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!

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.

Marshmallows

Marshmallows
(45 minutes + cooling time, serves dozens)
 
Homemade marshmallows are so much better than store-bought — there’s just no comparison. Store-bought is tasty enough for dunking in hot chocolate or toasting over a fire, but these, I happily devour, straight up. This is based on Alton Brown’s recipe, which is pretty identical to traditional Sri Lankan marshmallow recipes, and probably marshmallow recipes the world over, but his offers slightly more precision. We traditionally make these at Christmas, and often color the marshmallows for extra festivity.
 
It is much easier to make this recipe with a candy thermometer, or with some practice making candies and knowing how to test for soft ball stage.
 
3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 cup water, divided
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or 1/8 tsp rose extract)
baker’s sugar (or confectioner’s sugar)
Nonstick spray (but not the butter kind, as it will be noticeably yellow)
Pink or green food coloring (optional)
 
1. Butter a large 9 x 12 pan and dust with superfine sugar. (You can use confectioner’s / powdered sugar, but the superfine adds a pleasant subtle texture to the marshmallows. My mother would pulse granulated sugar in the food processor, so it was even less fine, and in some ways, I like that even better, with a little more crisp mouthfeel on the initial bite.) Also prepare an oiled spatula for later.
 
2. Empty gelatin packets into bowl of stand mixer (whisk attachment), with 1/2 cup water.
 
3. In a small saucepan (a bigger one will be heavy and hard to hold steadily at a later stage) combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Cover and cook over medium high heat for 4 minutes. Uncover and cook until the mixture reaches soft ball stage (240 degrees if you have a candy thermometer), approximately 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from heat; if it continues, it will swiftly turn into hard candy.
 
4. Turn mixer on low speed and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. (Be very careful with the sugar syrup, as it is scaldingly hot and will burn you badly if it gets on your skin.) Once you’ve added all of the syrup, increase the speed to high.
 
5. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and is lukewarm, approximately 12 minutes. Add food coloring, if using for the whole batch, during this stage. Add vanilla (or rose) during the last minute of whipping. (If adding rose extract, be careful — it’s very strongly flavored, and too much will ruin the sweets. Err on the side of caution.)
 
6. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly (and swiftly) with an oiled spatula. (For bicolored marshmallows, pour the white half first, spread quickly, then add color and re-whip the other half, then pour over the white, spreading as needed. It won’t be perfectly even, but that’s fine.)
 
7. Dust the top with enough of the remaining superfine sugar to lightly cover. Reserve the rest for later. Allow the marshmallows to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.
 
8. Turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board and cut into diamond shapes (traditional). As you’re cutting, lightly dust all sides of each marshmallow with the remaining superfine sugar, using additional if necessary. May be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks, or frozen.

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.

Chicken Patties

I ran out of canola oil while setting up to deep-fry these; luckily Kat (who lives across the way) had some coconut oil she could send over with a child. So I fried in a combo of the two, which I think was perhaps perfect — the canola gave the characteristic crispiness, and the coconut gave some extra richness. I hadn’t fried in coconut oil before, though, and was really surprised when I put the first patty in — it foamed up dramatically (which may have had something to do with combining the two oils — I’m not sure)! I called Kevin over to make sure I wasn’t doing something wrong. But all was very well, and they were soon devoured. (Pictured below is a double-batch, filling three plates.)
 
Patties (usually Chicken)
(2 hours, makes about 30)
 
These are classic party appetizers (or short-eats, as we call them); patties can also be made with a mix of meats — chicken, beef and pork work well together. The filling may be made in advance and frozen if desired, or you can go all the way to filling the patties and then freeze them in layers, with sheets of parchment paper to separate, before the final frying step. That makes it easier to manage prep for a big party. Allow patties to thaw completely before frying.
 
Patty pastry:
2 cups plain flour
1/2 rounded tsp salt
3 TBL butter
1/4 cup thick coconut milk
2 egg yolks, beaten
peanut oil for frying
 
Filling:
2 1/2 lbs boneless chicken thighs
2 TBL ghee or oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
8 curry leaves, on the stalk if possible
2 rounded tsp Sri Lankan curry powder
1 rounded tsp ground turmeric
1/4 rounded tsp ground cloves
1/4 rounded tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 rounded tsp ground black pepper
2 rounded tsp salt
2 strips lemon rind (or roughly that amount of lemongrass)
1/2 cup thick coconut milk
1-2 lightly-beaten egg whites for sealing pastry
 
1. Make filling. Put chicken into a saucepan with just enough water to cover, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Cool chicken, remove from pot (reserving stock), and mince. (In a food processor is fine.)
 
2. Heat ghee in a saucepan and fry the onion and curry leaves until onion is soft and starts to brown. (Leaving curry leaves on the stalk will make it easier to remove them at the end.) Add the curry powder, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, and salt and stir well. Add about 1 1/2 cups of the leftover stock. Add lemongrass and the minced chicken. Mix well and simmer gently until chicken is tender and liquid almost evaporated.
 
3. Add coconut milk, stir, and cook uncovered until coconut milk is absorbed.
 
4. Remove from heat. When cool, pick out the lemon rind or lemongrass and the curry leaves.
 
5. Make pastry: Sift flour and salt into a bowl and rub in the butter with your fingertips. Add the coconut milk and egg yolks mixed together and knead lightly to a smooth dough. If necessary, add a little extra milk or flour.
 
6. Wrap dough in parchment paper and chill for 30 minutes.
 
7. Take one quarter of the dough at a time and roll out very thinly on lightly floured board. Cut into circles using a large cookie cutter about 3 inches in diameter.
 
8. Put a teaspoonful of the filling on the pastry rounds. Wet the edges of the pastry with egg white, fold over to make half circle and press edges firmly together to seal. Ornament the edge by pressing with a key or the tines of a fork.
 
9. When all the patties are made, fry a few at a time in deep hot oil. Drain on layers of paper towels and serve warm. Can be made ahead and refrigerated (or frozen)—reheat in a 350 degree oven.

Ribbon Tea Sandwiches

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.

Ingredients:
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

Recipe:

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.