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. Julie
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. Ingredients
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.
Mix the pork, ginger leek, soy sauce and star anise.
In a separate blow add the hot oil to the cabbage.
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
Happenstance… Don’t you just love that word…
Back in April I was at the Leinster Regional Awards of the Restaurant Association of Ireland and I got talking to this very nice guy, a professional chef who has worked in Chapter One and the Dylan Hotel and was formerly a fashion designer. After a few minutes chat I realised that he – Robert Jacob – was the chef who had taught me knife skills at a class last year and he figured out that I was writing the blog he enjoyed and whose recipes he had delved into and experimented with at home. We followed one another on Twitter but had never met or made the connection. Robert writes his own blog which you can read here.
Fast forward to 3rd July and he and I had put together a night at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School where he teaches. I talked about Chinese food and tried to give some insight into the flavours of China, the main regional variations, how Chinese food must indulge taste, smell, sight and “mouth feel” as well as satisfying the appetite, and some of the traditions and health giving properties associated with Chinese food.
Meanwhile Robert demonstrated five recipes from my blog. Now I have to admit to having been a bit nervous. There is no way I would have the confidence to cook those recipes at a demonstration myself – some fingers might go missing while I gesticulated as I talked – but handing over the recipes to a professional was a bit like letting your baby out to play for the first time or your teenager off to her first disco.
We had great fun choosing which recipes to use from over 100 posts on the blog. Robert opted for the ones below and you can try them yourself if you haven’t already. The links to the recipes are included.
Crispy Chilli Beef – a real favourite on the blog which can also be made with chicken – hard to put a region on this one but it probably emerged as a western variation on a Sichuan dish – a takeaway favourite with a more traditional and lighter twist.
Xinjiang Lamb with Cumin and Red Onion – very evocative for me of my visit to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province to meet my daughter -in -law Shan’s family last July. That’s the region in the far north west of the map above and it’s capital is the most inland capital in the world.
Hunan Steamed Fish with chopped salted chillies – a simple and fragrant dish from one of the spicier regions of China where Chairman Mao hailed from. You will spot it in the south east/ central part of China on the map.
Sichuan Fried Green Beans – the dish that tickled my taste buds and started me on this blog – a perennial Sichuan favourite from the spice bowl of China – you will see it there in the map located in the south west of China, steaming in it’s inland heat.
Dan Dan Noodles also from Sichuan Province – because no Taste of China would feel right without this unique, flavoursome Chinese fast-food, the kind of thing you can rustle up late at night when you’ve arrived home with the “munchies”.
We also shared the recipes for Tom Chef’s Chilli Jam and also Homemade Chilli Oil – two condiments I now can’t do without in my store cupboard.
Needless to say Robert handled the demo with a lovely relaxed style, adding his own touches to some of the dishes, and the attendees seemed to have lots of fun and enjoy the food. Two of my good Twitter friends were there – Marie McKenna (@Maud Monaghan) and Irene (@MissH_Ireland) with her great Henckels knives. They took photos and a small selection of them feature in this post (thanks ladies).
So another Shanaingans first for a blog that will only celebrate its first birthday on Monday next 29th July. Thank you Robert and Donnybrook Fair for the fun and the opportunity and thank you all who have encouraged me and kept me going in my first year. I’m told most food blogs don’t last this long.
I’m still marvelling at how many new friends I’ve made, how much I’ve learned and how many extraordinary experiences I’ve had, all as a result of a random conversation with my son Shane last July… yes… happenstance…
As an indirect result of the blog I attended dinner at the Chinese Ambassador’s Residence in Dublin last night. My friend Brendan Halligan told the story of an essay competition in Ancient Greece, a very serious challenge where philosophers were asked to write on the theme “what do you know?”. There was much frenetic writing but Aristotle was the first to put down his pen. He won the prize. His essay was short. He wrote “I know.. that I know… nothing…”
When it comes to Chinese food I still know “nothing”, but perhaps a little less of nothing than this time last year.
Thank you all,
I’ve been going through the blog this weekend to decide which recipes to include in the Taste of China Demo at Donnybrook Fair Cookery School on the evening of Wednesday 3rd July when chef Robert Jacob will cook a selection of Chinese dishes while I talk through the techniques of Chinese cooking and regional variations in cuisine.
Robert is one of the great “foodie” friends I’ve made through the blog and Twitter. He was a fashion designer before he became a chef and has worked with Ross Lewis in Chapter One and Paul Kelly in The Merrion. You can read Marie Claire Digby’s recent True Character profile of him for the Irish Times Magazine here. Before we got to know one another I attended a course he gave in knife skills so I owe any ability I have to dice and slice to him.
It’s a real privilege to team up with Robert for this class which is a first for Shananigans.
It’s less than 11 months since I started the blog and it’s always intriguing to see what recipes readers return to again and again. It gives me particular pleasure when I discover that one of the many lovely people I have met though the blog has taken one of the recipes and given it her own twist.
The crispy chilli beef recipe that I posted last November has been consistently one of the most popular recipes. Before I started the blog I would occasionally order something similar from the local Chinese takeaway but I always regretted it afterwards because it left me feeling heavy and bloated. So I had set out to create a lighter version at home using egg white and potato flour for the batter which makes it suitable for coeliacs and the wheat intolerant.
One of my most supportive readers Marie McKenna has taken the recipe a step further by adding pak choi. Sometimes she substitutes chicken for the beef or adds whatever other vegetables she has to hand. She sent me the two photos below of her results which I have reproduced with her permission.
I made crispy chilli beef for dinner for last night and we really loved the addition of the pak choi so I’ve tweaked the recipe to include it and made a few other minor changes. Thank you Marie for the inspiration and the photos. That’s what these recipes are for – to be shared and adapted. Shananigans Crispy Chilli Beef – Xiang ciu niu rou pian – 香脆牛肉片 Photo courtesy of Marie McKenna Serves 3 – 4
400g sirloin steak or bavette of beef
2 egg whites, beaten
Good pinch of salt
About 4 tbs potato flour
A pinch of baking powder
Oil for deep frying – use good quality sunflower or groundnut oil
2 carrots cut into thin matchsticks
2 heads pak choi, root removed and trimmed (optional)
2 spring onions thinly sliced at steep angles
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 red chillies, de-seeded and thinly sliced at steep angles
About 80 g caster sugar
3 tbs Chinese black vinegar
2 tbs light soy sauce
Roasted sesame seeds (optional) to garnish
Coriander (optional) to garnish
Rice to serve
Cut the beef 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 beef strips in the flour mix, shaking off any excess.
Blanch the carrots in boiling water for one minute,
Fill a wok quarter full with oil and heat to 180 degrees (or until a piece of bread fries golden brown in 15 seconds).
Add the beef quickly, stirring using long wooden chopsticks, a Chinese “spade” or a spatula to separate the strands. Cook the beef for 3 – 4 minutes, stirring to keep the strands separate, until it is really crispy.
Remove with a mesh strainer or slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.
Pour the oil from the wok leaving about 1 tbs.
Reheat the remaining oil over a medium/high heat. Stir fry the pak choi, if using, for a few minutes until wilted. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a warm serving dish
Add another small amount of oil to the wok and re-heat over a medium/high heat. Add the spring onion, garlic and chilli and stir-fry for a few moments to release the aromas.
Increase the heat to high, add the beef and carrots and stir to mix and heat through.
Add the sugar, soy sauce and vinegar and stir to combine and dissolve the sugar. When heated through and bubbling, serve on top of the pak choi, if using.
Garnish with coriander and/or lightly toasted sesame seeds, if using, and serve with steamed rice.
Variations: Photo courtesy of Marie McKenna
You can use almost any steak in this dish. At the start I used to use fillet steak but it is not necessary to have such an expensive cut. I find bavette of beef (also known as flank steak), which is available at good butchers, is a drier cut which responds particularly well to this recipe. It is also much better value. Sirloin works well and last night I used rib eye because I had two left over from a BBQ during the week.
Chicken thigh or breast can be used instead of beef and the chicken strips will take a little less time to cook.
Chinkiang Chinese black vinegar is readily available in all Asian supermarkets here and in some good grocers. It has excellent flavour. Last night I used aged Chinese vinegar – lao chen cu – which I brought back from Beijing. It is the type used as a dipping sauce for dumplings in China. The result was tangy and delicious. If you cant get hold of Chinese vinegar, use aged balsamic vinegar. The result wont be quite as authentic but it will still taste good.
If you are not using pak choi, you could serve this with a green vegetable such as steamed tender stem broccoli, or add a few green beans or broccoli florets to the stir fry.