It’s a girl! No not the gorgeous little princess born this weekend on the other side of the Irish sea but our very own Caitlyn Alice Bloor, our Katy, who arrived in a hurry four weeks ago today making an unexpected entrance into our world. Her early arrival in the suburbs of Sydney deprived her Mum, my daughter Claire, of pre-natal maternity leave and some much needed sleep but spared me three weeks of fretting, jumping at every phone call and wondering if every silence longer than 24 hours meant that something was stirring.
It’s a surreal experience when your daughter, your first born has her first born and a daughter of her own on the other side of the world. It brings up every memory of those early tentative days of motherhood, the nervousness and the joy, the exhaustion, the fretting and the wonder. More than 35 years dissolve into a rush of vivid memories of those first six weeks. Suddenly dislocated from the world of work into the foreign and at times lonely territory of being a beginner again with no script to work from, no “how to” guide that really prepares you for the challenge no matter how much you have longed for it, no matter how competent you have been in your professional career, no matter how supportive your partner. The powerful rush of love that sometimes comes like a thud to the heart and sometimes sneaks up on you over days or weeks until this little person feels as if she has always been there and you know she will never again be far from your thoughts.
Distance makes it all the more surreal, especially when this little girl has quite literally peopled your dreams for so long so that you felt you knew her before she was born, even before she was conceived and were so utterly certain she would be a girl that you feared how you might react if you were proved wrong. And yet you don’t know her. You’ve studied her photos, several a week, noticing that she is already beginning to lose the sleepy, new baby look. You’ve tried to make “conversation” with her on FaceTime realising that she can’t yet focus on your face on a screen but watching the way she tilts her head towards your voice, hoping she will recognise that voice when you get to hold her at last. And in some ways you are still more focussed on your daughter and all the new experiences she is going through than on this little person who is not yet quite real to you because you haven’t felt her slight weight against your shoulder or smelt her milky breath or the scent of the soft folds at the nape of her neck.
And so for the second time in a little over two years you pack your bags to traipse across the world to meet a new grandchild. You are a little bit wiser and more confident now that you’ve learned how to get to know a toddler grandson through FaceTime and intermittent holidays in a way that has provided the basis for you and Dermot being devoted to each other now that he is living just down the road. You are a little bit less of the rookie NaiNai and ready to be a Glammy Granny to a little girl. But still you are filled with nervous anticipation about how you will form a relationship with her.
Into your bags go a suitcase of gifts for Katy. Family and friends are unable to resist the urge to press a bit of pink or strong, vibrant colours, into your hands – “just a little something, it won’t take up much space”. And then there are the books because every child needs books and their parents need them to lull themselves and their baby to sleep long before she can understand the words.
Katy herself hasn’t had her big reveal yet. Her parents have her cocooned in a social media free zone, keen to keep her digital footprint to a minimum in these early weeks. Maybe if I ask really nicely they will let me share a photo when I finally get to meet her in person.
We arrive in Sydney at the start of next week just in time to take a little of the pressure off Claire and Mike, at least in the kitchen. I will travel armed with a folder of laminated recipes, some from the blog, some from Shan, some from favourite cookbooks. Since Dermot and I started baking together every weekend, I’ve been revisiting some of Claire and Shane’s childhood favourites – the taste memories of school lunches and the kitchen scents of batch-cooking weekends. I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of working with yeast and these yeasty granary baps made with a mix of spelt flour and barley and rye granary flour taste every bit as good as they did 30 years ago. I visualise myself serving them up to Claire for lunch filled with good things while she curls up on the sofa feeding Katy, passing on to her through Claire the nourishment and the traditions from one generation to the next in that most essential of ways, the making and breaking of bread. Granary Baps
Makes 16 Ingredients
450g granary flour
450g spelt light or wholemeal flour (or a mixture of both)
2 tsp salt
4 tsps fast acting dried yeast
300 ml warm water
300 ml warm milk
2 tbs malt extract
2 tbs sunflower oil
Spelt wholemeal flour for dusting
Mix the flours, salt and yeast together in a bowl.
Add the warm milk, war water, malt extract and oil to the flour and mix to a soft dough.
Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead for five minutes until smooth and elastic. Place it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with damp tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place such as the hot press for about 1½ hours until it has doubled in size.
Turn the risen dough onto a floured surface, punch it down. Knead it again for a few minutes and divide it into 16 pieces. Knead each piece into a ball then roll it into a 10 cm round and place on a floured baking sheet leaving plenty of space between them.
Cover each baking sheet with a light cloth and put in a warm, draught free place or back in the hot press to rise for about 30 minutes until they have doubled in size.
Meanwhile heat a fan oven to 220 degrees C. Dust the tops of the risen baps with a little flour. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes until they sound hollow when tapped underneath. Allow to cool on a wire rack.
It’s a waiting game now, waiting for grandchild number two to arrive in Australia as Claire spends her last few days in the office and prepares for what she hopes will be a few weeks of rest and calm before the onslaught of her baby’s arrival. We don’t know if its a boy child or a girl child, nor do we care. I just long for her to hold this much longed for baby safely in her arms.
I’ve never felt the distance between us so keenly; not during her first J1 Visa trip to the USA when I cried to her the night before she left (much to her amusement) over my lingering guilt at missing her first ballet display; not when leaving her behind in a dodgy apartment in London which we she shared with strangers and we had helped her clear of the detritus of other’s lives with many trips to the local tiphead; not when gulping back tears and fears after we waved her and Mike off on their round the world trip of a lifetime; nor wondering what she was doing or where she was at a given moment somewhere in the remote reaches of India or Cambodia or Vietnam; not when saying goodbye to her and Mike after our first visit to them in Sydney content that they had truly found each other in their quest for adventure in their lives and relieved that they would stay in one place for awhile, a place I could visualise in my mind’s eye, even if it was on the other side of the world; and certainly not when, six years later, celebrating their Australian citizenship from afar with pleasure and pride in the lives they have made there and that rueful awareness that our lives will be forever full of joyous reunions and tearful partings.
Nothing compares to this, this waiting game – the memories flooding in of her own arrival in this world; the visceral need to be there with her in spirit as she encounters motherhood for the first time; the vivid recall of driving home from The Coombe Maternity Hospital with her tiny, beautiful, swaddled and oh so dependent in a moses basket on the back seat of a mini and mine, mine, mine – mine to love, to worry about, to marvel at, to have an extraordinary mother daughter bond with for the rest of my life. Mine and yet not mine, very much her own person. About a year ago she sent me Tina Fey’s beautiful poem “A Mother’s Prayer for her Child” and I read it often these days, halting at the line “for Childhood is short – a Tiger Flower blooming Magenta for one day. And adulthood is long…” Be safe Claire and Bump and Mike. And Bump… now we just want to meet you and get to know you.
Somehow spending more time with grandchild number one – Dermot – is making the waiting and the distance both easier and harder. Easier because the fun of being with him several times a week is a joy completely unlike my recollections of early parenthood when the worries, insecurities and juggling of home and work life overlaid the unbridled pleasure of watching them grow and learn. If I could have scripted Dermot like a character in a novel when I started to write this blog nearly three years ago he would have had a love of food and cooking. But I dismissed that a wishful Nai Nai thinking, half expecting him to be the kind of child who would be picky about his food (like his Dad was!) and not in the least bit interested in goings on in the kitchen.
And yet… nature and nurture will out in strange ways and here he is, not long turned two, liking nothing more than pulling his little step to stand beside me at the butcher block and make cookies or help prepare dinner. Well ok cars and buses and trucks and bikes and aeroplanes and anything with wheels are this budding little master chef’s other preoccupations. But we’ve taken to having Nai Nai play dates once a week which consist of him “helping” me cook or bake. So far we’ve made ginger biscuits, flapjacks, prepared meat for the big green egg and filled turkish stuffed peppers. And at home with his Mum and Dad he has made bread from scratch and pizzas and cookies. For a little guy that rarely sits still for an instant when awake, his concentration in the kitchen and the precision of his movements and his glorious are a marvel to behold. He rushes to the door in glorious, garbled excitement to tell him Mama and Dada in his own unique Chinglish what he has just made. He even enjoys washing up, making sure every piece is thoroughly rinsed and clean before it it placed in the drainer. Ah well, what child doesn’t love the chance to play with water with adult approval. Let’s call it productive play rather than child labour!
While he busied himself with washing up our baking trays yesterday, I put together this fast beef curry for his Mum and Dad and Derry who were battling April showers on their way home from the city centre. My Twitter friend Siobhan sent me the recipe which she learnt recently on a visit to Gioan Cookery School in Hoi An, Vietnam. These days I’m constantly looking for new ideas to tickle Shan’s Asian tastebuds with echoes of her Chinese home but something a bit different going on with the warming spices of India and Thailand and the lemon grass tang of Vietnam. This quick and easy week night recipe certainly hit the spot on a wild and windy first day of April. Siobhan tells me that it tastes even better on day two – ours didn’t last long enough for me to find out. Thank you for sharing Siobhan and Claire I look forward to cooking it for you soon on a winter’s day in Sydney. Gioan Vietnamese Beef Curry
Serves 2 to 3 as a main course or 4 as part of a multi-course meal Ingredients
Slice the beef very thinly across the grain (you will find it easier to do this if it is chilled or lightly frozen) and mix it with the marinade ingredients.
Set the marinaded beef to one side for at least 30 minutes at room temperature.
Chop the onion into large chunks, thinly slice the carrot, slice each mushroom into thick slices.
Heat a tablespoon or two of cooking oil in a medium hot wok. Add the onion, carrot and mushroom and stir-fry for about one minute until softened.
Increase the heat, add the marinated beef and stir-fry for about one minute until the beef changes colour.
Add the boiling water and peas and allow to cook for about 2 minutes over a high heat until the sauce thickens and reduces slightly.
Serve with boiled rice.
Notes and options
Siobhan prefers to make this recipe with thinly sliced chicken fillet which is equally delicious.
Her recipe specified the smaller quantity of vegetables. I doubled the amount to cater for Chinese and our tastes. Go with your instincts, just don’t overcrowd your wok. Mushrooms are optional.
Tinned tomatoes or tomato puree or paste can be substituted for fresh tomatoes in the marinade.
I used Thai red chilli paste and organic vegetable stock. Use what ever you have in your store cupboard. I will also try this recipe with coconut milk instead of condensed milk to see what impact that has on the Thai/ Vietnamese flavours and to cater for dairy free preferences.
It was the Friday night before Christmas, the fire glowing in the grate, the Late Late Show on in the background. An ordinary pre-Christmas Friday night, except that for us it was not. It was to be our last night in front of the fire this Christmas, unless you count barbecues. The following day we set out for Sydney to visit our daughter Claire and her husband Mike and to meet up with our son Shane, Shan, Dermot and Shan’s MaMa who had arrived there a week ahead of us from Beijing.
Instead of attending to the last of the packing, I was pulling together a folder of recipes I could cook on the barbecue or in the wok while I was in Australia. I started this blogpost that night and haven’t had a moment to finish it since. Sometimes living life to the full eats into the time for blogging.
A dish that I cook often is Kaffir Lime Chilli Prawns. I got the recipe from Chi Asian Takeaway in Galway when I was researching recipes for the Taste of China section of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival Website in 2013. It is a light, fresh-tasting, vegetable rich dish that reminds me of the kind of Asian fusion dishes I’ve sampled in Sydney so I brought the recipe with me.
Fast forward a fortnight and here we are in the steamy heat of a suburban, summer Randwick evening. Christmas day is already a happy memory. We spent five days over the New Year holiday at Culburra beach in southern New South Wales. Now we are back in the Sydney suburbs and, as an antidote to the copious quantities of barbecued meat we’ve eaten in recent days, we had an Asian feast this evening of prawns, di san xiang(earth three fresh), stir-fried Chinese cabbage with chilli and ma po dou fu. Shan cooked the three Chinese dishes and you will find links to recipes for them above. I made a big platter of the prawn dish. Shan’s MaMa declared the meal hao chi – good food.
I’ve many tales to tell of our adventures in the southern hemisphere and of our Australian, Chinese, Irish celebration of Christmas and the new year. Now that I am back in a wifi zone I am hoping to catch up with a few blog posts in coming days.
Meanwhile I hope you enjoy the recipe below as much as we did and happy new year to all my lovely readers. I hope you continue to enjoy the blog in 2015. Kaffir Lime Chilli Prawns
Serves 2 as a main course or 3 – 4 as part of a multi-course meal Ingredients
18 large prawns, peeled, de-veined and slit from head to tail
Two slices of root ginger, peeled and finely chopped
½ onion, peeled and finely sliced
1 – 2 red chillies finely sliced
a stalk of lemon grass, white part only, finely chopped
½ red pepper, finely sliced
8 mange tout
10 green beans, halved
8 cherry tomatoes
8 kaffir lime leaves
groundnut or sunflower oil
For the sauce
2 tbs Sri Racha hot chilli sauce
2 tbs tomato sauce
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
8 tbs water
1 tsp cornflour
pinch of sesame seeds
A few sprigs of fresh coriander
A handful of roasted cashew nuts
Preparation and cooking
Mix the ingredients for the sauce and set aside.
Heat up a wok and add a few tablespoons cooking oil. Once the oil gets very hot remove it from the heat source. Add the chopped ginger, onions, chillies and lemon grass and quickly stir them in the hot oil.
Return the wok to the heat and add the red pepper, mange tout, green beans, cherry tomatoes, kaffir lime leaves and prawns. Continue to toss in the wok.
As the prawns begin to firm up and turn pink, give the sauce a quick stir and add it to the wok, all the time stirring and tossing. Once the sauce has thickened turn off the heat.
The dish is ready once the prawns are cooked and nicely pink. The whole process usually takes less than 5 minutes. Garnish with fresh coriander and roasted cashews and serve immediately with steamed rice.
Around about this time last year I was preparing for a very unusual twelve days of Christmas as we awaited the arrival of my daughter in law Shan’s family from Urumqi in Xinjiang Province, China to celebrate her and Shane’s wedding and Dermot’s christening at the end of December. My daughter Claire and her husband Mike came home from Australia to join us, making last Christmas a special time and, with the benefit of hindsight, hectic, exhausting and great fun in almost equal measures.
This Christmas will be different but no less special. This year we gather in Claire and Mike’s new home in the suburbs of Sydney with Shane, Shan, her MaMa and Dermot, to celebrate Dermot’s second Christmas.
As we head into 2015 the waiting takes on a different tinge. Claire and Mike are expecting their first baby in April and Shane, Shan and Dermot are coming to live in Ireland at the end of January. There, I put all that in one sentence but the bare words don’t do justice to the repressed excitement I feel at the prospect of those events.
This weekend we got our first proper glimpse of Claire and Mike’s baby in the making and it only seems like yesterday that we were looking at similar scans of little Dermot.
This weekend too, by complete chance and good luck, Shane and Shan found a lovely place to live, within walking distance of our house and Bray seafront. It means that instead of coming to stay with us for some indeterminate period, they can set up their own home straight away and settle into a new life here, swapping this….
It seems as if the stars are in alignment for my offspring just now and a positive force is at work in all their lives.
Thinking about Claire and Mike’s baby and my grandson coming to live nearby, I found myself re-reading older entries on the blog – my first letter to Dermot and Shane’s post about the day they moved apartment – and getting teary-eyed in the process. Time moves like an arrow as Shane says. Dermot has brought much joy and fun into our lives over the past two years despite the distance and I have to pinch myself to make real the thought that I will be able to see him much more often. This time around, with Claire’s child, I am more prepared for the overwhelming emotion a grandchild provokes but also more confident that it is possible to build a relationship with that little person long distance.
With all that is going on it is all the more special to have Shan’s MaMa with us in Australia, knowing that she will have to take on the role of long distance nainai soon. I have been trying my best to learn a few words of Chinese so that she and I can work side by side in Claire’s kitchen rustling up stir-fried vegetables to go with the protein rich “barbies” prepared by the guys to celebrate Christmas Aussie style while Claire sits back with her feet up and Shan looks after Dermot. Well that’s the mental picture I have anyway.
Which brings me, in avery roundabout way, to today’s recipes for stir-fried vegetables. When Shan and her family were with us last year, nothing went to waste in our house. Left over salad leaves were turned into stir-fries or added to fried rice or noodles. Vegetables were blanched and tossed in the wok with a few simple seasonings. It was Shan who introduced me to stir-frying lettuce. Any bag of mixed leaves that I had forgotten to serve with a steak ended up in the wok. Left-over broccoli or other vegetables got fried off with a little garlic and maybe a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil along the lines of my friend and teacher Wei Wei’s recipe for Sugar Snap Peas with Garlic.
The Chinese love to cook lettuce so I wasn’t a bit surprised to come upon a recipe for stir-fried iceberg lettuce in Grace Young’s cookbook The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. It makes perfect sense to me that Chinese immigrants to America would take the humble iceberg lettuce and treat it the way they would bai cai or other Chinese greens.
You will find Grace’s full recipe here on Food52.com or in her book which you can get on Kindle or from Amazon.com. But at its simplest this recipe involves frying off some sliced or chopped garlic in a wok in a little hot oil, wilting in a head of iceberg lettuce leaves and adding a some light soy sauce, sesame oil, Shaoxing rice wine and a pinch of sugar, salt and pepper. I also like to toss in some crumbled dried chilli peppers with the garlic. It really is that easy so play around with it to get the balance of flavours you like best and use up whatever left over leaves you have in the fridge.
Meanwhile back in my house my Chinese lessons with Wei Wei continue and she has also been teaching me how to cook simple side dishes of vegetables that can add colour and flavour to a meal. One such dish is her mushroom and pepper stir-fry. I’m sure she will post detailed instructions and pictures soon on her own blog Wei Wei’s Chinese Kitchen but here is the basic idea. Stir-fried Mushrooms and Peppers – 甜椒炒蘑菇 – tian jiao chao mo gu
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 spring onion
1 tbs light soy sauce
½ tsp sugar
Wash or wipe the mushrooms, blanch in boiling water and drain. (This step is necessary is so that the mushrooms will cook as fast as the peppers).
Slice the blanched mushrooms and cut the peppers into wedges. Cut the spring onion into sections.
Heat the wok, add 2 tbs cooking oil and when the oil is hot add the spring onion, stir-frying briefly until the flavour is released.
Add in the peppers and stir-fry briskly for about two minutes until they begin to char and. Add the mushroom slices and mix well. They will only need a minute or so to cook.
Season with soy sauce, sugar and salt to taste and serve immediately.
I look forward to Shananigans taking a Christmas detour to the southern hemisphere and to keeping you posted on some more culinary adventures.
Every time we travel to China we return a few pounds lighter despite eating our way through most of the trip with a typical dinner including five or six different dishes. We also feel physically better after a few weeks of Chinese food and, although we try many unusual ingredients, we have never once experienced a bad stomach during our travels there.
I’m convinced that the reason we feel so good on the food is that there is a much higher ratio of vegetables to meat or fish in the dishes. Rice or noodles are served with each meal but almost as an afterthought to mop up any remaining sauces. Groundnut or vegetable oil is used for cooking. There is virtually no dairy in the diet and only the occasional pinch of added sugar.
Chinese cooks don’t count calories or use recipes. They use their senses – sight, taste, smell, texture – and a lot of heart in their cooking. They know instinctively if a dish is healthy by the range of colours on the plate. They tend to eat until they are about 70% full and you never leave a Chinese table with that leaden feeling of having too much meat in your stomach. Yet may find a few Chinese who prefer Vegetarian Meal that something with meat. Building on our Chinese experience, I have been trying to have two days a week, over recent months, where we eat very lightly, a variation of the 5:2 fast diet which we are following as much for its health benefits as to lose a bit of weight. My daughter Claire in Australia introduced me to The Ultimate 5:2 Recipe Book by Kate Harrison. This is a great little book, with recipes that pack a punch of flavour, are satisfying to eat and a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
There are at least 11 recipes in the book that I return to again and again and, in many cases, the only concession to a “diet” in the recipe is the use of Fry-light one-cal spray instead of groundnut oil. I’ve discovered to my surprise that this spray works really well in a wok and for roasting vegetables in the oven and now it is often my first choice for cooking. Apart from that, the balance and range of ingredients in the recipes is very similar to the type of main course dish Shan or her MaMa would rustle up at home in Beijing using whatever ingredients are to hand.
The recipe below is one of our favourites and an easy one to prepare on a weekday evening after a busy day’s work. It is described as Indonesian but it’s flavours are very similar to those of the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. For those who care about these things the calories per serving are just 204. Try it out and feel free to vary the vegetables or substitute chicken or tofu for the pork. Sticky Indonesian Pork Stir-fry
Mother’s Day. It’s a strange one, especially if your off-spring are scattered around the world. It’s a day for reflecting on what it means to be a mother and a daughter, always on alert, never quite letting go of the ties that bind, a tiny part of your heart and mind constantly paying attention to their cares and concerns, wondering how they are right now.
It’s a day to spare a thought for those who long to be a mother and for whom the joys and strains of motherhood are still somewhere over the rainbow.
Claire tweeted me a greeting first thing this morning which began “Every day I become a little bit more like my mother…” She made my day. I love that my children have made happy, successful lives for themselves on the other side of the world but I miss them, especially on days like this.
I couldn’t get down to Wexford to my own Mum who was out to lunch with one of my brothers so we had a quiet day which began with calls from Claire and Shane and ended with a short walk along Bray seafront to take in the “grand stretch in the evening”. There was a hint of summer in the air as families with young children wandered the promenade with their first ice creams of the year and the aroma of vinegar and chips mingled with the smells and sounds of wheeling seagulls.
Heading back home I wasn’t in the mood to cook an elaborate dinner. I had a longing for something simple, light and fresh with lots of colour and flavour, something I could eat with my eyes as the Chinese would say. I needed the kick of Asian flavours but I also felt like cooking my steak in a more western way so that I could serve it somewhere on the spectrum from rare to medium rather than well done as is traditional with meat in China.
So the dish below is one I based on a recipe from a little cookbook that Claire introduced me to Kate Harrison’s The Ultimate 5:2 Recipe Book. This is a recipe book for the Fast Diet but it includes some tasty recipes with Asian influences that can be easily adapted for those not counting calories.
A belated Happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere and to those who wish they were. Asian Seared Beef with a Rainbow of Stir-fried Vegetables
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.
Moments don’t come much sweeter.
Throughout the 18 hour journey from Dublin I quelled my nervous anticipation about meeting Dermot again. I practised my “happy face” to mask my disappointment when he reacted warily to me. I warned myself to hold back, not crowd him or drown him in slobbery kisses while he connected the face and the voice with a pixellating image he is vaguely aware of once a week on an iPad and perhaps some tiny memory of his visit to Ireland nearly five months ago.
Shane was at Beijing International Airport to greet me with a hug. MaMa, my quin jia, had a bowl of noodle soup on the table when I was barely in the door of their 21st floor apartment. Shan was waiting to show me my room (Dermot’s room really) . More hugs and smiles. I felt a swooshing release of tension at arriving at my Beijing home. Dermot was having his afternoon nap.
So I waited some more, weary after the journey and with the surreal sense that I had come all this way and perhaps my beloved grandson was a figment of my imagination despite the baby paraphernalia all about. I snuck a look at his sleeping form to reassure myself . He was indeed real.
An hour later a sleepy whimper… I held back as Shane went in to release him from his sleeping bag and lift him over the bars of his cot. Surfacing out of sleep he turned to me, frowned for a moment as the wheels whirred in his little brain and then broke into excited burbles and giggles of pleasure, reaching into my arms.
Moments don’t come much sweeter and Shane had an iPhone in hand to capture it.
What is it with an eight month old baby? a familiar voice, a memory of touch and smell, of me crooning to him out of tune in the early hours in Duncannon last June, a recognition of his father in me? All I know is that when our eyes locked we were connected again as if by an invisible thread. For the next hour he examined me closely, my face, my hands, my finger nails painted a suitable Chinese red “ooh, tasty…”, my rings, my watch, as if he too wanted to confirm that I was real.
And now we are pals again, getting to know the Gruffalo and a noisy toy guitar, him careering around the apartment in his walker for nai nai hugs – our very own “Derminator”, plopped on the floor of his play room with my quin jia and a neighbouring nai nai with her one year old grandson PePe, swapping words using Google Translate so that his grannies can tell him the names of animals and numbers in Mandarin and English. And when we are on Skype to his Grandad in Dublin, he cranes his neck to look back up at me and stares intently at the iPad screen as if to say “ah, now I’m beginning to get this Skype lark.”
Shan’s MaMa, my quin jia, is a special woman, warm, generous and with an engaging sense of fun. We have found a way of making sense to one another when alone and then Shan and Shane fill the gaps when they are at home. She has been trying out pizzas in their tiny electric oven since Shane introduced her to the concept at a local Italian here in Beijing and she is very enthusiastic about helping me make them in Duncannon at Christmas.
So here, as promised, are the three other toppings I tried with the Pizza Stone on the Big Green Egg recently. Continue reading Happy reunions and three more ways with Pizza on the Big Green Egg
I’m in Dubai Airport waiting to board a flight for Beijing. As I sit here between two worlds in the surreal environment that is the transit area of a major international airport, the temperature is a sauna-like 30 degrees at 2 in the morning and a half moon is sitting like a smiley in the sky, glowing red from the dessert sands. In this part of the world I can’t be too far from the old silk road along which travellers took many moons to reach their destination in places like Xinjiang province in remote, northwest China where my daughter in law Shan was born.
Here the camels have been replaced by A380 planes. Big, lumbering beasts of burden that become suddenly graceful when they soar into the air.
Would you look at who’s waiting for me when I get to my destination – Dermot, camping in the living room so that his Nai Nai can take over his room.
Over the next two weeks I will get to spend lots of time with him, Shane, Shan and MaMa. I’m travelling to Beijing to speak at the Beijing Forum at Peking University next weekend but, of course, I’m adding on lots of extra days to have time with them.
I also hope to take some more Chinese cooking lessons, including spending whole days with Shan’s MaMa. She and I don’t yet have language in common but we can communicate through a mutual love of food and cooking. I’ve been thinking about how I can return the favour when she and her sisters in law and nieces visit Ireland for Shane and Shan’s wedding in December.
MaMa enjoyed showing me how to make noodles and dumplings the last time I was in Beijing so I thought that it could be fun to spend a day making pizza with her and the other ladies of the family. Although, come to think of it, with nine Chinese girls and women, ranging from age 3 upwards in our little house in Duncannon, none of whom speak English except Shan, it might have to be a demo rather than a hands on lesson!
Right down to the youngest girl, Chinese women are naturals at working with dough – flatbread, noodles and dumplings get whipped up from scratch every day – but they don’t have access to ovens and don’t use yeast. I think they would love the rhythm of working with yeast dough and stretching it to make a perfect thin, pizza round.
So cue experiment time. What happens if you take a very Italian pizza base, a topping with the flavours of Xinjiang province loved by Shan’s family and a Big Green Egg and put them together? Magic is the answer. Even if cooked outside in the dark in Duncannon, during a lightning storm, on a wild Autumn evening. Continue reading When East Meets West on the Old Silk Road – Lamb and Aubergine Pizza
This week I had to organise a small dinner-party, a bit of decadent mid-week eating for a good friend who was taking me hill-walking up the Devil’s Bit. The complicating factor was that I had to serve it in his house at the foot of the mountain straight after a three hour walk. I knew I was going to be out of the comfort zone of my own kitchen and I wanted to be able to chat away as I got the meal together rather than disappear from view to show up, hot and bothered, plates in hand, several hours later.
Nothing for it but to prepare as much as possible the day before. On the menu (with a nod to China and Italy) was
Tom Chef’s Confit Duck Spring Rolls with Homemade Chilli Jam
Fillet Steak with Bernaise Sauce, Slow-roasted Tomatoes, Carmelised Onions, Sauteed Mushrooms and Duck-fat Carne Roast Potatoes
Pannacotta with Honeycomb and Macerated Summer Fruits
Well I did say decadent… No calorie or cholesterol counting after a strenuous hill walk.
Preparations the day before
I needed most of the day at home for this but I didn’t have to spend all of it in the kitchen, there was time for lot’s of nice breaks while the food cooked itself.
Slow roast the tomatoes, recipe below. You can do this a few days earlier if you are short of oven space. Preparation time 15 minutes, cooking time 6 – 8 hours.
Confit the duck for the Spring Rolls. The recipes for these and the Chilli Jam, from Tom Walsh Head Chef at Samphire at the Waterside are in this post in my archives. Preparation time 15 minutes, cooking time 3 – 4 hours.
Carmelise the onions, recipe below. Preparation time 15 – 20 minutes, cooking time up to 2 hours.
Make the Chilli Jam. Preparation and cooking time about 45 minutes.
Make the Lemon Tart. After several failed experiments last weekend, I used this recipe from Raymond Blanc which was drawn to my attention by Marie McKenna. There is a fair bit of work and time involved as well as lots of “resting” of the pastry but Raymond’s instructions are precise and straightforward to follow. The result is a feather-light, citrus filling perfectly balanced with the sweet shortcrust pastry. It keeps well for several days in an airtight tin.
Prepare the Honeycomb topping, recipe below. This keeps for up to a week in an airtight tin in the fridge so it can be made several days ahead if necessary. Preparation and cooking time about 30 to 45 minutes.
Make the Panncotta. I received several good suggestions for pannacotta recipes after I posted about my culinary disasters last weekend. Thank you kind readers. I settled on one which Marie gave me from Antonio Carluccio, an original Italian recipe from the Aosta Valley. Unlike my solid, leaden efforts last weekend, this is silky smooth and lightly set with the addition of a little dark rum complimenting the vanilla. The balance of sugar, cream and milk seems just right to me. Preparation 10 minutes, setting time several hours.
Get a night’s “beauty” sleep – after all there’s some serious hill-walking to be done the next day!
On the day
Macerate some summer fruits with a little icing sugar and Grand Marnier or other liqueur.
Get hold of some good steaks from a local craft butcher. The fillet steak from the little village of Borrisoleigh nearby was simply superb and at prices that would make Dubliners weep with envy. I think the butcher’s name is John Fitzgerald.
Make up the duck spring rolls, preferably while chatting and with a glass of champagne in hand but only if you’re confident of your knife skills! If you have time you could do these early in the day as they keep very well covered with a damp cloth in the fridge. You only need one per person as an appetiser so we fed two households on them for two days.
When ready to eat
Remove your fillet steaks from the fridge and allow to rest at room temperature for an hour or more, drizzled on both sides with light olive or rapeseed oil and with a good sprinkling of cracked black pepper and some rosemary sprigs tucked under and around them.
Place a roasting tin with duck fat in the oven and pre-heat to 200C – 220C depending on how fast the oven is. Par-boil scrubbed and halved new potatoes for 10 minutes, drain well and shake to give fluffy edges. Roast in the hot oil for about 4o minutes until crispy or golden.
Wok on. Cook and serve the spring rolls.
Sauté some sliced Irish mushroom gently with some thyme, salt and black pepper in a small pan at the back of the cooker in the fat from some diced bacon or pancetta and a little butter.
Make the Bernaise Sauce. Go gently now and keep the heat nice and low so it doesn’t scramble. I use a Rachel Allen recipe I copied out of a newspaper at one stage. It’s below.
Put the onions and tomatoes in the oven to warm in heat proof containers for about the last 15 minutes of cooking time – you want them gently warmed through, not scorched!
While you are making the Bernaise Sauce, heat a griddle pan on high heat for at least 10 minutes until it is white hot – I discovered the other night the joy of doing this on a gas hob.
Ensure your steaks are lightly coated with oil on both sides but don’t add any more oil to the pan. Once the Bernaise Sauce is ready and resting in a jug over a pot of hot water, season your steaks with a pinch of salt and cook to taste, turning only once – about 3 minutes each side for medium rare depending on the thickness of the steaks. Allow to rest, tented with foil for about 5 minutes with a shaving of butter on top of each steak.
Serve the steaks in their own juices with all the trimmings and a well-deserved glass of red wine (for the chef!).
Drizzle the lemon tart with icing sugar and carmelise with a culinary blowtorch or under the grill (yes I know, I burned the edge just a fraction).
Serve up the Pannacotta. I set these in pretty glasses rather than dariole moulds so that I could add the fruit and honeycomb to the glass. I’m still trying to recreate the sublime Pannacotta by Oliver Dunne that I had in Cleaver East recently. This version was closest but I need more inspiration on how to do the topping.
Find ancient bottle of dessert wine in the back of a wine rack. Sleep soundly. Have a bracing walk in the hills the next morning to recover from your exertions.
This was a lovely meal and I would now have the confidence to cook it for a larger group. I’ve included links to all the recipes except those set out below.
Now I’m off to experiment with Chinese recipes on my Big Green Egg. Wish me luck! RECIPES
The Slow-roasted Tomatoes and Carmelised Onions were described as the “stars of the show” at dinner because of their rich, intense and almost sticky sweet flavour which cut through the vinegary tang of the Bernaise. I had a perfect steak served with similar sides in the newly re-opened Unicorn recently and I wanted to see if it is possible to recreate that restaurant-style experience of a steak dinner at home. The answer is yes if you plan ahead and have a very hot griddle pan for your steaks. 1. Slow Roasted Tomatoes
The inspiration for this recipe was a conversation with the owner of The Greenery Restaurant in Donnybrook last Saturday morning where they were serving delicious slow roasted tomatoes with Eggs Benedict for brunch. He told me the Chef’s secret is a sprinkling of icing sugar when cooking down the tomatoes to enhance their natural sweetness. Irish tomatoes are in season at the moment, plentiful and cheap. This is a lovely way of getting the full intensity of their flavour. They store well in a Kilner jar with their own juices and an extra layer of good quality olive or rapeseed oil. Ingredients
Wash and dry the tomatoes, slice in half, length wise, cut out the stem core and discard. Lay out, tightly packed, on the largest baking tray you have.
Brush each tomato half with a little oil and drizzle a little more around them. Scatter over the garlic. herbs and sugar and season with cracked black pepper and sea salt.
Bake for 6 to 8 hours until they have shrunk in size but retain their shape and are almost carmelised and crispy at the edges.
Allow to cool and store in an airtight container or Kilner jar, topped off with a little fresh oil.
Use gently warmed as a side dish or cool in a salad.
2. Carmelised Onions
I just wanted to recreate the taste of the carmelised onions I had in The Unicorn recently. This came close. Ingredients
About 8 large Irish onions, cut in half and sliced lengthwise
Mix of olive or rapeseed oil and butter – 1 tsp per onion
1 tsp sugar for 5 onions
Use a wide, thick-bottomed pan and heat the oil and butter on medium high heat until shimmering. Add the onion slices and stir to coat with oil. Spread evenly over pan, reduce the heat to medium low and let cook stirring occasionally.
After 10 minutes sprinkle some salt and sugar on the onions, add a little water to the pan if necessary (but I prefer not to – just keep the heat low).
Let cook for 30 minutes up to an hour or two, stirring every few minutes.
As soon as they start sticking, let them stick a little to brown but stir them before they burn.
After 20 to 30 minutes lower the temperature a bit more and add a little more butter if necessary.
As they cook down, you may need to scrape the pan every minute or so.
Continue to cook and scrape, cook and scrape until the onions are a rich browned colour.
Use a little balsamic vinegar to deglaze the pan.
Store in an airtight container for several days and serve warm.
3. Bernaise Sauce
I wont call this recipe foolproof but it works for me every time provided I take it nice and slow. Thank you Rachel. Ingredients
4 tbs tarragon vinegar
4 tbs dry white wine
4 tsps freshly ground shallot
1 tbs cold water
Freshly ground black pepper
2 egg yolks
100 g butter in cubes
1 generous tablespoon of chopped tarragon
1 tsp Dijon mustard
In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, boil the tarragon vinegar, wine, finely chopped shallot and a pinch of freshly ground pepper until the liquid is completely reduced to just 1 tbs making sure it doesn’t burn.
Add 1 tbs water and take the pan off the heat to allow it to cool down completely so that you can just hold your hands around the outside of the pan.
Place the pan on low hear and slowly whisk in the egg yolks and then the cubes of butter. As soon as two pieces of butter melt, add two more and the sauce will gradually thicken. Do not let the pan become too hot or the mixture will scramble. To prevent this, keep moving the pan on and off the heat. If it’s in danger of heating up too much, add a tablespoon of water.
When all the butter is in, turn off the heat and add the chopped fresh tarragon and Dijon mustard. If the sauce looks thin increase the heat very slightly and continue to whisk until the sauce thickens, it should be almost as thick as mayonnaise.
To keep it warm, pour it into a heatproof measuring jug, half fill a saucepan with hot water from the kettle and place the jug in the saucepan. Reheat the water if necessary by adding some boiling water but don’t reheat the sauce over direct heat.
I was intrigued to discover how simple it is to recreate the equivalent of the inside of a crunchy. Well simple but not easy – I had difficulty judging just the point at which the carmel turned so the first batch ended up in the bin as a burn gooey mess. A little of this goes a long way but you can break your batch up into shards and store it in an airtight container in the fridge for use with other desserts. The recipe comes from Christine Manfield the Australian chef who uses it in her famous Universal Gaytime dessert which contestants had to prepare on Masterchef Australia. Ingredients:
180 g castor sugar
60 g glucose
30 ml water
7.5 g bicarbonate of soda
Line a baking tray with backing parchment and chill in fridge.
Combine sugar, glucose and water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil slowly until the sugar and glucose dissolve and then reduce heat and cook, stirring constantly until it has just turned a light golden colour.
Turn off the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda, whisking quickly while it explodes in volume and turns caramel coloured. Pour into the prepared tray and let it cool and set.
Break into shards and store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.