There’s a Leonard Cohen song titled “Waiting for the Miracle to Come” which begins “Baby I’ve been waiting…”
That’s what I feel like these days as we anticipate the birth of Baby Shananigans while hoping that we will be waiting a little while longer. It has been more than a week since the baby first attempted to make a surprise early appearance. Shane is coping and Shan seems a model of calm and good humour as she sits it out in Beijing. I wish I could say the same for myself…
My thoughts stray to those weeks we spent in China last summer and the lovely outings we had in Xinjiang Province with Shan’s family when Baby Shananigans was just a little speck in our imaginations. We spent one of those days at Tianchi, the beautiful Heaven’s Lake perched 2,000 metres above the arid desert terrain around Urumqi. The lake is inaccessible at this time of year when it fills from the melting snow of the surrounding mountains. In summer it is a breath of fresh air and an escape from the oven-like basin below. I have great photos of that day out which I must include in a travel blogpost sometime soon. You really do feel closer to heaven there.
Shane and Shan and baby we are wishing heavenly blessings your way and praying that all will be well.
Despite all that’s going on, we still have to eat so I try to put together something nourishing and tasty from whatever is handy. Yesterday I found 2 barbary duck breasts in the freezer, some odds and ends of vegetables in the drawer and with them I made a variation of Dongting Stir-fried Duck Breast from Fuchsia Dunlop’sRevolutionary Chinese Cookbook on Hunan Cuisine. Sichuan Favoured Stir-fried Duck
I don’t usually feel compelled to write two blog posts in one evening but a number of things came together over the last few days which have my mind whirring with the endless possibilities of Chinese cuisine. Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure
The second episode of BBC2’s Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure with Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang plunged me back into the “feel” of the China I experienced – the passion for colour, texture and taste, the array of dishes, the attention to perfection in technique and authenticity, the extraordinary, numbing sensation of sichuan pepper on the tongue, the mothers and “nãinai” (grannies), especially the grannies, so devoted to preparing the meal for everyone else that they are usually the last to eat and often eat alone. Shan told me she never saw her beloved Granny sit down to eat with the family and yet this woman, with her bound feet, was the powerhouse of her family.
This 2nd episode of Exploring China was set in Chengdu the capital of Sichuan Province and the images of ever-expanding and developing China, while the old traditions linger, evoked my own experience of Urumqi in the far north-west in Xinjiang Province, a city which now has a population of over 4 million people.
Gok Wan’s Dim Sum
Meanwhile I set out yesterday to see if it was possible to create genuine dim sum at home using Gok Wan’s recipes from his Channel 4 Gok Cooks Chinese series. So I prepared:
Prawn and Scallop Moneybag Dumplings
Chilli and Salt Squid
Steamed Rice Parcels with Chinese Mushrooms wrapped in lotus leaves
Chicken and Leek Potsickers
Pork and Prawn Potstickers
Steamed Beef and Coriander Balls
Steamed Pork Ribs
The short answer is that it IS possible, provided you don’t mind being on your feet from 11 am to 6 pm and enjoy the pleasure of playing around with endless small quantities of ingredients, making up tiny, delicious parcels of delights and have VERY patient friends who can tolerate their Sunday dinner coming at them in a haphazard way – but that’s what happens in China after all.
For me the real kick of yesterday was discovering the sensuous pleasure of cooking with a bamboo steamer, the speed with which pork ribs and minced beef meatballs cook and absorb flavours with no oil added, the scent of the steaming wood and the sizzle of water added to sticky dumplings, their bases already crisped, which turned out exactly like the real thing served at home by Shan’s family in Urumqi.
I loved making the prawn and money bag dumplings and tying them up with chive “lasoos”.
Once our guests arrived it was impossible to cook, serve, be hospitable and take photos at the same time but I can honestly say that the part-fried and part-steamed dumplings turned out just as I remembered them from Urumqi.
We finished the meal with chilled watermelon dipped in lime and raspberry coulis from the Exploring China cookbook – simple and palate-cleansing. Shan’s Xinjiang Spaghetti
Then I woke this morning to a new recipe from Shan in my inbox. This time it was for Xinjiang spaghetti with lamb, one of my favourite recipes from Urumqi and another reminder of the common ground between Italian and Chinese cooking. As luck would have it I had 2 small lean side-loin lamb chops in the fridge and it was easy to pick up Chinese Celery and Hu Jiao Fen pepper in the Asia Market.
The white pepper seems slightly more aromatic than ordinary white pepper but I suspect the latter would be a good substitute.
The Chinese celery has a lovely crunchy texture and more flavour than ordinary Irish celery.
I notice I tend to use a bit more meat in her recipes than Shan recommends but it’s not really necessary and these stir-fry dishes are a great way of “stretching” meat for a quick family meal. I used spelt tagliatelle because that’s what was in the cupboard and it reminded me of the flat noodles in Urumqi. I would also love to try this dish with “Pici” pasta from Tuscany.
It took about 20 minutes, if even that, from the time I started slicing garlic to serving up the meal. It was filling and delicious but not heavy. Not a scrap was left at the end.
When I started out on this blog a few short weeks ago I said I had no idea where this journey would take me. Well tomorrow, on the strength of it, I get my first chance to be inside a Chinese restaurant kitchen in Ireland. This is how half-formed dreams take shape. A word of acknowledgement
Over the weekend I visited various Twitter Foodie friends for ingredients so a special thanks to @brid_h2g for fresh produce at her Honest to Goodness Market. @pat_whelan for pork, lamb, beef and chicken from James Whelan Butchers at Avoca, @RobertsofDalkey for scallops, prawns and squid from Roberts of Dalkey and @AsiaMarketIrl for endless patience in meeting my requests for ingredients at the Asia Market, not to mention Enter the Panda @enterthepanda and @ClaireB_Oz for supporting their enthusiastic Ma in this new endeavour 🙂 If you’d like to try a hand at this dish yourself, have a look at Shan’s Xinjiang Spaghetti recipe. Please leave a comment too. I’d love to hear how you got on!
When we visited Shan’s family in Urumqi, Xinjiang Region every meal included a lamb dish, whether we were eating at home, in a restaurant or having street food. Indeed Shan’s mother believed that a meal was incomplete without lamb. Typically it was served with noodles rather than rice and with lots of vegetables. The noodles were always freshly made by hand, even at home.
The prevalence of lamb reflects the easy availability of good quality lamb in that mountainous region and the middle-eastern influences on the cooking carried on by the Muslim Uighur community. Though we ate lamb every day for the 8 days we were in Xinjiang, no two meals tasted the same. Every home and restaurant had its own variation of this ubiquitous dish.
Shan’s recipe below is another of those very easy and quick recipes where you can use whatever vegetables you have to hand and adjust the balance of meat to vegetables and the spiciness of the seasonings to suit your personal taste. This version uses packet noodles or spaghetti and is ideal for a speedy family supper after a long day at work or for easy weekend entertaining.
Shan says: “This is a compromise recipe as I couldn’t make handmade noodles the size of spaghetti, so I just used spaghetti. Chinese pre-made noodles usually get soggy easily but it may be possible to get good quality noodles in an Asian supermarket in Ireland.” Shan’s Xinjiang Spaghetti with Lamb – Xinjiang Ban Mian
Serves 4 – 6 people Ingredients:
300 – 800 g of lean lamb (depending on how meaty you want the dish to be)
A good handful of string beans
1 fresh green and 1 fresh red chilli (or substitute a red and yellow or green pepper, or a mix of pepper and chillies if you don’t like it too spicy)
One medium onion
One small head of celery (thin and dark Chinese celery, available in Asian supermarkets is better if you can find it – it has a stronger flavour and a bit more bitterness, if not available use about 4 sticks of ordinary celery)
4 cloves of garlic
2 large tomatoes
White pepper powder (Hu Jiao Fen, 胡椒粉)
Tomato paste/ puree
Cooking oil – groundnut, sunflower or rapeseed oil
Spaghetti to serve
Cut the lamb into thin square slices.
Cut the string beans into 2cm long strips.
Cut the chilli/pepper into diamond shapes and the onion into thin slices or square shapes.
If you find thin celery, cut the stalks to the same size as string beans; if it is normal thick celery, then cut to small cubes so its flavour is easier to get out.
Cut the garlic into thin slices.
Cut the tomatoes into wedges.
Cooking Steps: Noodle/spaghetti: Start by cooking the spaghetti as the main dish only takes few minutes to cook. Lamb dish:
Note that the entire cooking process for this dish uses high heat.
Start by heating a wok and putting a generous amount (about 3 tbs) of oil in it. Wait until the oil is really hot.
Add the lamb and stir-fry briskly to brown. Add a small amount of soy sauce, salt to taste and about 2/3 tea spoon of pepper powder. Stir-fry to mix and remove the lamb with a strainer or slotted spoon when it is cooked and set aside. This stage should only take a minute or two in all as the oil is very hot.
Wipe out the wok, reheat it and add about 3 tbs of oil. When it is really hot, add your vegetables and garlic. Stir fry briskly until the tomato juice is cooked out. Add a dash of soy sauce, salt and sugar to taste and a good squeeze of tomato puree (or about half a small can of tomato paste). Taste the sauce to see if the flavour is ok and adjust seasoning if necessary,
Return the lamb to the pan and stir fry for 30 seconds or so, then serve on a dish of spaghetti.
Variations to the dish:
You can replace lamb with beef.
You can use aubergine instead of, or in addition to, the green beans. Aubergine also helps to prevent high blood pressure and protect the cardiovascular system. When preparing the aubergine, wash it but do not peel it as most of the nutrients are in its dark purple skin (especially vitamin E, C and P (bioflavanoid)); Cut the aubergine into thin slices and place into a bowl of clean water to prevent it from becoming oxidised (otherwise it turns to black). Squeeze the water out before cooking it.*
You can also cook it as a vegetarian dish and double the amount of aubergine as it is rich in protein and calcium compared to other vegetables.
If you want it to taste a bit more middle-eastern, add some cumin seeds when cooking the lamb or aubergine..
*Note: The approach suggested by Shan works with Chinese aubergines which can be found in Asian supermarkets. With European aubergines, it is better to sprinkle the slices with salt and leave in a colander to allow excess moisture to drain out and pat therm dry before use. Verdict:
I love the versatility of this dish which means it can be a handy way of using up left over vegetables and creating a riot of colour on the plate.
See my first attempt to try out this recipe in Exploring China – from Dublin, Ireland. I made it for a second time in late October, substituting mange touts for green beans and using green, red and yellow pepper and a small chilli to create lots of flavour but not too much spice.