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
Q. How many chefs does it take to teach a novice how to cook pig’s cheeks? A. Ask Twitter.
Despite the recession, the standard of food in Irish restaurants has improved dramatically in recent years. A new generation of young chefs and well established celebrity chefs are using considerable skill and imagination to create taste memories and to offer value for money to people dining out on more limited budgets. I’ve noticed a growing emphasis on cooking meat “low and slow” and on using lesser known cuts of meat that cost less at source but are full of flavour when cooked creatively. So belly of pork, pork shoulder, lamb shoulder, beef cheeks and pigs cheeks pop up all over the place and even pig’s heads find their way on menus, tastefully described of course.
Although the cooking techniques can be quite different, this new emphasis reminds me of the attitude to meat in China where virtually every component of the animal is valued and used so that pig’s ears and chicken feet are a sought after delicacy. The butchery demonstration in Avoca Food Market Monkstown which I described in an earlier post left me intrigued to learn how to cook these cuts at home.
When I visited the Tannery in Dungarvan a few months back I ate pig’s cheeks for the first time. I was blown away by the delicate, almost creamy texture of the meat. Paul Flynn (Chef No.1) showed me how to cook it low and slow with beer at the Tannery Cookery School recently so I got some idea of how to handle the cut and bring out its flavours. But in keeping with the Shananigans’ Chinese theme I wanted to come up with a recipe that would be more oriental in its ingredients.
I purchased a batch of them from James Whelan Butchers to cook for a meal for friends last weekend. They arrived vacuum packed and my first thought when I unpacked them and looked at their sinewy, fatty exterior was that they seemed nothing like the tasty morsels I had eaten in the Tannery. Feeling slightly daunted and unsure where to start, I put out a Saturday afternoon plea to Twitter for help.
First up was the ever-helpful Tom Walsh (Chef No. 2), the head chef at Samphire Restaurant in Donabate, Co. Dublin, who gave me so much advice on my Short Beef Ribs recipe the previous week. He suggested a marinade of garlic, lemon grass, chilli pepper, sugar and rice vinegar with rapeseed and and sunflower oil and then long, slow cooking at 110C.
I hadn’t been able to get hold of lemongrass and I was still contemplating my options when Rozanne Stevens (Chef No. 3) suggested I ask Kate Lawlor (Chef No. 4) the head chef at Fenns Quay in Cork who is a whizz with pig’s cheeks. Kate told me that in her restaurant they cook them slowly on a low heat on the stove with orange slices, onion, fennel, leek and bay leaf. This rang bells for me as I had come across a recipe in Ultimate Slow Cooker for pork shoulder or spare ribs with orange and star anise.
I went to sleep mulling over the possibilities for sweating down onion, leek, fennel, carrot and bay leaf as a base for the slow cooking, mindful of what I learned from Paul Flynn about layering flavour on flavour – fennel seed, star anise, fennel – and watching what matches with what – carrot with orange, fennel with pork for instance. As I described in an earlier post, I learnt a lot from attending Paul’s master class and it is gradually seeping in.
Then, in the early hours of Sunday morning, Niall O’Sullivan (chef No. 5) the head chef at Isabel’s in Dublin tweeted me the suggestion that I brine the meat for tasty and tender cheeks. Now Isabel’s is currently serving some of the most exciting food in Dublin and I had a sublime dish of pressed pork shoulder their recently so of course I was going to sit up and take note. I could hardly admit to him that I had only the vaguest idea what brining entailed so I was up at the crack of dawn on Sunday googling “brining pork”.
I gathered from the internet that the basic principle of brining was to use a solution of 1 tbs salt to 1 cup of water (about 1 : 8) and then add sweetener and some seasonings that would gently bring out the flavours I planned to use in the subsequent dish without overwhelming the meat. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked for the brining so I decided that less was more the first time around and gave them 6 – 7 hours.
I’m grateful to Derry for figuring out a way of trimming the cheeks after brining so that he removed most the outer fat but left each cheek intact and looking more like what Paul Flynn cooked for us in the Cookery School. I’m sure your friendly butcher could be prevailed upon to trim them for you if you ask nicely.
Anyway after much deliberation, and remembering advice from my Twitter friend and chutney maker Audrea of Tastefully Yours to trust my instincts, this is what I did: Pig’ s Cheeks with Fennel, Orange and Star Anise