Mountain Air and Chinese Marbled Tea Eggs

Mr B and I have just returned from one of those magical long weekends when you literally have to pinch yourself that what you are experiencing and seeing is actually real. We were attending a friend’s wedding in South Tyrol in Northern Italy, but due to logistics we decided to fly into Munich, a city we hold dear and one that we visited last December. Driving through Germany, Austria and into northern Italy may sound like a bit of an epic journey but the truth of the matter is that it only takes 3.5 hours and we thought a scenic drive through the  Brenner pass would be rather pleasant.

Our destination was the stunning eco spa hotel, Vigilius mountain resort, which was lovingly designed by architect Matteo Thun. The hotel blends into the natural environment seemlessly due to the use of materials from renewable resources. All the water used in hotel – from the pool, shower, baths and drinking comes from the Vigiljoch spring water.  To reach the hotel you need to take a cable car for about 15 minutes and upon arrival you really do feel a world away from the stresses and interruptions of day to day living. There is no Wifi or TV in the hotel, which allows you to really switch off and enjoy the natural environment that you find yourself in.

The wedding itself allowed us to explore the mountain side, not least because we had to take a single chairlift a further 15 minutes higher up the mountain and then a 15 minute walk to the church. It was one of those experiences that we will remember and cherish forever, not least because of the surreal nature of taking a chairlift dressed in wedding attire.

The smell of the pine forests and the wood burning in the chimneys conjured up happy memories of times in the mountains when the snow was thick and heavy. It was refreshing though seeing the mountains covered with grass and wild flowers and the cows with bells around their necks.

During the church service itself, the cow bells could be heard just outside the church entrance, to the extent we would not have been surprised had they ambled in to take a look at what was going on.

On Sunday, after all the wedding festivities were drawing to a close, Mr B and I returned to the top of the mountain and had a good amble around the wooded paths that are carved into the mountain. We came across characterful chocolate box houses similar to the ones that we all draw as children. I loved the green shutters and the window boxes filled with bright red flowers matching perfectly with the red gingham curtains.

We returned, one last time, to the church where we had spent some precious moments the previous day.

It was hard to drag ourselves away from such a picturesque spot, with beautiful blue skies and wonderful green mountains.

Returning to London I was convinced that the good weather must surely have arrived to our shores – I was clearly delusional after all that mountain sun and fresh air – as the rain persists and people’s moods continue to fray.

As activities with Big A and Little Z are housebound with the continuous downfall, we decided to make some Chinese marbled tea eggs. In China, the eggs are a common snack that are adored by school children and adults alike. The marbled effect, that is created through gently cracking of the hard boiled eggs, is attractive and unique, in that no two eggs will look the same. The girls love to see the different effects that are created each time we finally break open the shells.

I have loved hard boiled eggs for as long as I can remember, to the extent that no picnic is complete without them. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, Chinese marbled tea eggs also taste really delicious with the subtle flavours of tea, soy and aniseed gently resonating from the egg. So why not try making these next time you plan on having a picnic when the sun shines or, for that matter, when it rains and you decide to have it inside instead.

Chinese Marbled Tea Eggs

Sourced from Balance and Harmony Asian Food by Neil Perry – p193

6 free range or organic eggs

3 tbs Jasmine tea leaves (or black tea leaves)

2 cinnamon bark sticks

3 star anise

half tsp sea salt

100 ml dark soy sauce

1. Place the eggs in a pan of cold water so that they are completely covered and gently bring the water to the boil. Simmer gently for 6 minutes.

2. Gently transfer the eggs to a bowl full of ice and then cover with cold water. Place the pan of boiled water to one side as you will use this later.

3. Once they are cooled tap the eggs gently so that the shell cracks but does not break off. You want to have the effect of lots of small cracks.

4. Place the eggs in the pan of boiled water and add the tea, cinnamon bark, star anise, salt and soy sauce.

5. Simmer for a further hour and then remove from the heat and leave to cool completely. The longer you leave them the more flavour is drawn into the eggs and the more marbled the eggs become. Those above were left in the fridge overnight.

6. To serve remove the eggs from the stock and carefully remove the shell to reveal the unique marbled effect.


The Perfect Steamed Lemon Chicken

I have always been massively underwhelmed when ordering lemon chicken at Chinese restaurants to the extent that I never order it anymore as I don’t want to have further disappointments. It’s always far too sweet and the chicken looks too white and unappealing. So you can guess how delighted I was when I recently tried Neil Perry’s ‘Steamed Lemon Chicken’ recipe that actually tasted really good. I am a HUGE fan of the Australian chef  and his beautifully presented book ‘Balance and Harmony’. It was in his book that I found this recipe that is now one of my absolute favourites.

The beauty of Perry’s ‘Steamed Lemon Chicken’ is that it is really really easy. Seriously it is definitely going to become one of my ‘go to’ recipes that I can rustle up really quickly and yet can also be perfect to offer guests coming around for dinner.  Steaming the chicken really retains the flavour and tenderness through the use of steam and is one of the most healthy forms of cooking. It’s a win win.

The key with a good lemon chicken is to buy thighs and not breast meat folks as it is so much more tasty and tender. Seriously, do not think about buying breast meat for this recipe as it really won’t taste half as good. Trust me on this one.

The only alterations I have made to Perry’s recipe are:

1) As I did not have peanut oil to hand I used ground nut oil as an alternative.

2) Neil Perry’s recipe uses 350g of chicken and I have used 550g so my chicken needed more steaming time. He suggested 25 minutes but mine needed closer to 40 minutes.

Steamed Lemon Chicken

Serves 2-3

550g free-range or organic chicken thigh fillets, skin on (if possible), each cut into 3 pieces

1 1/2 (one and a half) lemons, quartered lengthways

a pinch of freshly ground white pepper

2 spring onions (scallions), cut into julienne

Marinade

1 tbsp shaoxing

1 1/2 tbsp light soy sauce

1 1/2 tbsp oyster sauce

2 tsp sesame oil

1 tbsp peanut/ground nut oil

2 tsp sea salt

1 tbsp sugar

 1. Place the chicken thighs in a shallow heatproof bowl and squeeze the lemon juice over the chicken and add the lemon skins to the bowl.

2. Prepare the marinade and add to the bowl of chicken and mix thoroughly using your hands and leave for at least 30 minutes so that the marinade can infuse the chicken with it’s wonderful flavours.

3. Firmly cover the bowl with foil and place into a large bamboo steamer (you can also use a steam oven if you do not have a bamboo steamer – both work equally well).

4. Place the bamboo steamer on a rack over a pot/wok of rapidly boiling water – you will need to place a couple of  inches of water into the pot. Put the lid on and steam the chicken for 40 minutes.  You will need to turn the chicken once during cooking so be careful when removing the lid and foil as the steam will be very hot. To check the chicken is cooked sufficiently make a small incision into the flesh to see that it is fully cooked and not pink! If it is not quite done, continue to steam for a further few minutes. If you cook with a smaller amount of meat – 350g – steam for 25 minutes.

5. Carefully remove the bowl from the steamer and place the chicken onto plates, or a warmed central plate and sprinkle with ground white pepper and spring onions.  Serve with rice.


Ma Po Tofu – a Sichuan classic


A couple of years ago I stumbled across the most exquisite looking cookery book. Its cover drew me in and before I knew it I was leafing through the pages drooling over the divine recipes. Some of the ingredients I was unaccustomed to, and I think it was this that really attracted me to buy the book. Who wants to remain in their culinary comfort zone, not me, so with a youthful enthusiasm I purchased it. Since it has been in my possession I have lovingly poured over it, and if the truth be told I have even been known to take it to bed to read and study the recipes on numerous occasions. The book in question is called ‘Balance & Harmony, Asian Food’, by the Australian chef Neil Perry, who I had previously never heard of before. I personally find it rare to come across a cookery book where I actually want to cook more than a dozen dishes from it, but with Neil’s book I really want to try them all.

Its beautifully set out into chapters focusing on basic techniques and recipes then moving onto advanced recipes and banquet menus. The dishes are beautifully photographed and styled, interspersed with stunning old prints of Chinese women in traditional dress. If there are prizes for stunning cookery books this would surely win the top prize. Oh, and for the sceptical amongst you, although I am sure there are none, I am not being paid to say any of these kind words about Neil Perry’s book.

A wonderful recipe from his book to share with you, dear reader, is Ma Po Tofu, or as it is also affectionately known, Pockmarked-Face Lady’s Tofu. Put off?  Don’t be, as you are in for a treat and you’ll be doing cartwheels of delight after your first mouthful. Mark my words.

To read the full story of where this recipe derives its name click here. The dish is a Sichuan classic, and is cooked with pork or beef mince with tofu, in a spicy chilli bean sauce. Not the type of chilli that has you gasping for milk, but one that urges you to have more mouthfuls, so please do not be put off by thinking it will be too hot. Sure it’s feisty, but it has a wonderful balance of sweetness and spiciness, which prevents it being too overpowering. If you are a vegetarian you can also enjoy the dish, by simply omitting the pork or beef. Tofu is easy to find and tastes delicious in this dish. It lasts for ages in the fridge so I usually keep a stock of it ready for when I feel the urge to cook and eat Ma Po Tofu.

Its one of my  favourite things to eat at the moment and is absolutely guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of anyone who eats it.  I’ll introduce you to other recipes from Neil’s book soon, but try this one first and let me know how you get on.

Ma Po Tofu

Serves 2 hungry people

300g of silken tofu, cut into 2cm cubes (I use slightly more, see packet above!)

2 tbsp of vegetable oil

500g minced pork (Neil uses 200g)

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 spring onions (scallions), sliced

2 tbsp hot bean paste (I use Lee Kum Kee’s Chilli Bean)

125 ml (4 fl oz/1/2 cup) fresh chicken stock (if you have it, otherwise I tend to use Kallo organic chicken stock cube – sorry Neil)

1 tsp of shaoxing

1 tsp of light soy sauce

1/2 tsp dark soy sauce

2 tsp sugar

1/4 tsp sea salt

a good pinch of Sichuan pepper

1/2 tsp sesame oil

1. Cube the tofu into 2cm/3/4 inch cubes and set aside.

2. Heat the wok/pan until it is smoking and then add the vegetable oil. When the oil is hot add the minced pork and stir-fry until browned. This won’t take longer than 5 minutes.

3. Then add the garlic, spring onion and bean paste and stir into the pork.

4. After a couple of minutes add the stock, shaoxing, soy sauces, sugar and salt and bring to the boil.

5. Gently add the tofu, being careful not to break the cubes, and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Allow the liquid to thicken slightly.

6. Add the Sichuan pepper and sesame oil and gently mix together.

Serve with a bowl of steamed rice.