Today I’m cooking for a holiday get together with friends we’re having this evening, but wanted to share a delicious recipe with you that is just perfect for this time of year.
These Afghan cardamom cookies are spicy and savory, and deliver a blast of cardamom flavor as they melt in your mouth.
They are also really simple to make, and take no more than a half-an-hour from sifting, to cooling rack, to table. Try them to add a different kind of Silk Road spice to your holiday dessert spread.
1 ½ cups white flour
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
½ cup melted butter, slightly cooled
¼ cup whole milk, warm
¼ cup ground pistachio nuts, plus a few whole nuts to press into cookies
Preheat the oven to 350°. Sift together the white flour with the sugar and ground cardamom. Add the butter and milk and mix well. Roll the dough into 1-inch round balls and place them on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden around the edges.
Remove from the oven and press a whole pistachio into the center of the cookie as it cools. Sprinkle finely ground pistachios on top of the cookies while they are still hot.
(Makes about a dozen-and-a-half cookies.)
Variation: Substitute some lard or other animal fat for all or some of the butter for additional savory, umami flavor and mouthfulness. Life is hard in Afghanistan, and in lean times women will even use corn-oil to make these cookies. They turn out fine every time.
I grew up in a very closely knit Italian-American community in the suburbs of New York City. Nearly everyone I knew as a child was related to me by blood or marriage. It was a world of cousins. There was an Italian-American club where old men played bocce, crazy car-horns that played the tarantella, and there was the great, carnival-like Summer Festa, that seemed to bring the whole town out to Saint Anthony’s school to gamble, play games, and, of course, eat. Food was everywhere, and people loved eating – not just at the Festa but in everyday life. Sunday dinners were serious business, and you didn’t skip them without a really good excuse.
So, when Sasha Martin, of the Global Table Adventure, asked me to participate in her Feast of Seven Fishes event, I had to pause and wonder how I had missed out on this wonderful Christmas-Eve tradition growing up. A little research and I found out that it is specifically an Italian-American Christmas-Eve event that is practiced by people who came from southern Italy. (That would rule out my ancestors who were from an area between Bologna and Ravenna.) It also is a relatively new concept that has been quickly growing in popularity since Mario Batali and other Food Network stars started demonstrating recipes for special Christmas Eve fish-only dinners. There are even restaurants that now offer special menus for people wishing to celebrate the Feast.
The seven fishes that either stand for the seven sacraments or the number of days that it supposedly took God to create the universe. Sometimes, there are more than seven dishes – nine for three times the holy trinity, or 13 for the apostles plus Jesus. No matter the number of dishes, there always seems to be an effort to couple them with an element of religious symbolism. A Christmas Eve fish-themed dinner. It must be an American concept. Americans love theme dinners.
On to my own recipe for Sasha’s Feast: Sweet and Savory Eel – Chinese Style. What is a Chinese dish doing at an Italian-American feast? Well, Silk Road, Marco Polo . . . it fits, in a loosely-tight sort of way. Actually, Italians of all varieties love eel and eat it when they can, and there are loads of wonderful recipes for it from the Mediterranean and beyond. Its my job to focus on the beyond. So, Sweet and Savory Eel. This recipe is adapted from a Chinese homestyle recipe, generously shared with me by my friend Dimon. It is delicious, easy to prepare, and well worth the effort of handling the slimy beasts. Lots of ginger and garlic form the base of the savory brown sauce with tangerine peel, maple syrup, and a few chili peppers providing the grace notes.
Sweet and Savory Eel
1.5 – 2 pounds fresh eel, cut into 1.5 inch sections
Tapioca flour as needed (for dusting)
3-4 tablespoons of corn oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 small bunch (4-6) spring onions, chopped
2 -3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
5-6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
Peels from 2 tangerines, dried and thinly sliced, or minced
3-4 dried red chili peppers, diced (I use Japones)
2 cups of brown rice wine
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce (or a mix of dark and light)
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 cup water or fish stock
1 sweet, red bell pepper, thinly sliced
Dust the eel slices with tapioca flour, and tap on the edge of a plate when done to remove excess flour. Heat corn oil in a large sauté pan until smoking hot. Add the coated eel slices and sauté until golden. Remove eel from the pan with a slotted spoon and let cool on a plate.
Drain off most of the corn oil and add sesame oil to sauté pan and warm it up. Add spring onions and sauté until they start to soften. Then add the garlic and ginger slices and cook on low-to-medium, stirring often, until the ginger colors or the garlic swells. Add the tangerine peel and chillies and cook well, adding part of the rice wine to moisten as needed.
Add the rest of the rice wine and heat to almost boiling. Reduce the heat, and immediately add the eel slices. Cook on a low-to-medium simmer for five minutes, then add the dark soy sauce and the maple syrup, cover, and lower the heat to a low simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes. Then add water or fish stock to moisten the sauce and bring back to a simmer. Add the sliced peppers, then cover and cook for another 15-20 minutes until the eel is beginning to soften. Stir well and cook for another 10 minutes or so until eel is soft, and peppers are cooked. Depending on the desired consistency of the sauce, you may cook uncovered if you want a thicker sauce.
Serve with rice, tangerine slices, more spring onions, or the condiments of your choice.
NB: To be authentically Chinese, the eel should be a river eel or swamp eel. The salt-water eels often used in other cuisines would offer a much sharper flavor and change the recipe significantly. The right type of eel are usually sold live at larger Asian markets. You can ask the fish mongers to cut and clean the animals to order, to minimize handling them. This is an important bit of advice to consider, because when eels get stressed (like when a fish monger reaches into a bucket, grabs them), they get even more slimy than usual. If you ever taken a graduate genetics lab, and know what its like to handle stessed hagfish – this is exactly the same.
The Feast of Seven Fishes undoubtedly has its roots in the traditional Italian vigil feast, which is celebrated all over Italy. However, unlike those feasts, the Feast of Seven Fishes is a fish-only extravaganza with the number of dishes symbolically tied to Catholic themes. At a traditional vigil feast, for example, one would be unlikely to find meat dishes (at least in a strictly Catholic home), but you would find meat-based soups (like a chicken broth with tortellini or “cap-lets” as we grew up calling them), sauces with meat stock or broth in them, butter, cheese and eggs – all meat products.
Also, how the Church has defined, “meat” over the years is really fascinating. Generally, the prohibition extends only to terrestrial mammals and birds; whereas aquatic animals of all types were allowed. At different times in history, the Church has also allowed Catholics to eat mammals that spend a lot of time in water during lent and other no-meat fast and vigil days. This means that Catholics in Quebec ate beaver and Latin Catholics ate (and still do eat) capybara on no-meat Fridays or in times of fasting. Likewise, reptiles and amphibians are on the Lenten or fasting menu in places where it is traditional for the secular populous to eat them.
What I suspect is the Feast of Seven Fishes was a tradition in a very local part of Southern Italy – probably somewhere deep in the foot of the boot – that immigrants brought with them. It spread within the neighborhoods they emigrated to and is now being projected back as broadly, “Italian,” by their descendants and others who have adopted the practice.
Although I am a stickler for detail, to me its wonderful and interesting that the Feast of Seven Fishes is taking on a life of its own in the New World of the 20th and 21st Centuries. It is the birth of a new food tradition, right before our eyes! And another example of how cuisines are constantly evolving. Whenever you try this recipe, whether for the Feast of Seven Fishes or at some other time, prepare it and share it with loved ones – now, that’s Italian!
Expand your Feast of the 7 Fishes menu with these delicious ideas:
I love to be of use. It turns me on to help people and to help them figure things out. To that end, this recipe is a request from a colleague who loves Chinese culture and cuisine and who is learning how to make some delicious and interesting dishes. Earlier today she asked me if I had a recipe for Chinese salted eggs. Wouldn’t you know, I put up a bunch only 6-8 weeks ago and the are about ready for harvest! I am happy to oblige the request, so here it goes. . .
Salted eggs are usually duck (tho’chicken eggs can be used as well) that are preserved in a flavored brine for 6-8 weeks. There are many ways to flavor the brine, but the most common way is to use Sichuan pepper and star anise along with some chilies (and of course lots of salt). A couple of months in brine firms the yolk and darkens it significantly. It also deepens and changes the flavor of the egg and makes it stand out in when used in congees, stir fries with shrimp or more often with pork, in dumplings or even occasionally in soup. As some of your may have noticed, salted eggs were used in several of the thousand-year egg recipes that I featured a couple of months back. Without further ado, the recipe:
6 cups water
1.5 cups coarse sea salt
2 Tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
4 Star anise corms
4 Red chili peppers
12 chicken or duck eggs
Five to six hours before you wish to make salted eggs, bring water to boil in a medium saucepan. As it heats, dissolve salt into the water in batches, taking care that all of the salt dissolves into the water (the water should clear as the salt dissolves). Bring to a full rolling boil and let cook for 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and cover. Cool the salt-saturated water to room temperature.
Clean and sterilize a couple of pint size mason jars if salting chicken eggs. You may need a third jar if salting a dozen duck eggs or any larger egg. It’s fine to reuse lids and seals, because an airtight seal is not required. Just make sure that all parts of the container are clean.
Place 1 tablespoon of Szechuan peppercorns in each jar. Then add 2 star anise corms and 2 chili peppers to each jar as well. Then take each jar in hand and tilt it horizontally. Slide the uncooked eggs gently into the jar. I can usually fit 6 chicken eggs into each jar. I leave at least 1 inch of space from the rim to ensure that the brine covers the eggs completely. There will be leftover brine.
When done fitting the eggs into the jars, place the jars on the counter and fill with brine and seal. Let sit for 15 minutes or so, as the brine begins to permeate the egg shells. Then place in a cold place – refrigerator or cellar/garage in cold weather and leave for at least 1 month.
After 4-6-weeks has elapsed, remove 1 egg from the brine and crack the shell over a bowl. If the eggs are properly brined, the yolk will be firm and oftentimes a bit darker in color from uncooked eggs. If the yolk is as runny as that in an uncooked egg, the eggs need more time to brine. Reseal the jars and leave them for another couple of weeks.
Once the eggs are done, they must be cooked before one eats them. They can be cooked as an ingredient of a dish (as in steamed three eggs) or hard boiled before using.
Variations: There are many ways to flavor the brine. Szechuan peppercorns and star anise are just the most commonly used traditional ingredients. Other ingredients to add include, a bit of peeled garlic or ginger, or a different spice mix. Some people also add a bit of rice wine to reduce the odor of the eggs and to keep bacterial growth to a minimum.
One of the important holiday uses of salted eggs in Southern China is as part of the filling for moon cakes along with red bean or lotus seed paste. These moon cakes are eaten as part of the Mid-Autumn Festival which is a harvest festival that in many cases honors the moon. There are myths told from ancient times of husbands and wives separated by magical elixirs and of women (like Chang’e pictured here) who become part of the moon that are part of this festival as well. But the salted egg with its dark, salty yolk is the archetypal symbol of the moon in Southern Chinese culture and in many of the cultures along the Mekong as well. When you eat a salted egg, you consume the moon and with it its powers of renewal and rejuvenation.
Every now and then around this time of year I post one of my photographs of a woman and her child to remind myself of the holy family’s humanity. (Click here for one of the Bangladeshi madonnas).
The emphasis on divinity and religous iconography in the two-thousand or so years since the holy family walked the earth has a tendency to eclipse the reality of who they were. They were poor. For a period of time during Jesus’s childhood they were wanderers or fugitives. At other times, they were a solid, salt-of-the-earth, working-class family.
And yet many believe that Jesus’s words and deeds made him special. That he was an ordinary man with an extraordinary message. He said he was the son of God. Over the years this was taken to mean that he himself was divine. I wonder sometimes if it is possible that he was trying to say that we were all sons and daughters of God. That is to mean that he was not divine, but that we are all special or divine and capable of great love, great deeds and great sacrifice. Then I wonder if we would recognize such a prophet if we encountered him today.
The photo I chose this year is of a woman and her child who I met along the Tashkorgan highway earlier in the year. She is poor and a wanderer who sells amber and garnet jewelery and artifacts to tourists and travelers. For Tajik women, a fair complexion is most desired, but the trader’s dark skin tells us that she spends a lot of time outside under the high-altitude sun. She is young and her beauty has not yet been marred by her harsh lifestyle. Her teeth are stained by high-mineral content ground water, a badge she will wear for the rest of her life. Her lovely, chubby baby is clothed in unmatched remnants, much like her mother, but she is happy and playing with a large chunk of milky yellow amber on a string.
So, I guess the point is that the madonna and her child is not a gold-encased painting in an alcove or on an altar or mantle in a private home, they are on earth all around us. The paintings are just representations, not of one particular mother and child pair but of every single one. Try to remember that the next time you encounter a poor, wandering family. They might have something important to say. (Words and photo of Tajik Madonna and Child by Laura Kelley).