It was a gloomy November Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after I had arrived back from Beijing. Winter had sneaked up on Ireland while I was away, the evenings were closing in and there was a noticeable nip in the air. I was jet-lagged and disoriented, my head and heart still drifting between two worlds, seeing in my mind’s eye the now familiar rituals of Shane, Shan and Dermot’s Sunday afternoon.
I took refuge in cooking. I made two large batches of dumplings while catching up on the episodes of Downton Abbey that I had missed. As I punched and kneaded the dough and found the rhythm of rolling out near perfect discs, I felt the connection with my family and the world I had left behind in Beijing. Cooking is therapy.
It was Li Dong on 7th November, the first day of the Chinese winter. As if on cue, the weather in Beijing had changed from a balmy 17 degrees to a sharp, dry chill in bright sunshine. Legend has it that if you don’t eat dumplings on Li Dong, your ears will fall off when the cold snap comes. I was taking no chances and tucked in with gusto to Shan’s MaMa’s pork, cabbage and shrimp dumplings served with her homemade chilli paste.
The previous day I had attended a dumpling class at Black Sesame Kitchen. This was my third dumpling class. I had been to one at Hutong Cuisine in March and another led by the chefs at China Sichuan in Dublin during the last Spring Festival. But you can never learn enough about making dumplings and every class brings it’s own tips and tricks plus some lovely new recipes for fillings. Besides dumpling lessons are great fun and a great way to make new friends over a glass of Chinese beer (loosens the dumpling wrapping skills I’m told!) as you compare your misshapen efforts. I came home with left-over dough which MaMa turned into noodles for Dermot’s dinner. No waste in China, ever.
We’ve a little thing going on my four month old grandson and I. We dance around the bedroom to the same song, “Tiny Dancer”, each day of this his brief visit home. He joins in the fun as I sing along out of tune.
We converse. I tell him what I think is important, how I feel about him, what it’s like to have him snuggle against me and chew my shoulder with his teething gums, how I will never forget these moments. He stretches his legs, bounces on my lap and answers with intense concentration, with burbles and giggles and smiles as he struggles to articulate … He seems to understand….
I thought of that tonight as I listened to the writer John Banville in conversation with Olivia O’Leary. What distinguishes humans from animals, he said, is the ability to use words, the capacity to create sentences. I wonder what sentence Dermot will speak first and in what language…
We had our own little Gathering last Sunday, one of those days from which memories are carved.
We were joined for a BBQ in our garden by my Italian friend Solange, her Argentinian husband Agustin and their identical twins, just 10 months old.
The last time we adults had all been together was for Christmas 2011 when Shan came to visit us for the first time. That was very special as Claire and her Welsh husband Mike were also able to be with us from Australia for part of the time, an event described by one wit on Twitter as a cross between the Davos Convention and an international rugby tournament.
This time we were feeling the absence of Claire and Mike but the sun was beating down from a cloudless sky, and it was still a day to savour.
While she has attempted to teach me Italian, I have kept company with Solange through her journey into motherhood and she has supported me as I adapted to being a long distance granny, sharing hugs from her little boys. It felt important to introduce these three little people to one another with the hope that some day “i cugini” might become friends.
Well “introduce” might be pushing it a bit but they all got to eye one another up with varying degrees of interest while one set of parents remembered what it was like to cuddle a snuggly little person and the others imagined a day when their little man would be taking off on all fours at a rapid pace to explore a small urban jungle.
Between us we had at least 6 languages – English, Mandarin, Italian, Spanish, Romanian and Irish – and 5 nationalities, but the 3 little boys all hold Irish passports and are set to be multilingual citizens of the 21st century.
In all the circumstances it seemed appropriate to have a barbecue that was a bit Irish, a bit Chinese and a bit Italian so a big thank you to Rozanne Stevens for the inspiration in her new Relish BBQ book.
From it I chose:
an Italianish main course of Norman’s butterflied leg of lamb with lively salsa
an Asian mushroom, pak choi and potato salad and
a Chinesish dessert of lychee jam jar cheese cake.
All were a resounding success.
For starters I recreated an Irish take on a Chinese classic – confit duck spring rolls from Chef Tom Walsh of Samphire at the Waterside in Donobate who gave me this recipe for a post I did for Taste of China during this year’s Chinese New Year Festival. Tom was one of the nominees for chef of the year in the Dublin regional finals of the Restaurant Association of Ireland Awards this week. Pay his restaurant a visit and enjoy his great food. Tom Chef’s Confit Duck Spring Rolls
1. Confit Duck Legs: Ingredients:
2 duck legs
Salt and pepper
2 jars of duck fat or goose fat
A few sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme
A few whole cloves garlic
2 star anise
Allow the duck legs to dry out at room temperature and season well with salt and pepper.
Place in a small oven proof dish along with the rosemary, thyme, garlic and star anise.
Melt the duck or goose fat and pour over the duck legs making sure they are covered completely. (Top up with light olive oil or sunflower oil if necessary.)
Cover with foil and confit slowly in the oven at low temperature until the duck meat is falling away from the bone – at least 1 ½ hours at 130 degrees C, or you can cook at 110/120 degrees C for several hours.
2. Duck Spring Rolls: Ingredients:
2 confit duck legs (as above)
1 carrot cut into thin julienne strips
1 red onion thinly sliced
100g bean sprouts
1 tbs oyster sauce
1 clove garlic (crushed)
20g pickled ginger*
25g chopped coriander
25g chopped chervil
6 sheets of spring roll pastry 10’’ square
1 egg white
Sunflower oil for deep-frying
Chilli jam* to serve
Corander and/or chervil to garnish
*See below Preparation:
Shred the confit duck leg and mix with all the other prepared ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning to taste.
Take 1 ½ sheets of pastry for each spring roll.
Placing a full sheet down and a half on top, from one corner, fill the doubled-side, near the centre with some duck mix.
Starting at the doubled corner, roll to half way then fold in the sides and continue rolling to the end.
Brush some egg white on the far corner to stick the pastry together.
Fill a wok about a third full with sunflower oil and heat until a cube of bread turns golden in a few seconds. Deep fry the springrolls until golden.
Slice each spring roll in two on the diagonal and serve with the chilli jam garnished with coriander and/ or chervil.
3. Pickled Ginger:
You can buy pickled ginger but I love Tom’s homemade version which keeps for weeks in the fridge. Ingredients:
200g fresh ginger
250g white wine vinegar
125g still mineral water
2 star anise
2 bay leaves
Good sprig of thyme
Weigh all the ingredients, except the ginger into a saucepan.
Bring to the boil all and leave to chill.
Peel and slice the ginger and steep in the chilled pickle.
Store in a sealed container in the fridge.
4. Tom Chef’s Chilli Jam
Since Tom gave me this recipe, I have served it as a dip with everything from crisps to barbecued chicken wings and my guests rave about it. Bottled chilli jam will never again cross our threshold. It keeps indefinitely in a Kilner jar in the fridge. It is very simple to make, just take a little care to cook it slowly so that it doesn’t burn. Ingredients:
6-8 red chilli peppers chopped roughly
300g castor sugar
300g white rice wine vinegar (ordinary white wine vinegar will do)
Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan, bring to the boil and cook gently to reduce to a syrupy, jam-like consistency being careful not to burn.
Blend with a stick blender.
Store in a sealed container in the fridge.
5. Homemade Chilli Oil
And while I’m on a roll, here’s another store cupboard condiment that transcends western and Chinese flavours and is great for barbecues. I picked up this recipe at cookery class in Hutong Cuisine in Beijing. It is simple to prepare and, once savoured, you will never want a shop bought version again. In recent weeks I’ve brushed this over prawns and crab claws and sizzled them on the BBQ, painted it on to fish fillets to be baked in the oven and drizzled it over Italian pizza, even though it was originally just intended to accompany this Sichuan Spicy Chicken Salad. Ingredients:
2 thumbnail size pieces of cinnamon (preferably the wider Chinese type)
1 tsp of Sichuan peppercorns
1 large cardamom pod, crushed to release seeds (preferably the large black Chinese cardamom pods)
4 bay leaves
4 tsp Pixian broad bean paste (Lee Kum Kee Toban Djan chilli bean sauce, which is readily available in Ireland can be used instead)
2 slices of ginger
1 spring onion, white part only, cut in two
4 tbs crushed chillies
2 tsp sesame seeds
Heat the oil in a wok over low heat and add all the ingredients except the chillies and sesame seeds. Stir slowly over gentle heat for at least 8 to 10 minutes until the spices have begun to turn brown in colour, released their fragrance and infused the oil.
Sieve the oil and discard the spices. By this time it should have turned into a gorgeous warm red colour. Return it to the wok with the crushed chillies and sesame seeds. Stir over a very low heat until the chilli has turned light brown in colour.
When cool, pour the oil into a glass container and keep over night before use. Store unused oil indefinitely in an airtight jar.
Yes when Chinese meets Irish meets Italian, who knows what fun things can happen.
Grazie Solange, Agus, Oli e Fredi per la giornata indimenticabile 🙂