My daughter Claire sent me a random morning thought from Sydney earlier this week. It read “Most people’s first word of the year is ‘happy'” – a cheerful notion evoking images of clinking glasses and reminding me of our celebration of the arrival of 2015 in Australia and, more recently, of Shane, Shan and Dermot’s first Chinese New Year in Ireland.
On those rare occasions when I’m in Australia at the start of a New Year I have my own special way of marking it. I head to the Royal Botanic Gardens before I return home to find the “I wish” statue. There can hardly be a more beautifully located botanic gardens on this earth, perched as they are over Sydney Harbour and providing a still place, a peaceful escape from the noise and searing summer heat of the city and a breathing lung at its heart. The simple sculpture I go in search of is by Czechoslovakian artist Arthur Fleischman and has been in the gardens since 1946 where it marks the site of the first Wishing Tree.
The first time I stumbled on my wishing girl was on a visit to Sydney in 1999. That was long before I had a daughter living in Australia or a son in China and I doubted I would have an opportunity to return to Australia in my life time. But something about the simple sense of yearning the statue conveyed struck me like a powerful memory of the future and I tried to capture it in a tiny photo that has sat ever since on my window ledge in Duncannon.
Since then, as my children’s lives took their own twists and turns, my wishing girl has become a symbol for me of the conflicted emotions of longing for home and missing those we leave behind in an adopted country. I’ve returned to Sydney several times and each time I seek her out, touch her cool stone and pause in the still shade that surround her to reflect on what is important in my life right then. This January my prayers were many and heartfelt… that Claire will have a safe delivery of a healthy baby in April and enjoy the happiness of motherhood… that Shane, Shan and Dermot will settle into their new life in Ireland despite missing the family and friends they leave behind in China… and for well-being for other friends and family important to me.
Fast-forward to early March and Claire’s baby is due just seven weeks from today. The waiting, wishing and hoping have become an urgent knot in the pit of my stomach. At the same time I’m adapting to the joy of having SS&D living just down the road and the ordinary, extraordinary pleasures of grand-parenting. It’s time to start writing the blog more regularly and to capture the moods and moments of a special time.
One of my best memories of our Christmas/ New Year trip to Australia is of ringing in 2015 at Culburra Beach on the South Coast of New South Wales while celebrating our son-in-law Mike’s birthday which falls on new Year’s Eve. We had decamped down there to two beach houses overlooking the ocean where dolphins cavort in the evening sun – our house was called “Sea La Vie” while Shane, Shan, her MaMa and Dermot were down the road in “Time to Unwind”. Various friends of Claire and Mike, couples with young children, had taken other apartments nearby and the combined New Year and birthday celebrations were held on our deck.
For a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend a New Year’s Eve with all of us together including Shan’s MaMa, it seemed fitting to import some Chinese new year traditions into our celebrations. So Shan and MaMa took charge and put together a Chinese inspired barbecue which featured platters of Chinese pot-sticker dumplings, lamb chuan’r kebabs flavoured with cumin and chilli and Yunnan style, barbecued whole barramundi fish. The boys manned the barbecues in true Aussie style.
Dumplings symbolise good luck, fortune and family togetherness. They are served as the first meal of the New Year and before members of a family depart on a journey to remind them that family wraps itself around you wherever you are. This time MaMa made up two kinds of filling – traditional pork and cabbage and beef with carrot. – She, Shan and Shane wrapped the dumplings at their house and brought them along in tray loads for me to cook pot-sticker style just before serving. You will find lots of similar dumpling recipes on the blog starting with the link here.
MaMa’s delicious lamb kebabs combined the excellent flavour of Australian lamb with the the spices of her home town in Urumqi – the diced lamb was marinated in onion and tomato and scattered with cumin and chilli before serving. We will try them out on the Big Green Egg soon.
My contribution to proceedings was to make the desserts. The birthday cake, a special request from Mike, was a chocolate cheese cake. I used this recipe by Nigella Lawson and also made a back up Chocolate Ripple Cheesecake from a Mary Berry recipe and a large summer berry pavlova.
But it was Shan’s barbecued fish which was the highlight of the meal. As Shan says:
“Having a whole fish at the Chinese New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day is very important. It has an auspicious meaning that sharing a whole fish with one’s family will bring luck and fortune to the whole family for the coming new year. This is because Chinese word for fish ‘yu‘ has the same pronunciation as the word ‘abundance’. It is important to have the whole fish including the head and tail which means a good year from start to end. Superstition really but it is so common that people don’t even think about it, it is just a ‘must have’ dish for new year or any big family reunion events.” Another part of the tradition is that the whole fish is never turned over on the plate once served because of the negative association with the turning over of a fishing boat and flipped fortunes.
Shan calls her fish recipe Yunnan Xiang Mao Kao Yu. Yunnan is a province in the very South West of China which shares a border with Burma,Vietnam and Laos, hence you see lemon grass, a common ingredient in South East Asian countries in this dish. Xiang Mao is the Chinese word for lemongrass, Kao means barbecue or grill, Yu is fish.
Now that spring is in the air here in Ireland and it’s time to dust off your barbecue or Big Green Egg, I thought you might like to experiment with Shan’s recipe. It doesn’t have detailed measurements for its ingredients. Chinese cooks don’t work that way so Shan has written down below the principles of what she did and the rough amounts of ingredients she used. Feel free to play around with it until you get the balance of flavours that suits your preference and liking for chilli heat.
Belated happy Chinese New Year from myself and Shan – xin nian kuai le – 新年快乐 Shan’s Yunnan Barbecued Lemongrass Fish – Yunnan Xiangmao2 Kao Yu – 云南香茅烤鱼 Serves 3 – 4 as part pf a multi-course meal
A whole sea fish with a body length of 25 to 30 cm (body length excludes head and tail), gutted and scales removed but leave the head and tail intact – you can ask your fish monger to do this bit for you.
For the stuffing
3 sticks of lemon grass
2 packets of coriander
1 big chunk of ginger (3 thumb fingers size)
4 spring onions
½ of a bulb of garlic
2 green chillies (depending on the spiciness of the chilli and your personal preference, use less or more)
The above measurements are indicative, the aim is that you have enough mix to stuff the whole fish, in its body and slits on both sides. For cooking
2 banana leaves large enough to wrap the whole fish neatly, preferably in two layers.
Wash the fish clean then cut slits at 3 cm intervals on both sides – this is for stuffing the seasoning mix into slits so the whole fish body absorbs the flavour, if you are testing with a small thin bodied fish, then this procedure is not necessary.
Peel away the tough outer layer of the lemon grass, trim your spring onions and peel your garlic. Then finely chop all the stuffing ingredients and mix in a bowl, add salt. You will have to taste the mix, the flavour you are aiming for is robust, wild flavour dominated by coriander, lemon grass, garlic and ginger, spiciness is personal preference. And it should tastes almost a bit too salty.
Stuff the mix inside of the fish’s body and into the slits on both side of its body; you want the stuffing to pack the fish well. Wrap tightly with banana leave and tie up the parcel with thin slice of lemon grass (preferred) or cotton thread.
Leave the fish to marinate for 20 mins; flip it when after 10 minutes so pressure from its weight will marinate both sides evenly.
Cooking and serving
Heat your barbecue or Big Green Egg to high on direct heat.
Put your fish on the open fire grill for about 5 mins on each side, depending on the heat of your barbecue. The indicator for ‘done’ is that the fish’s body has collapsed on both sides hence looking much more flatter than before and the banana leaves are burnt but still protecting the fish.
Serve it on a platter and allow your guests to unwrap the fish and help themselves, oohing and aahing as the perfume of the stuffing escapes from the package.
Fresh water fish can also be used in this recipe but it usually has a muddy taste and more bones. In Australia we used Barramundi fish. A whole salmon could also be used.
Shan would suggest making the mix slightly less salty if you are using sea fish, as they tend to taste a tiny bit saltier the fresh water fish. Add black pepper into the mix if you are a pepper lover!
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
Autumn has arrived in Duncannon. It announced itself with a drop in temperature of 10 degrees, a cutting breeze that slices in from the sea and a cold drizzle forming puddles on the deck of our little yellow house.
The beach is quiet, just the occasional walker and his dog. Families have left their mobile homes and holiday houses and returned to their towns and cities. The Sandy Dock has served its last lemon meringue pie of the season, ending my summer ritual of coffee and cake after a long Sunday walk. The sand blows in drifts up the tiny main street, caught by the unexpected wind and hiding in corners and doorways as if trying to escape its fate. An occasional fishing boat docks at the harbour and unloads its catch, seagulls wheeling overhead. And suddenly, unexpectedly, the sun comes out again for a few minutes as if to say “Hello, fooled you there didn’t I!”
I love this time of year in Duncannon when the village is returned to its residents after the bustling trade of summer. The sand-scupltors and the kite-surfers have gone along with the knot of youngsters perched on the wall over-looking the beach eating ice creams from Peggy’s shop, the tables sprawled out onto the footpath outside Hal’s bar as friends drink pints and listen to the Sunday sounds of GAA matches echoing from within, the teenage girls, always in groups, wandering the beach road in shorts and sunburn, the cars parked bumper to bumper on the beach forming make shift wind-breakers as the sand gets into sandwiches and infants toddle the long trek to paddle at the water’s edge, the chatter, laughter and music from Roches’s Bar. All is now quiet.
Now is the time for us regular “blow-ins” to savour the silence, the ever-changing light and cloud formations over Hook Head, the walk interrupted only by a tractor bringing in the last of the harvest. Now is the time to layer up for the winter, cranking up the heating for a few hours when we arrive rather than rushing to open dormer windows to let the stuffy, warm air out and donning a rainproof jacket over an apron to cook outside on the Big Green Egg. Because I am determined that cooking on the Egg will be a year round thing, come hail, rain, shine or snow. It has to be. There won’t be room to cook the Christmas turkey inside this year with the entire family home including 10 visitors from China so I’d better get used to it.
So yesterday evening, when we arrived in Duncannon in the dark and rain, I put a cedar cooking plank in water to soak for an hour along with the broken up charred bits of the first Cedar plank I had used, lit the Big Green Egg and tried out a new recipe with the last of the wild salmon of the season.
I adapted the recipe from one I found in a book called Slow Fire by Dr. BBQ, that I had downloaded on Kindle, and served it with potatoes baked on the BGE and stir-fried tender-stem broccoli. The salmon, slow cooked at low temperature was a deep pink in colour and had picked up just a hint of smokiness from the cedar. It was firm but flaking and tender. The sweet, sour, salty, sticky glaze enhanced the delicate flavour of the fish and had us scraping the plank it was served on to savour every last drop. You can serve the plank straight to the table, just have something heat proof ready to rest it on. It makes for a dramatic and attractive presentation.
Whenever I give a Big Green Egg recipe I will suggest an alternative way of cooking it that doesn’t require access to an Egg. You could cook this recipe, for instance, on any BBQ that has a cover at any time of the year – just keep the temperature low and the time slow for the best result – and of course you can use any good quality salmon fillets. Leftover glaze will keep in the fridge and would also work well with pork and chicken. Planked Salmon with Soy Honey Glaze Ingredients
1 cedar cooking plank*
4 salmon fillets – about 600g to 700g in total
For the glaze
125 ml hoisin sauce
2 tbs light soy sauce
2 ½ tbs runny honey
1 tsp sesame oil
Soak a cedar cooking plank for at least one hour (Butler’s Pantry recommend soaking theirs overnight).
If you have a cedar plank that is charred from previous use, break it up into pieces and soak some of those pieces in water for at least an hour – this will enhance the hint of wood flavour in the salmon.
Prepare the BGE for direct heat with the stainless steel grid and pre-heat to 120C. I used plain lumpwood rather than oak on this occasion so as not to overpower the delicate flavour of the wild salmon. When at temperature add a handful of the soaked cedar pieces allowing a little extra time for it to come back to temperature.
Drain your plank and place your salmon pieces on the plank, skin side down and evenly spaced. Salt them lightly. Place the plank on the grid, close the BGE and cook for 30 minutes. You can pop scrubbed potatoes on the grid around the plank at the same time.
Meanwhile make your glaze by combining all the ingredients and mixing well.
After the fish has cooked for about 30 minutes, brush with a thick layer of the glaze, coating evenly. Cook for another 20 minutes.
Spread more glaze over evenly and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes until the fish is firm.
Serve immediately on the plank (although any leftovers also taste delicious cold).
Mix the stock and soy sauce in a small bowl and set aside.
Heat about a tablespoon of oil in a wok over a medium-high heat and stir-fry the broccoli for about one minute to coat with oil.
Clear a space in the middle of the broccoli and add a dash more oil. Add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry for about 30 seconds to release their fragrance before mixing in with the broccoli.
Add the stock and soy mixture to the pan, bring to a simmer, reduce the heat and cover. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes until the broccoli stems are tender but still firm.
Remove the broccoli to a bowl with a slotted spoon and reduce the remaining liquid over a high heat to about 2 tablespoons. Add back the broccoli to heat through briefly. Turn off the heat, add a teaspoon of sesame oil and the sesame seeds (if using) and toss before serving in a warm dish.