A Buffet with Bling and Chinese Dumplings – the perfect start to 2014

Sometimes life has a way of turning full circle.
Last New Year’s Day I remember remarking on the beautiful morning in Duncannon and the start of a “shiny new year”. Within three days we had lost Derry’s mother and within a few weeks his younger sister Deirdre. Both deaths were unexpected. Suddenly the new year didn’t seem so shiny any more. But you get through things and you get on with it and baby Dermot arrived on the 5th of February to brighten all our loves (that should have read “lives” but the slip seems somehow appropriate). And the year ended on a high note with a true Shananigans of a Christmas, followed by Shan and Shane’s wedding and Dermot’s Christening on 28th December.
I’ve so much to write. So many moments and emotions to absorb after the whirlwind of the last few weeks since Shane, Shan and Dermot arrived on 15th December – a bewildered small child plucked out of his familiar Beijing apartment and plunged into the confusing sights and sounds of an Irish Christmas who quickly made our home his own – followed a week later by nine of Shan’s Chinese family and my daughter and her husband from Australia.
But I’m going to start near the end, back in Shankill, after Claire and her husband Mike had been and gone, leaving behind the imprint of their infectious personalities, after the intensity of the Christmas celebrations.
Truth be told I’ve never liked New Year’s Eve much. I always feel as if I am clinging on for those last few hours to the dying year, to the memories of those loved and lost in the year gone by and with a sense of foreboding about what the coming year may hold. This year I was determined it would be different. It was the first time our Chinese in-laws had celebrated a western new year and it was our own unique Gathering to end a year of Gatherings. I wanted to see it out in style.
Robert Jacob provided my inspiration – a New Year’s Eve buffet with bling. I had attended his course at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School in December. I saw how he put it all together in three to four hours. I had blogged about the menu in my post on the Twelve Days of Shananigans Christmas and, despite being tired after a two weeks of non-stop entertaining, I was determined to deliver.
Well 8 hours of preparation later, including a minor pastry crisis, several phone calls to Robert and accepting his offer to make the gold-dusted Chocolate Log for me, I served  up the full buffet up to our enthusiastic guests including our close friends from across the road. Our Chinese in-laws loved the food and how it was presented. They described it as like a painting – that’s what happens when your teacher is a former fashion designer. There were many warm speeches during the meal marking the extraordinary two weeks we have shared together and suddenly it was nearly midnight.
Preparing and serving the meal left me little time to be maudlin but on the stroke of midnight our thoughts were with Derry’s Mum whom we had spoken to at that moment last year. During the conversation she had proposed 28th December to my Mum as the date for Shane and Shan’s wedding, saying that as the elders of the family they should get to decide these things. Well she did and it had felt good to honour her plan last week.
My thoughts were also with my own Dad. New Year’s Eve 1999, when every household in Ireland had been given a Millennium candle, was also our first in Duncannon and, as we lit that candle to mark the turning of the century, all of us present including my Mum and Dad, my brothers and our children, signed the little note that came with it. Every year since then I have lit that candle for a few minutes for all our loved ones including those that have passed away and those now living far from home. This year my new Chinese extended family and our friends all wrote on the card to mark what surely has been our most extraordinary year end of the century.
That New Year’s Eve meal was the second last culinary challenge of Shananigans Christmas. The last was to be on Thursday night when I planned to make dumplings for us all, mirroring the Chinese New Year tradition and also their association of dumplings with family members parting on a journey – a reminder of how family wrap around you wherever you are in the world.
I got as far as making my two favourite fillings – lamb with butternut squash and cumin and vegetarian which I had learned in Black Sesame Kitchen cookery school in Beijing – and a batch of homemade Chilli Oil as taught to me by Hutong Cuisine.  I was about to start the dumpling dough when my visitors tumbled into the house, windswept and rain-spattered from their sight-seeing and shopping trip to Dublin city centre, in a frenzy of discarded wet shoes and coats, shopping bags and retrieved slippers.
Within minutes my kitchen had been taken over and become a super-efficient Chinese production line. Clearly in charge Da Gu (first auntie) set about making her own pork and Chinese cabbage filling with added zing from ground star anise and cousin Jing Jing made an enormous batch of dough using every scrap of dumpling flour in the house. Xiao Gu (second auntie), Shan, her sister in law Shui Mei, cousin Wei Wei and little Xuan Xuan made the dumpling in relays – cutting out ropes of dough and rolling out the circular wrappers, the younger in-laws filling and folding them until every surface in the kitchen, every platter and cutting board I possess was covered with dumplings just as I always imagined a Chinese kitchen on New Year’s eve.
Even Gao Feng – Shan’s brother – was drafted in to cream garlic to go with the black vinegar and chilli oil condiments. I was redundant in my own kitchen and relegated to the happy role of observer. Dumplings made, it was time to cook them in batches, boiled and pot-sticker style, and platter after platter appeared at the dining table. It is amazing how many dumplings you can eat at one sitting without noticing.
It quickly became obvious that we had enough dumplings to feed a small army. And so, after a brief stint in the freezer, the dozens of left-overs travelled with us to Ardee yesterday evening where we marked the first anniversary of the passing of a very special lady, my mother-in-law Alice O’Neill.
Dumplings for remembrance and family and the ties that bind.
Below are some photos of  those two very special evenings in our home and the recipe for Da Gu’s pork and cabbage filling.
Happy New Year to you all and thank you for following my tales and learning experiences in the year gone by.
By the way for those of you who would like to learn more about Chinese cooking, my teacher turned friend Robert Jacob and I are collaborating in a Discover China Class at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School on the evening of 16th January at 7 pm. You can book places here. Shane, Shan and Shan’s bridesmaid Wei Wei who is a fabulous Chinese cook will join us for an evening of good food and conversation. I’m hoping that Marie McKenna, who has reproduced nearly every recipe on this blog, will be there too.

New Year's Eve Spread
New Year’s Eve spread

Just some of our New Year's Eve guests
Just some of our New Year’s Eve guests

Tian of crab and gas[acho
Tian of crab and gazpacho

Smoked haddock and gruyere quiche
Smoked haddock and gruyere quiche

Attempting to sit down to dinner
Attempting to sit down to dinner

A very glamourous production line
January 1st –  a cheerful production line led by Da Gu

First and Second Aunties make the filling
First and Second Aunties – Da Gu and Xiao Gu make the pork filling

Jing Jing kneads the dough
Jing Jing kneads the dough

Xiao Gu and Jing Jong - good team work
Xiao Gu and Jing Jing – good team work

Rolling out the wrappers
Rolling out the wrappers

Yes, that looks perfect
Yes, that looks perfect

Xuan Xuan wrapping dumplings
Xuan Xuan fills the dumplings

Pure concentration of a 6 year old
The pure concentration of a 6 year old Chinese cook

Cousin Wei Wei can wrap dumplings perfectly too
Cousin Wei Wei can wrap dumplings perfectly too

Dumplings on every surface
Dumplings on every surface

Every cook deserves her reward - the spicier "ma" the better in Xuan Xuan's case
Every cook deserves her reward – the spicier “ma” the better in Xuan Xuan’s case

Da Gu’s Pork and Cabbage Dumpling Filling
This is not a precise recipe. it is the way Da Gu has always made her filling and the trick is to get the right balance of pork, vegetables and seasoning and to use the warm oil to get the sloppy consistency of a thick batter.
Da Gu recommends using ground star anise with pork (she ground it in my pestle and mortar) and ground sichuan peppercorns with beef and lamb.

  • 500g minced pork
  • A thumb of ginger finely minced
  • 2 medium leeks, white part only, finely minced
  • 1 to 2 tbs of soy sauce
  • 1 tsp of ground star anise
  • One head of Chinese cabbage, finely chopped and squeezed very hard to remove excess liquid
  • About 100 ml of vegetable oil heated to moderate and allowed cool slightly.


  1. Mix the pork, ginger leek, soy sauce and star anise.
  2. In a separate blow add the hot oil to the cabbage.
  3. Mix this well with the meat mixture and season with salt to taste – only add the salt after the oil to avoid drawing more liquid from the cabbage.

PS. The next post will be photos Shan and Shane’s Wedding and Dermot’s Christening

I got it – I think I got it: making jiaozi dumplings from scratch

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do another dumpling and noodle class. After all I’d seen a demo by Chef Ricky of China Sichuan at our Taste of China event in Cooks Academy. And then I’d spent Wednesday afternoon making what seemed like hundreds of dumplings with my quin jia (Shan’s MaMa) in the tiny kitchen of Shane and Shan’s apartment. I had watched in awe as she flew through rolling out perfect rounds from a simple flour and water dough, using what resembles a short length of broom handle as a rolling pin, and deftly wrapping them into perfect parcels for boiling or frying.

Two hands are better than one

And then there was the small matter of the hand-pulled noodles. That experience, which reminded me of rolling balls of wool for my Mum when she used to knit aran sweaters when I was a child, had left me feeling that I should stick to the knitting, or in my case stir-fries. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out to become a Chinese pastry chef, too old to learn new tricks etc. And there are always frozen dumpling wrappers in the Asia market.
I had watched and tried to learn from Ma Ma, getting comfortable at kneading and proving the pastry and reasonably competent at mixing the filling with just two chopsticks, stirring in one direction only, but rolling out of the pastry to make attractive parcels eluded me.
Hmm… not as easy as it looks

We were tired after our early morning market tour and a full morning of Sichuan cooking and I was tempted to give the dumpling and stir-fried noodle class a miss and sneak back to cuddle baby Dermot. Confession: I even fell asleep sitting upright over a Starbucks coffee mocha on our lunch break, (coffee being my only concession to a western way of life when in China). But we had signed up for the class a week earlier so we stuck to the original plan.
We were joined for the afternoon by the two lovely young Chinese and French girls who had been at our Tuesday noodle class and a fantastic young couple from Montreal – she French Canadian, he Lebanese. Elisa is now a political TV journalist who once ran her own restaurant where she had cooked for Leonard Cohen a number of times, definitely enough to hook me in. I would have loved to have had longer to get to know them.
So buoyed by the cheerful and enthusiastic company and Chun Yi’s good-humoured tuition, I gritted my teeth and decided to crack this dumpling-making lark for once and for all.
We learned about why you use salt or high gluten flour in some doughs and not in others and the effect of using more or less water on the consistency of the dough and then we got down to work, preparing the dough, leaving it to rest while making up our fillings
I was well pleased with my length of dough, ready to cut into individual wrappers.
Now this is more like it!

And suddenly it just happened, the trick of rolling the dough 90 degrees each time you cut a length and then squeezing each one slightly at the sides to get regular shapes; the pleasure of flattening each piece with the palm of your hand; the knack of rolling out the pastry, turning it 15 degrees each time as you stretch the dough away from you until you get that (almost) perfect round; using two chop sticks to place the right amount of filling on the disc and flatten it down; and the five (yes 5!) different ways I now know how to fold them depending on whether I want to boil or fry them or both.
Dumpling dough ready to be flattened

And I now know up to 6 more fillings to go with the pork and Chinese chive version that MaMa makes and the China Sichuan version. They are: pork and fennel (or chinese chives); beef (or lamb) with leek (or red onion); and a vegetarian one of baby chinese cabbage and dried mushrooms.
Jiaozi boiled and fried

Of course I was so excited at what felt like the first time I learned how to ride a bicycle that I forgot to take photos of the finished products. Elisa and her partner took lots though, with a VERY serious looking camera so I will update this post when she sends them to me on her return to Montreal.
Meanwhile you will have to believe me that they looked almost (well almost) like these  made by Chef Ricky and photographed by my friend Solange Daini. 😉
Ricky’s dumplings at Taste of China

Now learning how to make dumplings from scratch may not be the most important life skill I will acquire in the rest of my days but the pleasure of the achievement still brings a smile to my face and we couldn’t have Dermot having a nai nai who couldn’t make jiaozi could we?
To finish off the afternoon, Chun Yi showed us how to make chaomian – stir-fried noodles. Within minutes she had made up a basic flour, salt and water dough, slightly drier than the dumpling dough, rolled it thinly and cut it into thin strips. She boiled it for 2 to 3 minutes and then stir-fried it in a simple vegetarian dish of onion, green and red pepper. None of your pulling and dragging this time! No excuse for me the next time I run out of noodles so and quin jia has also promised to show me how to make her wide flat noodles next week.
Noodles in minutes

Quick wok!

Thank you Chun Yi and Hutong Cuisine for a fun afternoon that defeated jet-lag and for the great company and teaching.
See www.hutongcuisine.com – afternoon pastry class 2.30 – 6 pm, price 260 rmb (about €32) per person.
PS Nai Nai moment coming up. I’m writing up this post in Clovelly, NSW, Australia where we are having a lovely time with our daughter Claire and her husband Mike. Missing our little grandson though so it was lovely to wake up to this e-card today, our wedding anniversary.

Wouldn’t that bring a smile to anyone’s face. Thank you Dermot, Shane & Shan for making our day. 🙂