When food is love connecting families

I love my two children and their ability to bring a smile to my face (or even a tear to my eye) from the other side of the world.
When Claire is in one of her bubbly moods, her enthusiasm is infectious. And Shane has a soft side that tugs at my heart strings. In the last two days both of them took on new cooking challenges.
When Claire visited home briefly in September she got bitten by the Chinese cooking bug and she took a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice back with her to Oz. If I was to recommend just one book from the list I set out in Chinese Kitchen Essentials it would be this one. It is packed with straight-forward and easy to follow recipes for Chinese home-cooking and is a great spring-board for experimentation.
Anyway yesterday Claire cooked a meal for Mike who has just started a new job and her sequence of  emails from Sydney about her latest culinary exploits went something like this:
“Oh my, I may actually be the best chef ever!!
“Fuschia Dunlop is a genius! We’ve just wolfed down her menu for two – twice cooked pork, smacked cucumber in garlicky sauce and pak choy with fresh shiitake. So good, more photos to follow!”

Claire cooking off the  veg for twice-cooked pork

“This was the easiest meal to cook and prepare.
I boiled the pork belly last night and it went in the fridge so today it was just a matter of chopping up the veg and getting everything prepped.
The pork belly is just so, so tasty. I added lots of red and green pepper as we had a few sitting round and I can’t get over how far 200g of pork belly can go!”

Preparing the pak choy with shitake mushrooms

“The fresh shiitake and pak-choy side dish is great with the lashings of garlic and ginger. I maybe under cooked it just a little.

 Like you I love the Chinese cucumber dishes, I added extra chilli as I had no chilli oil and it was refreshing but with a kick.”

“Yummy dishes!” says Claire

And Claire’s verdict: “Altogether a spectacular feast for a Tuesday night! Poor Mike has been made tell me in many ways how much he enjoyed it. I feel like a domestic goddess! xx”
“Dinner is served.”

“P.S. if it’s not obvious from excessive photos, I would like praise please! xx”
Praise granted Claire and we have also noted that the photos were taken with your brand new iPhone 5 🙂
If you would like to cook Fuchsia’s recipes, go out and by her book which is readily available in Ireland and elsewhere. You will also find variations of the three recipes Claire cooked in these links on the blog – twice-cooked pork, bashed cucumber and pak choi with shitake mushrooms.
Meanwhile, over in Beijing, Shane was helping Shan celebrate her first birthday as his wife today. I spoke to Shan earlier and she was very excited that her MaMa was cooking Big Plate Chicken with home made wide flat noodles for her birthday dinner. But Shane had another surprise up his sleeve. He took himself off to a baking school near his office and made his first ever cake to mark the occasion.
I think Shane looks just a little bit pleased with himself!

I spoke to Shane, Shan and MaMa on Skype just before their guests arrived for dinner. MaMa was waving at me in great excitement and telling me in Mandarin to hurry back to Beijing soon where she will show me how to make those wide flat noodles. Sometimes I wish I had a “beam me up Scottie” transporter so that I could just share those special moments.
Anyway Shane says “The cake was a success, as was (more importantly) Shan’s impromptu Birthday dinner”. Aww… he’s a romatic is my lovely son…
A Chinese birthday cake with an Irish twist

Notes from a Past Life – Chilli steak with just-cooked greens

Back in the day… Back in January 2004 the Celtic Tiger was still roaring. We had children who had never experienced recession. I was working full-time in a job that meant I rarely got home before 9 pm each evening. My adult children were beginning to spread their wings. Claire was in London working with Jamie Oliver, and Shane was in Edinburgh designing websites, almost overlapping with Shan who studied there and who he was destined to meet in Beijing in 2010. To me they seemed far away but, with hindsight, they were so close, barely across the water. We Irish seemed invincible then, confident, adventurous, the world our oyster… back in the day.
Even then I loved to cook and have friends over for dinner, but there was very little time so I was always on the look out for recipes that were easy and fast to prepare. I used to look forward to the Food and Drink section of the Sunday Tribune magazine and I would cut out and keep recipes that appealed to me. A dinner menu, published in that newspaper on the 18th January, 2004 with the headline “Cold Comfort”, was ideal because it didn’t require much more than an hour to put together a respectable meal. That menu, with its starter of Mango Goat’s Cheese and Parma Melts, a main of Chilli Steak with just-cooked greens and Warm Chocolate Puddings for dessert, became my dinner party menu of choice for most of that year and every friend I have ever entertained has been at the receiving end of that mango and goats cheese starter.

Chilli-steak with just cooked greens

I had forgotten all about it, until last Monday night when my friend Brenda asked me to dig out our old recipe for ginger biscuits and I came upon it in a folder at the back of a cupboard. Nostalgia swept over me and memories came flooding back – of the frantic rush to get a meal on the table for guests, of Green & Black’s chocolate simmering in the pot, of peeling mangoes as the juices ran out of them, of the fragrance of cumin from marinating beef. Ah, those were the days…
And as I amused myself reading the article about dank January days and noted that “Pak choi or Chinese cabbage is now widely available in shops and Asian stores”, I realised that the author was one Catherine Cleary. Could it be “our” Catherine Cleary (@Catherineeats), whose restaurant reviews are now the first thing I read  every Saturday in the Irish Times, I wondered. And YES, it was. She tells me she wrote those recipes after their first Christmas as parents when they were in no mood for January denial.
So with her permission and a big thank you to her for many happy dinners with friends, I’m reproducing the chilli-steak recipe below and you can also see my efforts to re-create the other two recipes on the blog.

This is a very simple and light dish with relatively mild flavours. The sour chilli marinade tenderises the beef so that it cooks very fast. What fascinates me is how similar it is to dishes I had in Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China, where Shan’s family live and where the middle eastern influences spill over into the local cuisine and the use of cumin is prevalent. How the world turns full circle…
I made this for dinner today with lovely fillet steak from James Whelan Butchers at Avoca, Monkstown and Irish pak choi and spring onions from Superquinn in Blackrock, Co. Dublin.
Chilli Steak with Just-cooked Greens
Cold Comfort

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