Pongee

Happy Pongal! Pongal is a four-day-long harvest festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka (this year it’s Tues Jan 15 – Fri Jan 18) — when crops like rice are harvested. Yes, it’s a little goofy celebrating it in Chicago in midwinter, but any excuse to celebrate, right?

I haven’t made pongal (rice & lentil porridge) before, but I think it came out pretty well. A quick, simple, one-pot dish, packed with protein, that would be even better accompanied by a nice curry –– eggplant, perhaps? Coconut chutney and sambar are traditional accompaniments.

Pongal
20 minutes, serves 4

1 c. rice
1 c. moong dal
4 c. water
1/2 t. salt

2 T butter or ghee
1/2 c. cashews
1/2 c. sultanas
1 t. cumin seeds
8-12 fresh curry leaves
1-2 green chilies, chopped, optional

1. Add rice, dal, water, and salt to a pot. Bring to a boil, cover, and let simmer 15-20 minutes, until cooked.

2. While rice is cooking, heat butter or ghee, sauté cashews, stirring, until golden. Add cumin seeds, sultanas, curry leaves, and green chili if using, stirring for a few more minutes. Mix into cooked rice & lentils and serve hot.

Other standard ingredients: chopped ginger, pinch of asafoetida, turmeric, black peppercorns (whole or crushed).

 

Sweet & Spicy Brussels Sprouts with Pomegranate Seeds

People ask a lot how I do all this stuff, so I must periodically make clear that my life wouldn’t function if Kevin couldn’t feed himself and the kids as needed. Sometimes he’s cooking from scratch, and making well-balanced meals or fresh-baked bread; sometimes he’s throwing some frozen peas on the plate and calling it a day. That’s parenting for both of us around here. But I can go out of the country for a week, or spend all weekend at holiday fairs, and I know that as long as Kev’s not cross-scheduled (we do have to be a little careful about that), he’ll get the family fed. It’s not nothing.
 
I don’t know what the rest of the family ate for dinner tonight; I was still out. Kev would’ve made me dinner too if I’d said I’d be home in time. This picture is actually what I made myself for dinner tonight. With all the running around, I’d been eating poorly for a few days, grabbing mostly starch things because that’s what was easily accessible. Also too many sweets — it’s hard not to nibble truffles and marshmallows and rich cake when you’re making them!
 
So I came home from the sale today, flopped in a chair for an hour….and then got up, trimmed some brussels sprouts, tossed them with olive oil, salt, pepper, chili powder, honey, and apple cider vinegar, then roasted them at 375 for 25 minutes. Sprinkle with some fresh pomegranate seeds and a few more grinds of salt if needed, and you are good to go! It was nice to cook something not on a deadline and just because I felt like eating it. 🙂
 
Kevin loves brussels sprouts, so it’ll be nice for him too. Which is the only reason I didn’t eat all of them with a fork out of the roasting pan, standing right at the kitchen counter. Mmmm….

Stock

“But why are you making stock?”

It was a fair question — Kevin had asked what I planned to do today, on New Year’s Eve, and I said, ‘make stock,’ and that was confusing because while we cook with stock all the time, we generally just buy it ready-made.

But it made sense to me — I was recovering from a winter sickness, craving soup, and supposedly making stock the old-fashioned way, with all the bones in, actually was good for your immune system, or so I’d read somewhere, at some point.  And more than that, it felt right for New Year’s Eve, to head into the next year using up the bones of the old, making something good and fresh and strong for going on with.

It was going to be a slightly unusual stock, because our grocery delivery had failed to materialize, so no celery, and no wings I’d ordered to supplement the chicken breast I had on hand in the freezer.  But it turned out that a friend had stored a turkey neck in our freezer (long story), so once she gave us her blessing, that joined the chicken breasts in the pot.  I never liked celery anyway, so even though it’s classic for stock, I was pretty sure I could get along without it.

I cleaned the kitchen too, with Kevin lending me a hand when I got tired, because in my family, it’s traditional to start the New Year with a clean house.  I didn’t quite manage the clean house (sorry, Amma), but a clean kitchen is the most important part, I think.  Heart of the home.

And now the stock is simmering, and Kevin and I have poured out glasses of the 25-year-old vintage port that he got us for our 25th anniversary — which was several months ago, but we were having a party then, and it was a little busy, so we’ve only gotten around to opening it now.   It is tasty.

He’s putting the children to bed, and then we will curl up in bed ourselves and watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with our port and chocolate cupcakes.  In an hour and a half or so, the stock will be simmered sufficiently; I’ll chill it overnight in the fridge, and then skim off the fat and scum from the top in the morning, so it’ll be all ready for soup experiments, or whatever else the new year brings us.

Wishing you a good skimmer for ridding yourself of last year’s scum.

More importantly, wishing you plenty of rich, hearty soup — or whatever else you find nutritious and sustaining and delicious — to carry you through the new year.

Adjusting for Taste

My in-laws have been visiting for a few days, so we’ve been cooking for a larger array of palates than usual.  Holiday cooking for a large group is a little like being on a game show — can you feed all of these people in a way that makes everyone happy?  Can you do it for three meals in a row?  How about for three days in a row?  (They did go out for brunch yesterday, which helped!)

It’s already somewhat challenging cooking for just me, Kevin, and the kids — Kev and I both love spicy food, but he doesn’t eat mushrooms (sad) or fish (tragic).  The kids mostly don’t eat spicy food, though we’re working on that, and their appreciation for vegetables is still fairly limited (but improving).  With the addition of the relatives came more restrictions — my mother-in-law doesn’t like beets or cilantro (but my father-in-law does), my sister-in-law doesn’t do spicy, and her daughters aren’t big fans of spicy either.  Etc. and so on.

All of which means that we could just stick to mac-and-cheese to feed everyone, but after three days of that, I just can’t take it anymore.  I like pasta as much as the next person, but before too long, I start to crave South Asian food.  So last night, we did our best to cook South Asian food that everyone would eat.

Having several dishes meant that we could expect people to skip one or two and still have plenty to eat.  I left out the chili powder on the ginger-garlic chicken, and that went well; I left out the mustard and cumin seeds on the vegetables, because I wasn’t sure the kids wouldn’t find them suspicious, and I used onion powder instead of onions, because various people don’t like pieces of onion.  We just put one jalapeño in the cabbage, instead of three Thai green chilies,  and we reduced the chilies in the beets similarly.  And I made a cucumber raita, just in case it was still too spicy!

I wouldn’t say it was a complete success — despite my children’s urgings that the chicken was really good, their cousins refused to try it!  But I think the adults were mostly fine, at least, and everyone was fed sufficiently, and I got a little of the food I love and need — the flavors were milder than normal, but still in the right continent, at least.  Good enough!

Seeni Sambol Appetizer Experiment #4: Patties!

And we have a winner — seeni sambol & egg patties.  They are so, so good.  I took our standard Sri Lankan patty dough, rolled it thin, cut circles, all the way you would for typical chicken patties.

I did some extra small, to see how they’d come out, and they were very cute when fried, and a nice little snack — I ate some on the flight today, and they were lovely with tea at room temperature.  (I also tried baking one, and it was, I’m afraid, pretty eh.  They want frying.)

But when they’re that small, there isn’t room for egg, and I wanted the unctuousness of the egg balancing the intensity of the seeni sambol.  So I went back up to typical patty size (which is just fine for a tea or cocktail party anyway), filled it with seeni sambol and a sixteenth of a boiled egg (you could do an eighth, but I wouldn’t recommend anything bigger), folded it and crimped it up.  (I tried making one that was round, which was a fun experiment, but I didn’t like it as well as the classic patty shape.)

Then, for a little added color and zing, I brushed it all with an egg wash, and then deep-fried it.  It. was. perfect.  I’ll write the recipe up properly the next time I make it; all the experimenting meant that I wasn’t up for measuring everything until I knew which was the winning approach.  Maybe for New Year’s!

But in the meantime, if you know how to make patties already, it’s very easy to adapt for seeni sambol.  Leave out the Maldive fish if you like, and your vegetarian friends will thank you for this delectable little snack.

 

Seeni Sambol Appetizer Experiment #2: Buns

As we discussed possible containers for the seeni sambol, Kevin advocated for buns — which, fair enough, is actually traditional.  Seeni sambol buns can be found sold in roadside stands across Sri Lanka, so obviously, people like them.

But there was a problem — those buns were too big for cocktail / tea party.  Could I make mini buns instead?

The answer was yes — I made the buns half-size (which, if you use my mas paan recipe, means that you’ll end up with 60 little buns), which was just big enough that you could dollop a teaspoon of seeni sambol and an eighth of a hard-boiled egg into the center, before closing them up.

  

The end result was just fine, I’d say, and I would be happy to serve them to people.  This would be a great option for taking them on the road as a snack, as they’re nicely closed up and will keep well.  You should even be able to freeze them, I think, though I haven’t tried that, and I’m not positive what the cooked egg would do.  I also tried slashing the top in a criss-cross pattern, which makes for a more interesting presentation for a cocktail / tea, and lets you see a little bit of the bun.

Overall, I’d grade these as a B+.

But I was pretty sure I could do better…

Seeni Sambol Appetizer Experiment #1: Wontons

I’m a little obsessed with seeni sambol, the Sri Lankan traditional accompaniment of caramelized onions, cooked long and dark with tamarind and chili — made vegetarian if you like, but even tastier, I have to say, with some dried Maldive fish simmered in.  The perfect accompaniment to an egg hopper — but egg hoppers are actually kind of a pain to make, especially for a party, as you have to cook each one individually and steam them slowly.  And they’re not bite-size  treats — I wondered how I could introduce my American friends to the glory of seeni sambol at a cocktail party or tea.  And thus, we set out on our quest — to create the perfect seeni sambol appetizer.

The first attempt was, I’m sad to say, a failure.  I was in a hurry, cooking a lot of things for our holiday party, and so I went for the simplest option available — pre-made wonton shells from the grocery store, filled with seeni sambol.  They were…all right, I suppose?  The wonton shells felt wrong, though; they were too crispy, and they didn’t meld with the sambol.  Adding some cooked egg helped — that was definitely the right flavor the seeni sambol needed to mellow the pungency and make a rich, yummy bite.  But I didn’t think the wontons were the right container.  I’d have to try something else.

 

Also, when I tried pre-filling the wontons and refrigerating them, the seeni sambol gave off oil that discolored the wontons and made them a little greasy to pick up.  Not ideal.  If you really want to go with the wonton option, fill them right before serving.

Autumn Ribbons

This isn’t so much of a recipe, as a test of whether I’ve managed to automate posting to Facebook from this site.  But here’s a picture of the classic ribbon sandwiches, made with just beets and carrots (leaving out the traditional spinach), on wheat bread, for a more autumnal look.  Nice for a Thanksgiving party appetizer!

Love Cake

(Second recipe with this photo!)
 
Love Cake
(two hours, including baking time; serves dozens)
 
Some say this Portuguese-derived cake was baked to win the hearts of suitors, while others say it’s because of the labor of love involved in all the cutting, chopping and grinding of the fruits, nuts, and spices (much easier these days with access to a food processor). But regardless, it tastes like love: sweet, tangy, and fragrant. My mother says it doesn’t taste right without the crystallized pumpkin, which you can find at Indian grocery stores, though honestly, I like it just as well with the candied ginger. A perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.
 
8 ounces butter, softened, plus more for greasing
16 ounces raw unsalted cashews
10 ounces fine granulated sugar
10 egg yolks
Zest of two limes
Zest of one orange
Juice of two limes
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground clove
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 cup honey
3 drops rosewater extract (or two teaspoons rosewater)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
12 ounces semolina, toasted
3 ounces candied ginger and/or crystallized pumpkin, minced as finely as possible
5 egg whites
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)
 
1. Preheat the oven to 250. Grease a 9×13 baking dish with butter and line it with two layers of parchment paper. Grease the paper with butter.
 
2. In food processor, grind cashews to coarse meal.
3. In a standing mixer (paddle attachment), beat 8 oz butter and granulated sugar until creamy. Add egg yolks and mix well. Add zest, juice, spices, honey, rosewater and vanilla; mix well.
 
4. Add semolina and mix well; add cashews and candied ginger / pumpkin and mix well.
 
5. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff; fold gently into cake mixture.
 
6. Spoon batter into prepared pan; bake for 1 hour 15 minutes, until firm to the touch. (Alternatively, spoon into buttered & floured (Baker’s Joy makes this easy) mini tea cake molds (Nordicware made the excellent one I used for this) and bake for about 40 minutes.)
 
7. Let cool completely in the pan, dust with confectioner’s sugar (optional), cut into squares and serve.

Milk Toffee

(I have two food items in one photo. I could put both recipes together, but I think it makes more sense to just post the photo twice.)
 
Milk Toffee / Pal Tofi
(30 minutes + cooling time, serves dozens)
 
This is a classic Sri Lankan dessert, but this particular recipe was originally my aunt’s. It’s one of my favorites, very sweet, with a great crystalline texture than melts in your mouth (a little reminiscent of maple candy in that regard). I’ve re-made it several times now, with a candy thermometer, trying to pin down exact measurements. The dessert is remarkably similar to New Orleans pralines (cashews instead of roasted pecans, and cut into pieces, rather than dropped on wax paper), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Portuguese brought the dessert to both regions.
 
2 cans sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 lb sugar
1/2 can water
1/2 lb to 3/4 lb chopped cashews (it’s fine if they’re roasted / salted)
2 TBL vanilla
1 stick butter
 
1. Put sugar, water and condensed milk together on medium-high in big nonstick pot, stirring briefly to combine. (It doesn’t have to be nonstick, but it will be easier to clean afterwards.) Watch carefully, without stirring. While mixture is cooking, grease a 9 x 12 glass baking dish or cake pan with butter; also prepare an oiled spatula for later.
 
2. When the mixture starts boiling over (around 225 on a candy thermometer), lower heat to medium. Cook for about 10 minutes (no need to stir at this point). When it starts to thicken (watery thickness), add cashews and stir. When it thickens a bit more, add vanilla and stir (it will fizz up a bit at this). Stir slowly and constantly from this point forward.
 
3. When it starts sticking to the pan / pulling away from the sides (soft-ball stage, 235 degrees), add 1 stick of butter and mix it in. As soon as the butter melts, take pot off stove and pour immediately into buttered pan, using an oiled spatula to get it all out. It should smooth out on its own. (Be careful pouring, as candy syrup will burn you badly!)
 
4. It will still be too soft to cut. Let cool for at least 30 minutes, then try cutting it with an oiled knife. If it doesn’t stick to your knife, you can cut it into pieces; small squares are traditional. Enjoy!