It’s the first day of autumn and, despite the fact that the weather has warmed up a little after last week’s torrential rain, I’ve begun to yearn for spicier food that will warm me up on the inside when I get in at the end of a long day and that I can prepare and get to the table within 30 minutes of arriving home.
It’s not the only thing I yearn for. At the end of this month Shane, Shan and Dermot will pay us a visit from Beijing. Dermot is nearly 19 months old now and a bundle of fun. On FaceTime at weekends he plays games with us as if he wants to show off his latest Chinese words and even the ones he knows in English like “toe toe” for his Daddy’s toes. He joins in the conversation, reminding us in his inimitable way that he is in on the act too and has things to say, offering smoochy kisses to us on the iPad screen and trying to share his grapes and his Lego across two continents. It will be fun to build Lego robots with him and reciprocate those kisses. It will be a joy to give him a hug, if I can catch up with him that is.
When I’m not visualising the outings I will have with Dermot when he is home, the places I will bring him, the friends I will introduce him to, I am thinking about what I will cook for my little Gao/O’Neill family when they are here in Ireland. There will be Irish food of course, maybe even some Italian recipes, and barbecues cooked on the Big Green Egg but I also want to try out on them some of the Chinese-style recipes that I’ve been experimenting with to see what Shan thinks of my efforts.
The recipe below is one of that I have been working on for awhile. I havve been trying to integrate what I’m learning from my Chinese teacher Wei Wei with the way I cook at home and to produce a healthy variation of the kind of Chinese takeaway you might get in Ireland. I got the inspiration for this recipe from a Chinese Beef recipe in The Fasting Day Cookbook but I have adapted it to bring it closer to the methods of Chinese cooking. I have avoided marinating the beef in a mix of sauces, which tends to lead to the beef being more stewed than stir-fried, but I have added in similar flavours at the end of cooking – the aromatic richness of yellow bean sauce mixed with soy sauces and just enough black vinegar to bring out the flavour.
For the black bean sauce I used Laoganma chilli black bean sauce. My teacher Wei Wei tells me that this one sauce has saved from starvation many a Chinese student overseas who doesn’t know how to cook but for whom a dollop of Laoganma evokes the taste of home. You can pick up a jar in the Asia Market or any Asian supermarket but feel free to susbstitute your own favourite chilli black bean sauce.
For me it is the yellow bean sauce that brings me back in time – to my early attempts at Chinese cooking in a bed-sit in Rathmines when a jar of Sharwood’s yellow bean sauce could transform a common-place meal into what seemed to me then to be an exotic oriental feast. That, of course, was more than 30 years before I realised that China was set to become an important part of my life. Sharwood’s don’t seem to do a yellow bean sauce these days but you can pick up a tin of Amoy crushed yellow bean sauce in any Asian market. While you are there you will also find Chinese black vinegars, such as Gold Plum Chinkiang Vinegar, and Shaoxing Rice Wine – I use the cooking rice wine with the red label but I don’t know the brand name.
This is a relatively low fat, low calorie recipe. It is packed with nutrients from brightly coloured vegetables and the amount of oil used in cooking is modest. Feel free to experiment – it will work well with chicken instead of beef for instance – and add your own favourite vegetables It has a kick from the Laoganma and extra chilli but it is not very spicy. Enjoy, Chilli Beef in Black and Yellow Bean Sauce
Serves 2 -3 as a main dish or 4 as part of a multi-course meal Ingredients
350 – 400g of sirloin or bavette of beef
1 red chilli
1 thumb root ginger
1 small head of broccoli
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
2 heads of pak choi
4 spring onions
2 tbs Shaoxing rice wine
1 heaped teaspoon cornflour
2 tbs Laoganma chilli black bean sauce
2 tbs yellow bean sauce
1 tbs light soy sauce
½ tbs dark soy sauce
½ tbs dark Chinese vinegar (or Chinkiang vinegar)
1 tsp sesame oil
Slice the beef against the grain into thin slices about 5 cm long.
Marinade the beef in about 2 tbs of Shaoxing rice wine, adding a heaped teaspoon of cornflour and stirring well. Set aside while you prepare the vegetables.
Break the broccoli into florets and blanche or steam for one minute to soften without losing their bright colour.
Thinly slice the chilli, discarding the seeds. Peel and finely chop the ginger.
De-seed the peppers and cut them into diamond shapes about the size of a large postage stamp.
Cut the root off the pak choi, cut the stems into chunks the same size of the peppers and shred the leaves.
Thinly slice the spring onions at steep angles.
Mix the yellow bean sauce, soy sauces and dark Chinese vinegar.
Heat a small amount of oil in a wok over a high heat. Add in the chilli and ginger and stir-fry briefly until the aromas are released.
Add in the Laoganma sauce, including the oil from the sauce. Once hot, add in the beef, little by little, and stir-fry briskly until it has changed colour, then remove it from the wok and set to one side.
Wipe out the wok with kitchen paper and heat about 1 to 2 tbs oil over a high heat. Stir-fry the spring onions for a few moments to release their aroma. Add in the peppers and pak choi stems and stir-fry for a few minutes until softened.
Then add in the broccoli and pak choi leaves. Stir-fry for a minute or two until the pak choi has wilted adding a splash of hot water if necessary to help the vegetables cook.
Add in the mixture of yellow bean, soy sauce and black vinegar and stir to mix well.
Return the beef to the wok with any remaining marinade and mix well until heated through.
Remove from the heat, drizzle over a teaspoon of sesame oil and serve immediately with boiled rice.
I haven’t been creating many new Chinese recipes recently. That’s partly a reaction to all the cooking I did over the Twelve Days of Shananigans Christmas. But I have also been pining a little for my family returned to China and Australia and I have been busy with work.
Things are getting back to normal now in our three Shananigans households. Shan, Dermot and her Mama will return from Urumqi to Beijing tomorrow night to be reunited with Shane. He has used the time they stayed on with her family in Xinjiang Province to catch up on work and watch lots of films but he has had enough of the semi-batchelor life for now and is looking forward to their hugs and company.
Meanwhile in Sydney, Claire and Mike have become home owners for the first time. Australian citizens, now owning a house there – I guess their Australian adventure is set to last.
There is something about your first-born child buying a house that makes you acutely aware that she is all grown up – a responsible adult with a mortgage, many impressive spreadsheets compiled by Mike to cover all the budgetary implications and a life of her own on the other side of the world. I am so delighted for the two of them as they set out on this next stage of their lives together. Two young emigrants from Ireland and Wales who made good.
I fell in love with their Federation house in Randwick in the suburbs of Sydney as soon as I set eyes on the photos. It is a happy place that must store its share of good memories deep in its walls. In my imagination I can already glimpse the memories still waiting to be made there like shadows dancing around the still empty rooms, rooms waiting for their photos, their souvenirs, their infectious energy. All going well this is where we will celebrate Christmas 2014 with Shane, Shan and Dermot.
I love the natural light in the house which flows past bedrooms and a living/ dining room to a large kitchen and a patio out the back. And I am green with envy of the six burner gas hob in her kitchen. Claire tells me that I can get lots of practice on it in December. That was enough to set me thinking about what I would cook for them all. The recipe that gets most hits on the blog is Shananigans Crispy Chilli Beef. I know that lots of readers substitute chicken for beef in this dish and several have wondered if it would be possible to make a version of it without chillies. Well here is a variation based on a traditional Beijing recipe for sweet and sour pork. This is not the cloying sauce you might associate with chinese takeaways. Instead black vinegar, sugar and light soy sauce provide the delicate, tangy balance. No chillies need apply.
As for Claire and Mike, much as I miss them, how can I be anything but happy for the life they have built on the other side of the world. Claire sent me this Sunday morning photo earlier today as they celebrated their house purchase with an early swim at Icebergs near Bondi Beach. She captioned it simply “gratitude”.
Shananigans Crispy Sweet and Sour Chicken
300g chicken breasts or chicken thighs, off the bone
1 egg white, beaten
Good pinch of salt
About 3 tbs potato flour or cornflour
A pinch of baking powder
Oil for deep frying – use good quality sunflower or groundnut oil
2 carrots cut into thin matchsticks and blanched for 1 minute
2 heads little gem lettuce, root removed and leaves torn into shreds (optional)
2 tsp garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp leek or the white part of spring onions, finely chopped
For the sauce:
65 g caster sugar
120 ml of Chinese black vinegar or Chinkiang vinegar
2 tsp light soy sauce
80 ml water
2 tsp cornflour mixed with a little water
Roasted black and white sesame seeds and the green part of spring onions, sliced to garnish (optional)
Cut the chicken into slices against the grain and then into thin shreds.
Dip in the egg white and mix with your hand, leaving it to rest for a few minutes.
Mix the potato flour with salt and baking powder.
Drain off any excess egg white and dip the chicken strips in the flour mix, shaking off any excess.
Mix the sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and water in a small jug and stir to combine and dissolve the sugar.
Fill a wok quarter full with oil and heat to 140 degrees.
Add the chicken, using your fingers to separate the pieces as they go down in the wok. Let them sit for about 30 seconds until the batter hardens, then use a ladle or chopsticks to separate the strands. Cook the chicken for 3 – 4 minutes, stirring to keep the strands separate, until the chicken is crispy and golden.
Remove with a mesh strainer or slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Drain off most of the oil from the wok
Reheat the remaining oil over medium/ high heat and cook the carrot for 1½ minutes before removing and draining on kitchen paper. Add the little gem lettuce and stir-fry for a few minutes until wilted and set aside with the carrots.
Add another small amount of oil to the wok if necessary and re-heat over a medium heat. Add the leek or spring onion and garlic. Stir-fry for about 5 seconds to release the aromas.
Increase the heat to high, add the sauce mix and stir for 20 seconds or until the sauce bubbles. Add the cornflour and water mix and stir thoroughly.
Add back the chicken, carrots and lettuce and toss to coat and heat through. Add a dash of sesame oil for shine, garnish with sesame seeds and the green part of spring onions sliced at an angle. Serve with steamed rice.
You can substitute pak choi, green beans or sugar snap peas for the lettuce. If using the beans or peas blanch them first. You can also substitute beef or pork for the chicken.
Check the seasoning when you add the sauce and balance to your taste with a little more soy sauce, sugar or vinegar if necessary.
You will find Chinkiang vinegar in the Asia Market, any Asian supermarket and some good greengrocers. At a pinch you could substitute balsamic vinegar but the flavour will be different. Check out my post on Chinese Kitchen Essentials for a handy check list of Chinese ingredients.