Mackerel (or Ground Beef, or Vegetable) Cutlets
(90 minutes, makes about 50)
There’s a part of my mind (formed in childhood over monthly Sri Lankan birthday parties at various aunties’ homes) that says a party isn’t properly a party unless there are rolls and cutlets. So when people agree to come over to my house and let me feed them rolls and cutlets, it makes that childhood bit of me very happy.
Some Americans find these too fishy, but I love them. Over the years, my family has come up with adaptations to suit the tastes of those (like Kevin) who dislike fish, and they’ve even come up with a variation for vegetarians. But honestly, the mackerel ones are the tastiest.
I wouldn’t recommend attempting this recipe unless you’re willing to get your hands dirty (and fishy-smelling)—you really need to work the filling with your hand to blend and shape it properly.
2 cans of mackerel, 15 oz each
2 large russet potato
4 medium onions, chopped fine, for sautéing
1 tsp black mustard seed
1 tsp cumin seed
2 TBL oil or ghee
1 rounded tsp salt
2/3 cup lime juice
2 small onions, minced, for mixing in
4 rounded tsp finely chopped fresh Thai green chilies
1 rounded tsp ground black pepper
2 egg, beaten
dry breadcrumbs, for coating
oil for deep frying
- Drain fish thoroughly, removing as much liquid as possible. While fish are draining, boil the potatoes, peel, and mash them. Clean the fish, removing scales and bones, and break it into small pieces.
- Sauté the four fine-chopped medium onions in oil with cumin and black mustard seed until golden-translucent. Add fish, salt and lime juice, then cook until very dry (this process reduces the fishy smell, and the drier you get the mixture, the less excess oil they’ll pick up when frying). Let cool.
- Using your clean hand, mix thoroughly the fish, mashed potatoes, the two small minced raw onions, black pepper, and chilies until a fairly smooth paste. Shape the mixture into small balls, about the size of a cupped palm. I squeeze the mixture in my balled hand as I go, compressing so the resulting ball is nice and firm—that helps it keep its form when frying. (You can pause, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at this point if making a day or two ahead.)
- Roll each ball in beaten egg, and then roll each ball in the dry breadcrumbs. (You can freeze at this point if making ahead—spread them out on a flat cookie sheet so they’re not touching and freeze them—once frozen, you can pack them more tightly in gallon ziploc bags, and they should hold their shape. They’ll be fine in the freezer for weeks, which helps when you’re prepping for a big party; you can either fry them frozen or spread them out on plates and let them thaw first.)
- Fry a few at a time in deep hot oil over medium-high heat—not too hot, or they’ll start to break apart! This should take a minute or so each. When well-browned, lift out with a slotted spoon and drain on a metal rack placed over a tray lined with a few layers of paper towels.
For ground beef cutlets: For 2 lb lean ground beef, when you sauté the 4 chopped onions, add 1-2 heaping tsp red Indian chili powder and 1/2 cup ketchup, as well as the 1/2 rounded tsp salt from above. Add the ground beef (skipping the lime juice), and fry until very dry, draining any excess oil. Skip the raw onion, chilies and black pepper—proceed otherwise as for the fish cutlets.
For vegetable cutlets: Just use 1 lb frozen mixed vegetables, thawed (you might have to cut up the green beans into smaller pieces). Sauté the onions, mustard seed, and cumin seed as for the fish; add the vegetables and salt and cook until very dry. Skip the raw onion if you like, but definitely stir in an extra 1/2 tsp of salt when you mix the veggies in with the potatoes, black pepper and chilies. Proceed otherwise as for the fish cutlets.
(3 hours, makes 50)
Chinese rolls (whether made with meat, chicken, or vegetarian) are an essential Sri Lankan party food. People look forward to them with anticipation, and greets their arrival with glee. They’re also a sign of love—in college and after, whenever I visited home, my mother or one of my aunts would make sure that when I left again, it was with a bag of freshly-fried rolls. It was sometimes a little challenging managing the still-steaming bag on the airplane, but it was the sort of gift that was impossible to turn down—made with love and labor, and eventually consumed with delight.
I believe they’re called Chinese rolls because they look a little like Chinese egg rolls; during colonial times, Chinese laborers were brought to Sri Lanka and settled there in a small but significant minority community; I assume this dish was invented then. They taste nothing like egg rolls, though.
Growing up, my sisters and I would often be pressed into service for the various stages of roll-making, all sitting around the dining table and working. My mother and aunts made them in a group as well. Especially if doing a larger batch, I highly encourage cooking this dish as a group activity (perhaps inviting a few select friends to come a few hours before your party), which will speed things up by as much as an hour. The final step is best done right before serving.
Portion and serving suggestion:
For a cocktail or other large-ish party, I’d aim for two rolls per guest. It’s a filling, rich treat. The recipes scales up or down easily—my mother would generally make 200 at a time, or more, for the Sri Lankan-American parties of my childhood, when immigrant families would gather, hungry for a taste of home. The dish is complex and labor-intensive enough that I woudn’t normally make rolls for a small dinner party, but you certainly could serve them as an appetizer, allowing two per person. Simply divide the recipe as needed.
Note: There are several points in the process where you can pause, refrigerate or freeze, and pick up again later. This is tremendously helpful when prepping for a party—you can do the bulk of the work days, weeks, or even months in advance, as long as you plan appropriately.
For the filling:
6 medium onions, chopped fine
1/4 cup vegetable oil + 1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 tsp black mustard seed
1/4 tsp cumin seed
1-2 TBL red chili powder
1 TBL Sri Lankan curry powder
2 lbs ground beef (or goat, or chicken)
1/3 cup ketchup
3 TBL Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp salt + 1 tsp salt
3 medium russet potatoes, diced in roughly 1/2-inch cubes
(Note: for a vegetarian filling, see the cutlets recipe.)
For the crepes:
4 cups cold water
2 cups milk
2 tsp salt
4 cups of all-purpose flour
2 cups breadcrumbs
4 cups vegetable oil
1. In a large frying pan, sauté onions in 1/4 cup oil on medium-high with mustard seed and cumin seeds until onions are golden/translucent (not brown). Add chili powder and cook 1 minute. Immediately add curry powder, ground beef, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and 1 tsp salt. Sauté until cooked through. Drain any excess oil, transfer to a large bowl, and let cool. (You can refrigerate for a few days or freeze for up to six months here.)
2. In a clean frying pan, heat 1/4 cup oil and fry potato cubes with 1 tsp salt on medium-high, stirring, until cooked through. Drain any excess oil and let cool. (You can refrigerate or freeze here—to best preserve potato texture for freezing, spread them out in a flat sheet and freeze, then transfer to large plastic sealable bags.)
3. Combine meat and potato mixture. (You can refrigerate or freeze here.)
4. Make crepes: Combine crepe filling ingredients and mix thoroughly until it forms a thin pancake batter. Heat an 8-inch non-stick frying pan and grease with a little oil between each pancake. Pour a ladle full of batter into the pan and swirl it around gently until it forms a thin pancake. Cook until set without browning; flip and briefly cook other side. Remove and stack on a plate. (If you have a friend with you, you can do steps 4 and 5 together, one making the crepes while the other fills.)
5. Place a cooked pancake on a plate and add about 2 TBL of filling. Proceed to roll the pancake like an egg-roll. Note: Try eating one or two at this stage (not required, but recommended, as there’s something deliciously unctuous about them, and I always used to steal some at this point when rolling for my mom).
7. In a small bowl, beat 2 eggs. Set up a plate piled with bread crumbs. Dip rolls in egg mixture, then roll in breadcrumbs, then remove to a separate plate. (Don’t pile them up, as they’ll squish — use multiple clean plates.) Continue until all rolls are encased in bread crumbs.
8. Heat vegetable oil in a large pan until quite hot, then, using a Chinese spider (recommended) or spatula, fry until golden, removing to separate plates lined with paper towels. (I usually turn the heat down a little after the first batch, which helps avoid burning them.) Serve hot as an appetizer, with a little spicy sauce (MD sauce can be found online, and is a classic choice) as accompaniment if desired.
Ribbon Tea Sandwiches (Carrot, Beet, and Spinach)
(1 1/2 hours, serves dozens)
These are a favorite across Sri Lanka, and are made with a variety of vegetables—some use asparagus instead of spinach, for example. They are quite ridiculously pretty, with their contrasting stripes of color, and are a staple at Christmas parties and other festive events. They are just a little spicy, but spice levels may be adjusted up or down, as desired. I like mine tangy, but if you don’t like tang, leave out the vinegar, and they will still be quite tasty.
NOTE: These are quite time-consuming to assemble; I usually try to make sure I have at least a pair of hands to help at that stage.
1/2 pound carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 pound beets, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 10 oz packet frozen chopped spinach, thawed, with the excess water squeezed out
3 Thai green chilies
1 8 oz package cream cheese
1 stick butter
1 cup mayonnaise
1 1/2 tsp onion powder
1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
3/4 tsp white pepper (black is also fine)
3 TBL vinegar
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 loaves thin white bread (recommended: Pepperidge Farms Sandwich Bread or Very Thin, if you can find it) Note: Each sandwich uses 4 slices of bread. Each large sandwich will be cut into four bite-size sandwiches
1. Chop carrots finely in food processor with one green chili. Add 1/3 package cream cheese, 1/3 stick butter, and 1/3 cup mayo. Add 1/2 tsp onion powder, 1/2 tsp garlic powder, ¼ tsp white pepper, 1 TBL vinegar, and 1/2 tsp salt. Combine until smooth, taste seasonings and adjust if desired, and transfer spread to a separate bowl. Rinse out food processor.
2. Repeat process with beets + chili, and then again with spinach + chili.
3. Spread carrot mixture on a slice of bread. Place second slice of bread on top and spread with beet mixture. Place third slice of bread on top and spread with spinach mixture. Place final slice of bread on top. Using a serrated bread knife, gently cut off the edges. Cut each large sandwich into four triangles. (I recommend cleaning the blade between cuts with a wet paper towel if you want to avoid beet mixture staining the bread.) Arrange beautifully on a plate and serve.
Note: If not serving immediately place in a large storage container and lay a moist paper towel on top of the sandwiches to keep them fresh. Alternatively, you can prepare the sandwiches the night before, not cutting them, wrap each large sandwich individually in plastic wrap, and then cut them when you’re ready to serve. That does take quite a bit of plastic wrap, though!
Note 2: When I cut off the crusts, I save them and throw the bag of crusts in the freezer. And then, when I’m feeling like cozy comfort food, I take some leftover curry, stir in the crusts (still frozen is fine), and sauté it for oh, five minutes or so, until the bread has sopped up all the liquid. Essentially a Sri Lankan version of a hot panzanella. Yummy and comforting.
Trifle topped with pomegranate seed and edible silver stars.
Twinkly lights, little houses, polar bear. Kevin’s note left for me about what he did and didn’t get done after I went to sleep Saturday night.
Four big brownies from the bakery section, cut into fourths, topped with little candies from Michael’s. (Best petit four cheat ever — took five minutes, and the kids loved them.) Array.
Charcuterie — Harry & David’s sesame honey mustard with pretzels (a holiday gift from Pam, our contractor) is addictively good, and pairs beautiful with some olives and cured meats from Costco (I really love how the Costco antipasto meat comes in separate little square packages, making it really easy to refill your platter only as much as needed during the party, saving the rest for another day. It’s the little things that make hosting easier).
Our very classy holiday chains (Kavi wanted to make some, and I wanted some that would go with the white and silver decor in the dining room, so I found some pretty metallic paper in silver, gold, and pink…), fresh flowers (I like how the bells of Ireland look like little trees).
Ellie patiently waiting for the party (and the food-dropping) to start. Ellie LOVES parties.
I forgot to take photos of people until close to the end, but I think we had about 70 folks over the course of four hours. It never got too crowded, though, because people mostly only stayed for an hour or two; there’s so much going on around here this time of year, and people had multiple commitments. Lots of ebb and flow, which means, I think, that the house could probably handle double that number of people without too much trouble for this kind of party. Good to know!
Kavi and I were sparkly reindeer antler twins (and that adorable mistletoe dress, because I know someone is about to ask me, is from Modcloth and I love it). MagnaTiles happily occupy children of all ages (and adults too), but are particularly nice to have around for the toddlers, so their parents can get a break and breathe a little.
Pem’s daughter was perfectly iconic in her little Christmas dress, and cheerfully posed in front of our tree.
With Deno Andrews and Anand Whyte.
Kavi and Kevin’s marshmallows.