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.