Hawaii: Koko Head Fish and Eggs

Big thanks to Kavita for the recommendation for Koko Head Cafe — we *loved* it. Had brunch there yesterday, got a scone and muffin to take away for later, and are going back for brunch today because there were just too many delectable-looking things on the menu, and it was too hard to pick.

I got the ‘fish and eggs,’ which is an unassuming name for one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. Sweet miso marinated local fresh fish, soft scrambled eggs, ong choy (water spinach), ocean rice, house made pickles. So, so good. (Also very filling, only finished half of it, but am saving the rest for another meal.)

 

Jed got the volcano eggs (baked eggs, spicy tomato based sauce, cheddar cheese, choice of daily north shore vegetables or diced Portugese sausage), also yummy, in a more comfort food kind of way.

 

Kimchi bacon cheddar scone (v. intense flavors, delicious and spicy-salty, but does need juice or tea to cut it, IMHO) & black sesame yuzu muffin (good, complex flavors).

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.

Mas Paan (Meat Bun)

Mas Paan is literally ‘meat bread,’ and is a favorite snack sold at roadside stands, hotel cafes, and transit stations across Sri Lanka.  The yeast bread may be filled with whatever curry you like — fish and vegetarian options are also common.  This batch, I made with some leftover pork and potato curry, but most often, I would make this with beef and potato curry.  Regardless, having thirty mas paan in my fridge and freezer means that I’ll snack happy for a few days, take them with me while traveling — they’re great to have on the road — and be able to pull some out of the freezer to toast up when I get home again.  It’s best piping hot, but may also be happily eaten at room temperature.

Note:  If you don’t want to make the dough by hand, and your grocery store carries frozen loaves of bread dough, I’ve thawed and used a pair of those for this recipe to good effect.  This recipe adapted from Charmaine Solomon’s _The Complete Asian Cookbook_, with very little change.

Note 2: Minal Hajratwala has a fascinating chapter that explores the political significance of similar buns in South Africa, in her book on the diaspora, _Leaving India_. Highly recommended.

Mas Paan
(about three hours + currying time, makes 30)

1 batch meat and potato curry (about 2-3 lbs. meat, 3 russet potatoes)
Dough:
1/2 c. milk
3 t. sugar
2 1/2 t. salt
3 oz. butter
1 1/2 c. warm water
1 packet (about 2 1/4 t.) active dry yeast
5 1/2 – 6 c. all-purpose or bread flour

1. Make curry, if needed; it’s tempting to make it while the dough is proving, but the timing can be tricky, since the curry needs to cool down, and your dough may overprove, turning yeasty. (I admit to risking it on occasion, though, for efficiency’s sake.) The curry should be cooked until it is very dry, and then cooled down to room temperature.

2. Make dough: Scald milk, stir in sugar, salt and butter and cool to lukewarm. Measure warm water into a large bowl; stir yeast into water until dissolved. Add milk mixture and 3 c. of flour; beat until smooth. Add enough flour to make a soft dough. Turn onto a lightly floured board, and knead until smooth and elastic, about ten minutes. Grease a bowl with butter, then put the dough ball in, turning it to make sure it’s all greased. Cover with plastic wrap or a cloth and allow to prove in a warm place until doubled in bulk (inside a turned off oven works well), about 1 – 1.5 hours. (This recipe is also used for making breudher in Sri Lanka.)

3. Divide the dough into 30 equal portions, flatten each portion to a circle and put a spoonful of meat and potato curry in the center. Bring the edges together, pressing to seal. If you keep the dough thinner at the edges when you’re flattening it, that’ll help keep it from being too bready at the bottom.

  

4. Grease baking trays and put buns with the join downwards on the trays, leaving room for them to rise and spread. Cover with a dry cloth and again, leave in a warm place for 30-40 minutes until nearly doubled in bulk.

5. Brush with egg glaze (egg whites or even heavy cream may be used instead) and bake in a hot oven until golden brown, about 10 minutes.  Lovely with hot, sweet, milky tea.

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!

Desi Crepes

We had crepes for dinner last night, and I started with my favorite, lemon + sugar. Delicious as always, but then I thought, what if I desi-fy’d (desified?) it? So I tried lime + jaggery, and reader, it was good.

We also had some ripe persimmon, which I love, so I tried that — interestingly, the version I did with nutmeg / cinnamon / allspice, which I thought would work well, didn’t excite me. But the version with persimmon / salt / pepper was surprisingly delicious. I think it’s because the persimmons were so sweet?

Mackerel (or Ground Beef, or Vegetable) Cutlets

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.

Apple Cheddar Biscuits

Apple-cheddar biscuits. Barely a recipe, since this is a weeknight quick thing — Pillsbury biscuits sliced in half, layered with sliced apples and pre-shredded cheese. I’m sure it would be tastier if you grated your own cheese and baked the biscuits from scratch, but sometimes tired mama just needs to do five minutes of prep and toss it in the oven.

My kids LOVE them, and sliced in half, they’re a nice addition to this evening’s wine-and-cheese political meet-and-greet with Brandon Johnson (running for Cook County Commissioner), esp. if anyone coming brings their kids.

Chinese Rolls

Chinese Rolls
(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
2 eggs
4 cups of all-purpose flour

For frying:
2 eggs
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.