all of these will stay with me as I experiment in the coming months and try to develop my own personal style. “Taste and correct” will become my BBQ mantra. He taught us how to make the best use of space on the grill and sequence our dishes so that we got the maximum value from our charcoal.
As the day wore on and we got chatting to the other participants on the course, I was chuffed to discover that Greg from the nearby eco-village in Cloughjordan had used my recipe for turkey on the Big Green Egg to prepare Christmas dinner for his family and friends and it had worked for him too. Sometimes when you write a food blog you wonder if anyone out there is reading it and it’s so lovely to meet someone who has stumbled on it when googling for a recipe. Thank you Greg for making my day.
Cloughjordan House Cookery School is a very pleasant space in which to work for and is particularly popular as a venue for transition and fifth year students  where cooking is combined with gathering fresh produce from the community farm. The main house is 400 years old and also offers bed and breakfast and a wedding venue. Some of the participants in the course had stayed over the night before and I look forward to returning for a more leisurely visit and a taste of Sarah and Peter’s hospitality.
Thank you Sarah and Peter of Cloughjordan House Cookery School and  Brendan of BBQ Joe for a great day out and lots of inspiration to which I hope to give a Chinese twist in weeks to come.
Meanwhile to whet your appetite here’s Brendan’s basic recipe for BBQ Sauce which can be adapted to personal taste. For instance you can spice it up with chilli powder if you wish
BBQ Joe’s Sauce
Ingredients

  • 2 cans tomatoes
  • 20ml worcestershire sauce
  • 45g castor sugar
  • 50g treacle
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 30g barbecue rub (use your personal favourite)
  • ½ tin of pineapple drained
  • 150ml apple cider vinegar
  • 160 ml water

Method
Combine all ingredients in a pot. Bring to a simmer over gentle heat to ensure the sugar has dissolved. Blitz with a hand blender to a smooth consistency.
 

Dumpling Pop-Up on the Eve of the Year of the Horse

Pan-fried Jiaozi
Pan-fried Jiaozi – Photo: Solange Daini

It’s the Year of the Horse , the Wood Horse to be precise. According to China Sichuan it will be a time of fast victories and unexpected adventure, a great year for travel when energy is high and productivity is rewarded, a year when decisive action brings victory. You have to act fast in a Horse year but be careful not to gallop. My daughter in law Shan is a “Horse”. This will be an auspicious year for her, she will wear something red every day to bring good luck.
This year I was more conscious than ever of the importance of the Spring Festival to Chinese people wherever they are in the world. On January 30th, New Year’s Eve, Shane, Shan and Dermot were back in China, enjoying dumplings with the Gao clan in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province. Claire was celebrating her birthday in Sydney and eating jiaozi at Din Tai Fung. I was preparing dumplings in Dublin Business School. Three continents – one world.
I was feeling the absence of my off-spring on the other side of the world on the day when all Chinese people, wherever they are, mark the importance of family. A random email from Anne who lectures in marketing at Dublin Business School had diverted me from melancholy thoughts. Would I make dumplings for her class of 2o students who are volunteering for the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival, she wondered, as the college wanted to mark the Spring Festival.
Now I love making dumplings but I’m still only learning and wasn’t confident about my ability to do a live demonstration. So I asked my friend Wei Wei to help. Wei Wei lives here in Ireland with her Irish husband Oisin. She was Shan’s bridesmaid at their wedding in December.  She has her own blog Wei Wei’s Chinese Kitchen and has been cooking since she was a young girl in Tianjin.
We got together  in my house the night before and prepared some jiaozi and fillings. I loved working alongside her and hearing her stories of growing up in China and how her family celebrate the New Year. Last year she had spent the holiday with them and, like me, she was missing her family. You can read her blog post about Chinese New Year here. Wei Wei is a natural, intuitive cook and I learned a lot just from watching her work.
At 11:00 on New Year’s Eve morning we set up our pop-up stall in the Common Room in Dublin Business School in Castle House in Dublin. In a weird coincidence, this was the same open-plan space where I had my first desk as a very young civil servant in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners back in the early 1970s. The memories came flooding back. How strangely the years turn.
It was Fresher’s Week and the group of marketing students quickly morphed into a much larger crowd of hungry young people who caught the aroma of jiaozi cooking. Our little stall was overrun. Mao Restaurant supplied platters of spring rolls and other appetisers to keep the hunger at bay. Some of the students rolled up their sleeves and set to helping us meet the demand. The Chinese girls among them proved to be a dab hand with the cleaver but we also had help from Vietnamese, Irish and other students willing to learn how to roll out and fill the dumpling wrappers.
My photographer friend Solange Daini was on hand to capture the atmosphere. A small selection of her photos is below  – click on them to see the full image.
By 3 pm Wei Wei and I had prepared hundreds of dumplings, boiled, pan-fried and pot-sticker style. We used five fillings in all. Wei Wei had prepared her special “Three Treasures” filling of egg, prawns and Chinese chives and another of beef, carrot and onion. I made Shan’s First Auntie’s recipe – Da Gu’s ‘ pork, Chinese cabbage and star anise – as well as my two favourite  Black Sesame Kitchen Fillings – vegetarian tofu, carrot, shitake and lamb with cumin and Sichuan pepper. You will find another of  Wei Wei’s dumpling recipes here as well as her special dipping sauce.
Our last customer was one of the lecturers who had heard rumours filtering through the college of strange goings on in the students Common Room… and free food.
We were tired at the end of the day but I felt a real sense of satisfaction at being part of a global Chinese celebration of family, friendship and good food. It was a fitting way to enter the Year of the Horse.
Thank you Wei Wei, Solange, Anne and the students of Dublin Business School.
The Spring Festival continues for two weeks and you will find recipes every day on the Taste of China section of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival website.
Chun jie kuai le – happy Spring Festival.
Ma dao chong dong – wishing you success in the Year of the Horse.

Making Chinese Dumplings (jiaozi) from Scratch – an unlikely cure for jet-lag

It was a gloomy November Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after I had arrived back from Beijing. Winter had sneaked up on Ireland while I was away, the evenings were closing in and there was a noticeable nip in the air. I was jet-lagged and disoriented, my head and heart still drifting between two worlds, seeing in my mind’s eye the now familiar rituals of Shane, Shan and Dermot’s Sunday afternoon.
I took refuge in cooking. I made two large batches of dumplings while catching up on the episodes of Downton Abbey that I had missed. As I punched and kneaded the dough and found the rhythm of rolling out near perfect discs, I felt the connection with my family and the world I had left behind in Beijing. Cooking is therapy.
It was Li Dong on 7th November, the first day of the Chinese winter. As if on cue, the weather in Beijing had changed from a balmy 17 degrees to a sharp, dry chill in bright sunshine. Legend has it that if you don’t eat dumplings on Li Dong, your ears will fall off when the cold snap comes. I was taking no chances and tucked in with gusto to Shan’s MaMa’s pork, cabbage and shrimp dumplings served with her  homemade chilli paste.
The previous day I had attended a dumpling class at Black Sesame Kitchen. This was my third dumpling class. I had been to one at Hutong Cuisine in March and another led by the chefs at China Sichuan in Dublin during the last Spring Festival. But you can never learn enough about making dumplings and every class brings it’s own tips and tricks plus some lovely new recipes for fillings. Besides dumpling lessons are great fun and a great way to make new friends over a glass of Chinese beer (loosens the dumpling wrapping skills I’m told!) as you compare your misshapen efforts. I came home with left-over dough which MaMa turned into noodles for Dermot’s dinner. No waste in China, ever.

Dumpling fun at Black sesame Kitchen
Dumpling fun at Black Sesame Kitchen

Now back in Dublin, I wasn’t taking any chances on the falling off ears thing (it wouldn’t be a good look for the wedding!) and I also wanted to put the techniques into practice before I forgot them again. Continue reading Making Chinese Dumplings (jiaozi) from Scratch – an unlikely cure for jet-lag

Gong Bao Chicken

One of the many things I love about a trip to Beijing is the chance to attend a few cookery classes, pick up new recipes and tips and improve techniques under the watchful eye of a professional Chinese chef. This recipe for Gong Bao chicken from my recent visit is so good that I feel like taking to the streets with a placard and megaphone to encourage everyone to try it. It has to be one the tastiest and best value winter warmers around and perfect for the coming cold snap. But first a bit of the back story on the recipe. Continue reading Gong Bao Chicken

Food Fit for an Emperor – Pine Nut and Beef Stir-fry

My grandson is 7 months old today and I’ve found a good reason to visit Beijing in late October. Not that I need much of an excuse with him growing bigger by the day and a yearning to be with him that is almost a physical ache at times. The other day, as I passed though St. Stephen’s Green in the fading evening light, I spotted a woman of about my own age making cooing sounds at her tiny grandchild, their faces close together, while her daughter looked on with a smile. I felt a rush of envy and empathy as I remembered pushing Dermot past the same spot in a buggy in June, on his brief visit home, proud of my new found status as Nai Nai.
So my ticket is booked, I will stay with Shane, Shan, MaMa and Dermot in their new apartment and attend an event called the Beijing Forum while I’m there. I will get to know Dermot all over again and marvel at how he has grown and how his unique and bubbly personality has revealed itself in the months since I last got to hold him. I can understand how cosseted boy-children in China come to be known as “little emperors” but I’m hopeful that the level-headed rearing provided by Shan, Shane and MaMa will mean that he will avoid the risks associated with that particular label.

Just Dermot

If I’m lucky, in between working and Nai Nai duties, I will sneak in another cookery class at Black Sesame Kitchen. I attended a couple of classes there when I visited Beijing to meet Dermot for the first time in March this year. One featured Imperial Chinese Cooking – the complex and sophisticated dishes that were produced within the walls of the Forbidden City, food deemed fit for an emperor. I wrote about the experience here.
Beijing doesn’t have its own clearly identifiable cuisine – it is a melting pot of cuisines from several of the regions of China – but it is influenced most by lu cai, the great regional cuisine of the North, the food of emperors and courtiers, refined, rich and expensive, and by the sweet, soy dark braises of the regional cuisine of the East –  huai yang cai. In that north eastern climate, vegetables were in limited supply in years gone by, especially during the winter months, so the emphasis was on enhancing the flavour and texture of food through taking care with the size and shape of limited ingredients, tenderising the meat, adding rich sauces and using dried ingredients when fresh were unavailable. In the cooler north, leeks are still used as a substitute for spring onions to make up the holy trinity of ginger, garlic and onion.
Imperial cuisine lacks the fiery punch of the food from Sichuan and Hunan provinces or the lightness of touch of Yunnan or Canton food from further south, but the techniques I learned that day amazed me with their ability to lock in flavour with a limited number of fairly straightforward ingredients.
With Beijing on my mind, I set about recreating one of the Imperial dishes at home last weekend. The pine nut and beef stir fry below is not a difficult recipe but it is a little time-consuming to prepare. I imagine the Imperial Kitchen had any number of chefs delighted to have the honour of preparing the Emperor’s dinner, even if he was a tiny child. If, like me, you are on your own in the kitchen, make this dish on an evening when you are in the mood for the rhythmic pleasure of the precise dicing and slicing involved – the ingredients are all cut into 1 cm cubes – and for the taking the time to “velvet” the beef.
“Velveting” the beef  is an interesting technique. It involves adding a little salt to the meat, then gradually mixing in nearly half its weight in water with your hand until it is fully absorbed and finally mixing in cornflour and egg white. This step takes quite a bit of time. Do it patiently and don’t attempt it when you are in a rush. It wont work. This I know…
The process of “velveting” tenderises the meat which is then deep fried at a low temperature (120C) to lock in the flavour and moisture and leave the beef soft rather than crisp. The result is a delicate, tender texture which absorbs the flavours of the sauce when mixed with the fast-fried vegetables. I find flank or bavette steak ideal for this dish but you could substitute sirloin or fillet if it is unavailable.
Chef Zhang “velveting” the beef at Black Sesame Kitchen

I had not expected this dish to taste nearly as good as it did. In fact it has that umami quality that leaves you wanting to pick at  the leftovers until every last morsel is devoured and, in my case, to jump on a plane to Beijing.
Try it and enjoy.
Pine Nut and Beef Stirfry – Songren Niurou Mi
Pine-nut and beef stir-fry

Ingredients

  • 8 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 500g flank steak/bavette of beef
  • ¾  tsp salt
  • 200 ml water
  • 2 heaped tbs cornflour
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 small green pepper
  • 1 small red pepper
  • 3 tsp each minced garlic, ginger and leek
  • 3 tbs oyster sauce
  • 90 ml water or stock made with the water drained from the shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 ½ tbs light soy
  • 3 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 ½ tsp sugar
  • ½  tsp  white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp chicken bouillon
  • ¼  tsp salt
  • 3 heaped tsp cornflour mixed to a paste with water
  • 3 tbs deep-fried pine kernels*
  • Groundnut, sunflower or rapeseed oil for frying and deep-frying

Preparation

  1. Soak the shiitake mushrooms in hot water for about 20 minutes to reconstitute.
  2. Dice the beef into 1 cm cubes and “velvet” by adding salt, then beating the water in with your hand a little at a time.
  3. Once the water is fully absorbed, add the cornflour to coat all the pieces of meat thoroughly. Finally add the egg white and coat the meat thoroughly.
  4. Dice the red and green pepper into 1 cm cubes. Remove the stalks from the reconstituted shiitake mushrooms and dice into 1 cm cubes. Finely mince the leek, garlic and ginger.

Cooking

  1. Add enough oil to a large wok for deep frying and heat to just 120C. Spread the beef into the oil, separating the cubes with choptsticks or a ladle and cook for about 1 minute until cooked through. Remove the beef  from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  2. Empty all but a tablespoon or two of oil from the wok and, over a medium high heat, add the leek, ginger, garlic and oyster sauce and stir vigorously for 10 seconds.
  3. Turn up the heat to high, add the peppers and shiitake mushrooms and  stir-fry for 20 seconds.
  4. Add the cooked beef and toss for 20 seconds.
  5. Add in the pine kernels, reserving some for garnish
  6. Add the water/stock, soy sauces, sugar, pepper and chicken bouillon and let bubble for 20 seconds.
  7. Ladle in a tablespoon at a time of the cornflour mixture, mixing after each addition until the sauce is thick and glossy.
  8. Serve immediately, garnished with the remaining pine kernels and with steamed rice.

Final stage of cooking in the wok

*Note:
To deep-fry the pine kernels, put a few cups of oil in a wok, add in the pine kernels, then slowly bring the temperature up to low and then, over the next few minutes to medium low. Keep stirring for about 3 minutes until the pine kernels have turned a light golden colour, then remove with a slotted strainer and drain on kitchen paper. They will continue to cook for a few moments when you take them out of the oil so take them out when they are slightly lighter than done. Alternatively roast the pine kernels in a low oven for about 20 minutes. They will keep in an airtight container for a few days.
 

Flavours of China at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School

Happenstance… Don’t you just love that word…
Back in April I was at the Leinster Regional Awards of the Restaurant Association of Ireland and I got talking to this very nice guy, a professional chef who has worked in Chapter One and the Dylan Hotel and was formerly a fashion designer. After a few minutes chat I realised that he – Robert Jacob – was the chef who had taught me knife skills at a class last year and he figured out that I was writing the blog he enjoyed and whose recipes he had delved into and experimented with at home. We followed one another on Twitter but had never met or made the connection. Robert writes his own blog which you can read here.
Fast forward to 3rd July and he and I had put together a night at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School where he teaches. I talked about Chinese food and tried to give some insight into the flavours of China, the main regional variations, how Chinese food must indulge taste, smell, sight and “mouth feel” as well as satisfying the appetite, and some of the traditions and health giving properties associated with Chinese food.

The Regions of China

Meanwhile Robert demonstrated five recipes from my blog. Now I have to admit to having been a bit nervous. There is no way I would have the confidence to cook those recipes at a demonstration myself – some fingers might go missing while I gesticulated as I talked – but handing over the recipes to a professional was a bit like letting your baby out to play for the first time or your teenager off to her first disco.
Robert demonstrates his knife skills with Miss Henckels knives – photo by Irene

We had great fun choosing which recipes to use from over 100 posts on the blog. Robert opted for the ones below and you can try them yourself if you haven’t already. The links  to the recipes are included.

  • Crispy Chilli Beef – a real favourite on the blog which can also be made with chicken – hard to put a region on this one but it probably emerged as a western variation on a Sichuan dish – a takeaway favourite with a more traditional and lighter twist.
Crispy Chilli Beef – photo courtesy of Marie McKenna
  • Xinjiang Lamb with Cumin and Red Onion – very evocative for me of my visit to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province to meet my daughter -in -law Shan’s family last July. That’s the region in the far north west of the map above and it’s capital is the most inland capital in the world.
  •  Hunan Steamed Fish with chopped salted chillies – a simple and fragrant dish from one of the spicier regions of China where Chairman Mao hailed from. You will spot it in the south east/ central part of China on the map.
Hunan Steamed Fish – photo courtesy of Marie McKenna
  • Sichuan Fried Green Beans – the dish that tickled my taste buds and started me on this blog – a perennial Sichuan favourite from the spice bowl of China – you will see it there in the map located in the south west of China, steaming in it’s inland heat.
Sichuan Fried Green Beans – photo courtesy of Marie McKenna
  • Dan Dan Noodles also from Sichuan Province – because no Taste of China would feel right without this unique, flavoursome Chinese fast-food, the kind of thing you can rustle up late at night when you’ve arrived home with the “munchies”.

We also shared the recipes for Tom Chef’s Chilli Jam and also Homemade Chilli Oil – two condiments I now can’t do without in my store cupboard.
Needless to say Robert handled the demo with a lovely relaxed style, adding his own touches to some of the dishes, and the attendees seemed to have lots of fun and enjoy the food. Two of my good Twitter friends were there – Marie McKenna (@Maud Monaghan) and Irene (@MissH_Ireland) with her great Henckels knives. They took photos and a small selection of them feature in this post (thanks ladies).

Job done – thanks for the photo Irene!

So another Shanaingans first for a blog that will only celebrate its first birthday on Monday next 29th July. Thank you Robert and Donnybrook Fair for the fun and the opportunity and thank you all who have encouraged me and kept me going in my first year. I’m told most food blogs don’t last this long.
I’m still marvelling at how many new friends I’ve made, how much I’ve learned and how many extraordinary experiences I’ve had, all as a result of a random conversation with my son Shane last July… yes… happenstance…
As an indirect result of the blog I attended dinner at the Chinese Ambassador’s Residence in Dublin last night. My friend Brendan Halligan told the story of an essay competition in Ancient Greece, a very serious challenge where philosophers were asked to write on the theme “what do you know?”. There was much frenetic writing but Aristotle was the first to put down his pen. He won the prize. His essay was short. He wrote “I know.. that I know… nothing…”
When it comes to Chinese food I still know “nothing”, but perhaps a little less of nothing than this time last year.
Thank you all,
Julie
 

Shananigans Crispy Chilli Beef Gets a Makeover

I’ve been going through the blog this weekend to decide which recipes to include in the Taste of China Demo at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School on the evening of Wednesday 3rd July when chef Robert Jacob will cook a selection of Chinese dishes while I talk through the techniques of Chinese cooking and regional variations in cuisine.
Robert is one of the great “foodie” friends I’ve made through the blog and Twitter. He was a fashion designer before he became a chef and has worked with Ross Lewis in Chapter One and Paul Kelly in The Merrion. You can read Marie Claire Digby’s recent True Character profile of him for the Irish Times Magazine here. Before we got to know one another I attended a course he gave in knife skills so I owe any ability I have to dice and slice to him.
It’s a real privilege to team up with Robert for this class which is a first for Shananigans.
It’s less than 11 months since I started the blog and it’s always intriguing to see what recipes readers return to again and again. It gives me particular pleasure when I discover that one of the many lovely people I have met though the blog has taken one of the recipes and given it her own twist.
The crispy chilli beef recipe that I posted last November has been consistently one of the most popular recipes. Before I started the blog I would occasionally order something similar from the local Chinese takeaway but I always regretted it afterwards because it left me feeling heavy and bloated. So I had set out to create a lighter version at home using egg white and potato flour for the batter which makes it suitable for coeliacs and the wheat intolerant.
One of my most supportive readers Marie McKenna has taken the recipe a step further by adding pak choi. Sometimes she substitutes chicken for the beef or adds whatever other vegetables she has to hand. She sent me the two photos below of her results which I have reproduced with her permission.
I made crispy chilli beef for dinner for last night and we really loved the addition of the pak choi so I’ve tweaked the recipe to include it and made a few other minor changes. Thank you Marie for the inspiration and the photos. That’s what these recipes are for – to be shared and adapted.
Shananigans Crispy Chilli Beef – Xiang ciu niu rou pian – 香脆牛肉片

Photo courtesy of Marie McKenna
Serves 3 – 4

Ingredients:

  • 400g sirloin steak or bavette of beef
  • 2 egg whites, beaten
  • Good pinch of salt
  • About 4 tbs potato flour
  • A pinch of baking powder
  • Oil for deep frying – use good quality sunflower or groundnut oil
  • 2 carrots cut into thin matchsticks
  • 2 heads pak choi, root removed and trimmed (optional)
  • 2 spring onions thinly sliced at steep angles
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 2 red chillies, de-seeded and thinly sliced at steep angles
  • About 80 g caster sugar
  • 3 tbs Chinese black vinegar
  • 2 tbs light soy sauce
  • Roasted sesame seeds (optional) to garnish
  • Coriander (optional) to garnish
  • Rice to serve

Preparation:

  1. Cut the beef into slices against the grain and then into thin shreds.
  2. Dip in the egg white and mix with your hand, leaving it to rest for a few minutes.
  3. Mix the potato flour with salt and baking powder.
  4. Drain off any excess egg white and dip the beef strips in the flour mix, shaking off any excess.

Cooking:

  1. Blanch the carrots in boiling water for one minute,
  2. Fill a wok quarter full with oil and heat to 180 degrees (or until a piece of bread fries golden brown in 15 seconds).
  3. Add the beef quickly, stirring using long wooden chopsticks, a Chinese “spade” or a spatula to separate the strands. Cook the beef for 3 – 4 minutes, stirring to keep the strands separate, until it is really crispy.
  4. Remove with a mesh strainer or slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.
  5. Pour the oil from the wok leaving about 1 tbs.
  6. Reheat the remaining oil over a medium/high heat. Stir fry the pak choi, if using, for a few minutes until wilted. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a warm serving dish
  7. Add another small amount of oil to the wok and re-heat over a medium/high heat.  Add the spring onion, garlic and chilli and stir-fry for a few moments to release the aromas.
  8. Increase the heat to high, add the beef and carrots and stir to mix and heat through.
  9. Add the sugar, soy sauce and vinegar and stir to combine and dissolve the sugar. When heated through and bubbling, serve on top of the pak choi, if using.
  10. Garnish with coriander and/or lightly toasted sesame seeds, if using, and serve with steamed rice.

Variations:

Photo courtesy of Marie McKenna
You can use almost any steak in this dish. At the start I used to use fillet steak but it is not necessary to have such an expensive cut. I find bavette of beef (also known as flank steak), which is available at good butchers, is a drier cut which responds particularly well to this recipe. It is also much better value. Sirloin works well and last night I used rib eye because I had two left over from a BBQ during the week.
Chicken thigh or breast can be used instead of beef and the chicken strips will take a little less time to cook.
Chinkiang Chinese black vinegar is readily available in all Asian supermarkets here and in some good grocers. It has excellent flavour. Last night I used aged Chinese vinegar – lao chen cu – which I brought back from Beijing. It is the type used as a dipping sauce for dumplings in China. The result was tangy and delicious. If you cant get hold of Chinese vinegar, use aged balsamic vinegar. The result wont be quite as authentic but it will still taste good.
If you are not using pak choi, you could serve this with a green vegetable such as steamed tender stem broccoli, or add a few green beans or broccoli florets to the stir fry.
 

Hunan Steamed Fish – duo jiao zheng yu

There’s beginning to be a rhythm to Sunday mornings since I came back from China. With the arrival of summer time, it’s the best time of the week to catch Claire and Shane on Skype. Today one is returning from a Sunday afternoon swim in Icebergs at Bondi in temperatures of 28 degrees, the other is out catching some fresh air in his local Beijing park in the early Spring sunshine.  Hurry up Shane as Sunday morning is also the time for my weekly glimpse of Dermot, noting the changes I cant pick up in photos, watching him react to the sound of our voices and focus on an iPad screen with interest and hoping he still remembers us.

Shan and her MaMa playing pingpong

While I wait for my Skype “slot”, I reflect on the week gone past, revisit notes, photos and memories of China and Australia and write.
Today I’m thinking about the way the chefs in a Chinese kitchen sing out cong, jiang, suan – spring onion, ginger, garlic – like a rhythmic hymn throughout the day, so fundamental are these three ingredients to many Chinese dishes.
When I grew up in Wexford in the 1960s, we used to call salad “lettuce and leeks”. I was embarrassed when I got to Dublin in the early 70s to discover that  I was officially a “culchie” and what I knew as “leeks” were actually scallions or spring onions. Leeks were a different thing entirely and a vegetable I had not come across before. (Yes, our vegetable selection was that limited in those years. The most exotic vegetables I knew were carrots, parsnips and cabbage.)
I was amused to discover that in Beijing the terms leeks and spring onions are also used interchangeably. That’s because, until transport systems improved, the colder north had a very limited range and supply of vegetables for most of the year and finely chopped leek works as a good substitute for the more seasonal spring onions used further south – a very handy discovery if, like me, you find spring onions hard to keep fresh at this time of the year. The frugal Chinese will always use the cheapest substitute readily available.
One of the recipes I learnt at Hutong Cuisine which uses this trinity of  cong, jiang, suan is duo jiao zheng yu, a simple, healthy way of steaming fish with an added kick from pickled chillies. In Hunan the dish is made with enormous fish heads from a river fish such as bighead carp – yong yu – because these are regarded as a delicacy and the tastiest part of the fish with lots of interesting textures. In her Revolutionary Cookbook, that bible of Hunan Cuisine, Fuchsia Dunlop talks about how this dish was all the rage in Changsha when she lived there. Waiters would emerge from kitchens bearing enormous steaming platters of fish heads flecked with scarlet chilli, black bean and spring onion.
Our cookery teacher in Beijing, Chunyi who trained in Chengdu in Sichuan province, despairs of westerners who throw the fish heads away but she did allow us to make the dish at cookery class with a river fish fillet.
Hunan Steamed Fish at Hutong Cuisine

The magic ingredient is chopped salted chillies – duo la jiao – which has a hot, sour, salty taste and a beautiful red colour. I brought some back from Beijing but the good news is that the same brand is available in the Asia Market for just a few euro.
TanTan Xiang

Last weekend we were in Duncannon on one of those rare pet spring Saturdays. We detoured from an 11 km walk to pick up some fish, fresh from the sea, at Fish Ahoy in Arthurstown. Late in the day beautiful, firm cod fillet  and haddock was what they had left. I tried the recipe below on the cod  and loved the way it enhanced rather than smothered the flavour of the fish. I served it with Sichuan fried green beans and salt and pepper cauliflower.
I baked the fresh haddock fillets on Monday brushed with homemade chilli oil and served them scattered with a little ginger and spring onion. Simple and delicious.
The Hunan steamed fish recipe below is from Hutong Cuisine. Fuchsia Dunlop’s version of this dish is on page 167 of Revolutionary Cookbook and uses whole lemon sole, gutted.
Steamed fish with minced chilli – duo jiao zheng yu
duo jiao zheng yu Ducannon style

Ingredients
Continue reading Hunan Steamed Fish – duo jiao zheng yu

Sichuan Spicy Chicken Salad with Home Made Chilli Oil

I figure I’d better give you my lovely readers a few new recipes soon or you will begin to think that this is less of a food blog and more “The Ramblings of a Besotted Nai Nai”. So to start with here are two I practised at Hutong Cuisine in Beijing – Sichuan spicy chicken salad and homemade chilli oil.
I learned such a lot from the lovely Chunyi and Chao at Hutong Cuisine. Their cookery school has a cosy, personalised feel as if you were in your Granny’s kitchen – if your Granny was Chinese and lived in a courtyard house in a hutong that is! Claire and Mike also attended a class there and were equally impressed.

The team at Hutong Cuisine

Once I got over jetlag I relished getting back into the kitchen at home at the end of a busy day although I miss using a gas hob and the ease with which you can tell on sight whether you have the “fire heat” correct. I had discovered that the single biggest mistake I was making in my Chinese cooking was the assumption that “high heat = good” and I have been over-using the boost function on my induction hob as a result. In nearly every new recipe I learnt, the trick in releasing flavour lay in cooking the oil over moderate or gentle heat. Already this has begun to transform the results.
Take home made chilli oil for instance – la jiao. Many Sichuan recipes call for a tablespoon or two of chilli oil with sediment and a dash of it can enliven milder Cantonese dishes. Up to now I’ve been making do with bottled chilli oil from the Asia market but not any more. The recipe below can be prepared and cooked very easily and bottled to use when required. Once tasted there is no going back to a shop bought Chinese version. So when I had a sudden longing for a Friday evening Sichuan kick and a fix of Dan Dan noodles, it was as good a time as any to make up a batch so that I could use some in the sauce.
Home Made Chilli Oil la jiao

I used a good quality organic Irish rapeseed oil to make this as I love its flavour and I guessed its rich golden colour would become a beautiful shade of red as it became infused with the spices and seasonings. Crushed chillies, picked up on my expedition to Jiang Tai market with qing jia mu, added flecks of colour, texture and sediment to the oil. (At cookery class we used vegetable oil and ground chilli powder). This oil will keep indefinitely in an airtight jar.
Ingredients: Continue reading Sichuan Spicy Chicken Salad with Home Made Chilli Oil

Food fit for an Emperor at Black Sesame Kitchen

Many years ago I used to be involved in leadership training and we talked about the four stages of learning a new skill and how you progress from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence” to “conscious competence” to “unconscious competence” – think of it like learning to drive a car where you reach a point where it becomes second nature.
I thought about that today when I attended my last cookery class in Beijing this time around – back to Black Sesame Kitchen for a lesson in preparing Imperial Chinese dishes. Imperial cooking is not a regional style of cooking but more a technique – the more complex style of preparation used for the royal family. It was the 8th cookery lesson I have taken in the last 3 weeks, not to mention the few impromptu ones I have had from my Quin Jia, Shan’s MaMa which are ongoing – tomorrow we go shopping together to the market and supermarket, armed with my pinyin shopping list, for ingredients and utensils to take home to Ireland.
When I used to teach leadership skills, the tacit assumption was that you moved seamlessly up the skills ladder. What you tend to forget is that sometimes you have to go backwards before you go forwards and over the last few days there were times when I felt right back at the “conscious incompetence” stage when it came to Chinese cooking.
I came out on this trip to China thinking that I was almost getting the hang of it. I’ve certainly developed a feel for the culture, an understanding of the food and ingredients, the importance of balance in the Chinese diet, the relationship between food, health and medicine and the regional variations. I recognise the importance of careful preparation and was even beginning to think I could cook quite well.
But over the past few days it came home to me just how much more I have to learn about technique, whether it’s to improve my cutting skills with a cleaver, get precision into shapes and sizes, judge the temperature of oil in the wok, get the correct consistency when “velveting” meat, balance the seasoning of a dish or simple wok skills to move and flip the ingredients correctly around the wok.

The speed of the wok master in action

Now Imperial Chinese dishes would not be top of my list of sought after Chinese cuisine – they lack the fiery punch of Sichuan, Hunan and Shanxi provinces or the lightness of touch of Yunnan and Cantonese food. But I was interested in the techniques involved in their preparation and what I could learn that would translate to other dishes I prepare so I was delighted when a last minute cancellation meant there was a space for me at today’s class.
Once again it was Chef Zhang who did the cooking, as on my first visit to the school two weeks ago to learn about cooking with colour , and we were led though the class by Candice Lee. We diced and sliced and prepared three dishes fit for emperors of old.
Ingredients ready for class action

Fried Shitake and Coriander Stir-Fry – suchao shansi
I loved the meaty texture of this dish made with rehydrated dried shitake mushrooms. I noted the attention Chef Zhang paid to squeezing all the excess moisture out of the mushrooms and how he judged the temperature of the oil to be just right at 140 degrees C and not too hot.
Deep-frying shitake mushrooms

Straining off the mushrooms

The addition of shredded carrot and bamboo shoots, minced leek, ginger and garlic, a little chicken bouillon, black vinegar and coriander made this a tasty dish whose simple ingredients belied the effort involved in putting it together.
Chef Zhang and Candice serving up the mushrooms

I felt the urge to add a dash of homemade chilli oil and black vinegar to the final dish.
Pine Nut and Beef Stir-Fry – songren niurou mi
The trick in this dish involved cutting the beef into cubes of less than 1 cm and “velveting it”, adding salt and then water a little at a time, up to half the weight of the beef, beating it in with your hands and then cornflour and eggwhite.
Chef Zhang “velveting” the beef

This time the beef was cooked in the oil at 120 degrees C – judging the temperature of the oil is more an art than a science but if you add a few drops of water in with the oil at the beginning at least you will know when it has reached 100 degrees C as the oil will have stopped spitting. In this case the reason for the lower temperature was to have the beef soft and tender rather than crispy and to lock the flavour and the moisture in.

 Finely diced red and green peppers were added in for just a few seconds before the beef was strained off.

Straining off the beef and peppers

The usual trio of leek, garlic and ginger were added as well as shitake mushrooms, soy sauce, oyster sauce and roasted pine nuts.
Final stage of cooking in the wok

Pine-nut and beef stir-fry served

This was a tender and delicately flavoured dish which helped me understand the impact of velveting the meat and how deep-frying does not necessarily lead to a crispy result.
Traditional Sweet and Sour Pork – tangcu liji
The last dish of the day was one I will certainly be making when I get home. It had none of the gloopy texture of the cloying, ketchup based sweet and sour dishes with added pineapple chunks that I’ve sometimes had from Chinese takeaways. The sweet-sour flavour derived simply from sugar and black vinegar.
I was interested in this dish too because it was an approach to deep frying to create a crispy result that is similar to the one I use for crispy chilli beef which is based on recipes I had read in cookbooks but had never seen demonstrated in practice.
Pork mixed in a thick batter

The first thing that I noticed was that the wet, chalky cornflour batter used was thick enough to stand on its own for at least 3 seconds before collapsing. Next was the way Chef Zhang used his fingers to add the pork pieces little by little to the wok. There is a specific Chinese term for this particular type of stir-frying. The oil was heated to 140 degrees C for this phase of cooking.
Chef Zhang adds the pork…

… piece by piece

Chef used a ladle to separate the pieces after about 30 seconds when the batter had hardened.

Once the pork pieces were golden brown he strained them from the oil.
Crispy pork strained off

Then he made a simple sauce with the usual minced leek and garlic (no ginger in this recipe), vinegar, sugar, cornflour and water mix and a little soy sauce and the pork was added in to coat.
Traditional sweet and sour pork

You can balance up the sweet and sour by adjusting the ratio of sugar to vinegar to taste and with a hint of soy.
I am contemplating how I will adapt this recipe to beef although Candice says it is traditionally used with pork, chicken or camel hump. I will also be tempted to play around with the addition of chilli. Definitely not the stuff of emperors but it could be fun.
I picked up a couple of copies of Serve the People – A stir-fried journey through China at Black Sesame Kitchen today. It is the memoir written by Jen Lin-Liu who founded the school and tells of her own journey of discovery of food in  China as a young writer and journalist who had grown up in America to Chinese parents. I’ve started into it and it makes me wonder once again how baby Dermot will make sense of the complexities in his mulit-racial, mixed identity world. I love the scope it will give him to explore his world.
Chef Zhang, who features in the book, autographed both copies of the book for me and I will have one as a prize when I come back next week. Meanwhile I will return to Ireland at the weekend determined to put into practice at least some of what I have learnt about Chinese cooking over the last few weeks and with lots of recipes to blog and adapt. I just wish there was a Chinese cookery school in Dublin where I could keep on learning.

Thank you Candice and Chef Zhang of Black Sesame Kitchen.

See www.blacksesamekitchen.com – Imperial Dishes

Morning classes 10.00 – 1.00 pm, price 300 rmb (about €37) per person