Playing the Waiting (and Cooking) Game – Vietnamese Beef Curry

Ready and waiting
Ready and waiting

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
Beef curry in the wok
Beef curry in the wok

Serves 2 to 3 as a main course or 4 as part of a multi-course meal

  • 200g fillet beef
  • ½ – 1 large onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 4 – 6 large mushrooms
  • 1 – 2 tbs cooked green peas
  • 400 ml boiling water
  • Cooking oil

For the marinade

  • 2 large tomatoes, skinned and finely diced
  • 1 stem lemon grass crushed
  • 2 tsps vegetable stock powder
  • 2 tsps condensed milk
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsps curry powder or paste
  • 1 tsp turmeric latte blend
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp chilli paste
  • 2 tsp cornflour


  1. 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.
  2. Set the marinaded beef to one side for at least 30 minutes at room temperature.
  3. Chop the onion into large chunks, thinly slice the carrot, slice each mushroom into thick slices.
  4. 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.
  5. Increase the heat, add the marinated beef and stir-fry for about one minute until the beef changes colour.
  6. 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.
  7. Serve with boiled rice.

The finished dish
The finished dish

Notes and options

  1. Siobhan prefers to make this recipe with thinly sliced chicken fillet which is equally delicious.
  2. 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.
  3. Tinned tomatoes or tomato puree or paste can be substituted for fresh tomatoes in the marinade.
  4. 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.

Somewhere over the Rainbow – Asian Seared Beef with Stir-fried Vegetables

Mothers and daughters
Mothers and daughters – a rare moment of 3 generations together

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.
Fathers and Sons
Fathers and sons – Shane and Dermot in Beijing last week

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
Asian Seared Beef with Rainbow Vegetables
Asian Seared Beef with Rainbow Vegetables

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Saba: The Cookbook – Stir-fried Beef with Cashews and Asparagus

To celebrate the Vietnamese New Year known as Tet, the lovely Paul Cadden, owner of  Saba Thai and Vietnamese Eatery on Clarendon Street Dublin, has given me a copy of Saba: The Cookbook – Inside a Thai/Vietnamese Kitchen to give away on the blog. The book traces the story of Saba and is beautifully illustrated and crammed with Thai and Vietnamese recipes, not to mention a great selection of cocktails.
Now this is the first time I’ve ever had a competition on the blog and, to be honest, I’m a teeny, weeny bit nervous. Bear with me a moment while I work up to it.
It all came about like this. The other day I was looking for help on Twitter to track down Sri Racha chilli sauce to make Kaffir Lime Chilli Prawns for Taste of China when up popped a helpful reply from @SabaDublin. So I dropped into Paul in this “happy meeting place” (that’s what the name means in Thai) for a chat.
Tet coincides with Chun Jie the Chinese Spring Festival and the Vietnamese are also marking the beginning of the Year of the Snake. Snakes are considered to be lucky in Vietnam, having a snake in the house is considered a good omen as it means your family will never starve. Hmmm… I can see certain issues with that if you’re living in Ireland.
Paul offered me the recipe for their fantastic New Year’s cocktail Dragon’s Tail from the cookbook for Taste of China. With our own little grandson Dermot having arrived in Beijing on the very tail of the Year of the Dragon, how could I resist… Try it at home or in Saba – grapefruit vodka, fresh dragon fruit and lemon juice muddled with crushed ice. You will feel as if you have been plunged back in time to colonial Hanoi. (Don’t you love that word “muddled”…)

Dragon’s Tail Cocktail

Vietnamese cuisine has been on my radar since my daughter Claire and her husband Mike went along to check out The Red Lantern in Sydney so I am keen to learn more about it and how it differs from Chinese food. I was delighted when Paul gave me a copy of Saba: The Cookbook so that I could try out some of their recipes at home and also gave me a second copy of the book to offer as a prize.
Which brings me to my first ever giveaway on the blog. As my daughter Claire would say “how exciting!!” Continue reading Saba: The Cookbook – Stir-fried Beef with Cashews and Asparagus

Short Beef Ribs with Red Cabbage and Fondant Potatoes

You’ve got to love Twitter. This week I ordered a “selection box” of cheaper cuts of meat from James Whelan Butchers to practice what I learned from Paul Flynn at the Tannery Cookery School last week and by attending the Butchery Demonstration at Avoca, Monkstown. So I had ordered a ham hock to make terrine, bavette of beef for stir fries, pork cheeks to try replicate a dish of Paul’s that I love and a Jacobs Ladder – short beef ribs.
Now I’ve only used short beef ribs once before to make the stock for my Wagyu hotpot using a recipe from Audrea of Tastefully Yours but I was curious to see if there was another way of using the cut that would get even more value from this tasty meat. So I put out a Friday afternoon appeal on Twitter and several of my friends came back with suggestions  – Aoife, Imen, Helena  – all with interesting recipes.
One  suggestion caught my eye. It was from Tom Walsh the Head Chef at the Samphire Restaurant at the Waterside, Donobate. I haven’t met Tom and I haven’t yet visited his restaurant but I love his philosophy  – classical French cuisine with a modern twist, supporting businesses in the community and sourcing all ingredients locally including meat, vegetables and fish and preparing seasonal menus, making the most of what is available at different times of the year. Samphire, a wild shoreline, vegetable growing on the doorstep of the restaurant perched on the beautiful coastline of north Dublin, provided a name that resonates with the place and the approach he adopts. It’s also one of my favourite ingredients and sums up the search for the authentic and the local which influences my own amateur approach to cooking.
Anyway Tom’s suggestion for  the Jacob’s Ladder went something like this:
“Get it into a nice marinade of hoisin with chilli added and some stock. Bed of veg. Nice bit of garlic.”
“Slowly cooked at 120 – 140, covered so it’s basted for a long period until tender.”
“After cooking, can be roasted up to give a lovely robust and meaty flavour, texture. Some fondant potatoes and red cabbage #goforit.”
So go for it I did and, in the process,  I came across a recipe for DongPo Pork in Exploring China a Culinary Adventure and I tweaked the braising liquid in that recipe for my Jacobs Ladder.
According to legend, Su DongPo was an important official from Hangzhou who was sent pork by his grateful people. Hangzhou is a city on the Yangtze River Delta about 180 km southwest of Shanghai. It is located in an area of great natural beauty and has been one of the most prosperous cities of China for over a 1,000 years. Being a nice guy,  DongPo instructed his cooks to prepare the pork, share it with his workers and serve it with rice wine. Somewhere along the way the message got garbled and the cooks added the wine to the dish. And so this classic dish was born, of which there are almost as many variations as there are Chinese cooks. My version below uses beef instead of pork and  a higher concentration of hoisin sauce. It is delicious.
Twice-cooked Short Beef Ribs (Jacob’s Ladder), DongPo Style

Jacobs Ladder resting before carving

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Wagyu Steak Naoki Style

“The Summer Palace is a sprawling imperial encampment of temples, pavilions and halls set in a park around the vast Kumming Lake. The imperial family once used this wonderland of noble follies as a summer residence. If the weather is is fine, a visit here can make for a memorable day…” Thus said my favourite guide book to China from National Geographic Traveller (and by the way I strongly recommend National Geographic Guide Books for those who would rather a traveller than a tourist be). We had missed it on our winter visit to Beijing 5 years ago, so last July we set out with Claire and Mike, 11 km north west of Central Beijing, expecting something like this:
National Geographic Traveler China
Instead we endured one of those misty, smoggy Beijing days when it was hard to appreciate fully the beauty of the place.
A murky day at Kumming Lake
I somehow doubt that the Imperial family of old would have tolerated the smog of Beijing extending to their summer hideaway. All the same the elaborate Marble Boat and the views from the Pagoda of Buddhist Fragrance conveyed a sense of the decadence and sumptuousness of the glittering playground it must once have been.
Marble Boat at Summer Palace

Pagoda rooftops at Summer Palace
We had hoped to visit the restaurant at the Aman Resort at the Summer Palace which had been recommended to me by Twitter friend @paulshoebox but we didn’t manage it this time around.A few weeks ago I cooked @Pat_Whelan ‘s very special Wagyu beef from his herd at Garrentemple, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary for the first time,. The meat is high in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids as a result of its intense marbling. It is also significantly lower in saturated fat and higher in healthy monounsaturated fat making it far healthier than any other breed of beef available on the market. The beef is dry-aged for a minimum of 21 days.Before deciding how to prepare it I did lots of research by Twitter and I finally settled on making a Shabu Shabu hotpot which was very successful. But there were those, including Shane’s foodie friend and restaurant reviewer Carl Hayward in Beijing, who felt a better way to treat this delicate and precious beef would be to pan fry it as a steak.
Last weekend we were celebrating, long distance, the official marriage of Shane and Shan in China so I decided it was a sufficiently special occasion to be an excuse for purchasing some strip loin Wagyu steaks on line from James Whelan’s Butchers. This time I decided to use the method Carl learned when he attended a cooking class with, and subsequently interviewed, Japanese chef Naoki Okumura who, as it happens, is the executive chef at the Japanese restaurant in the Aman Resort at Summer Palace. Carl’s interview was published in That’s Beijing and you can read it here. Continue reading Wagyu Steak Naoki Style

Notes from a Past Life – Chilli steak with just-cooked greens

Back in the day… Back in January 2004 the Celtic Tiger was still roaring. We had children who had never experienced recession. I was working full-time in a job that meant I rarely got home before 9 pm each evening. My adult children were beginning to spread their wings. Claire was in London working with Jamie Oliver, and Shane was in Edinburgh designing websites, almost overlapping with Shan who studied there and who he was destined to meet in Beijing in 2010. To me they seemed far away but, with hindsight, they were so close, barely across the water. We Irish seemed invincible then, confident, adventurous, the world our oyster… back in the day.
Even then I loved to cook and have friends over for dinner, but there was very little time so I was always on the look out for recipes that were easy and fast to prepare. I used to look forward to the Food and Drink section of the Sunday Tribune magazine and I would cut out and keep recipes that appealed to me. A dinner menu, published in that newspaper on the 18th January, 2004 with the headline “Cold Comfort”, was ideal because it didn’t require much more than an hour to put together a respectable meal. That menu, with its starter of Mango Goat’s Cheese and Parma Melts, a main of Chilli Steak with just-cooked greens and Warm Chocolate Puddings for dessert, became my dinner party menu of choice for most of that year and every friend I have ever entertained has been at the receiving end of that mango and goats cheese starter.

Chilli-steak with just cooked greens

I had forgotten all about it, until last Monday night when my friend Brenda asked me to dig out our old recipe for ginger biscuits and I came upon it in a folder at the back of a cupboard. Nostalgia swept over me and memories came flooding back – of the frantic rush to get a meal on the table for guests, of Green & Black’s chocolate simmering in the pot, of peeling mangoes as the juices ran out of them, of the fragrance of cumin from marinating beef. Ah, those were the days…
And as I amused myself reading the article about dank January days and noted that “Pak choi or Chinese cabbage is now widely available in shops and Asian stores”, I realised that the author was one Catherine Cleary. Could it be “our” Catherine Cleary (@Catherineeats), whose restaurant reviews are now the first thing I read  every Saturday in the Irish Times, I wondered. And YES, it was. She tells me she wrote those recipes after their first Christmas as parents when they were in no mood for January denial.
So with her permission and a big thank you to her for many happy dinners with friends, I’m reproducing the chilli-steak recipe below and you can also see my efforts to re-create the other two recipes on the blog.

This is a very simple and light dish with relatively mild flavours. The sour chilli marinade tenderises the beef so that it cooks very fast. What fascinates me is how similar it is to dishes I had in Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China, where Shan’s family live and where the middle eastern influences spill over into the local cuisine and the use of cumin is prevalent. How the world turns full circle…
I made this for dinner today with lovely fillet steak from James Whelan Butchers at Avoca, Monkstown and Irish pak choi and spring onions from Superquinn in Blackrock, Co. Dublin.
Chilli Steak with Just-cooked Greens
Cold Comfort

Continue reading Notes from a Past Life – Chilli steak with just-cooked greens