“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.
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!
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.