Miranda’s Lemon Pickle

South Indian Lemon Pickle
South Indian Lemon Pickle

We packed our first born off to college this past weekend.  Even though we are still here with our son, the house is eerily quiet.  My daughter was noisy enough to be twins, or even triplets.  No more loud music and singing her lungs out – she has practice rooms at college for that now.  Despite her devil-may-care attitude, and generally gregarious nature, she has never really been adventurous with food – except for chili sauces – which she puts on everything.  She never really showed an interest in any of the Silk Road foods that came across the family table, until a couple of weeks before she left, when she started to eat my South Indian Lemon Pickle by the spoonful.

Now, my South Indian Lemon Pickle is a wondrous thing.  A balanced salty and sweet citrus base flavored with roasted whole spices, and ground fenugreek.  It makes a great condiment in an Indian meal, or can even be spread on naan or a bagel with a bit of yogurt or labne to compliment the flavors.  Or like Miranda, you can eat it by the spoonful, if your tastebuds can take it.

The pickle is easy to make, but takes several weeks from start to finish.  First you have to salt-cure the lemons on a sunny window for at least two weeks.  Then you rinse the lemons and combine them with roasted spices.  Then, you have to wait another excruciating couple of weeks for the flavors to blend and the magic to happen.  I currently have a batch in the last stage, and will send it as part of a care package to my girl by the end of the month.

For those not already in the know: homemade chutneys and pickles are far superior to their commercial counterparts.  The ingredients for homemade are of course fresher than store-bought brands, but for me, the greatest difference is the lower amount of salt in condiments made at home.  That and the lack of preservatives like ascetic acid, which greatly change the flavor of these dishes.

In a Facebook thread recently, someone asked me for the recipe.  So Marlena, this one’s for you:

South Indian Lemon Pickle 

Ingredients
3 pounds lemons
½ – ¾ cup salt
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon cilantro seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons red chili peppers
1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
½ cup mustard oil
¼ cup light sesame oil
¼ cup grape-seed oil
½ teaspoon asafetida
¾ cup lemon juice
½ cup sugar (demerara or jaggery)
A pinch or two of salt to make the flavors pop (optional)

Directions

  1. Start by placing about half of the salt into a deep bowl. Then, cut each of the lemons into eight pieces, and coat each piece in salt. Place slices into a jar and tamp down or squeeze as you go to release most of the juice in the lemons. Leave an inch or two at the top of the jar to allow space for lemons to shift.
  2. Cover and place on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks. Shake daily for about 1 minute to mix the salt and the lemons. When the curing time has elapsed, the lemons will have softened significantly and reduced in volume. The lemons are ready when the peels are soft and pliable. Some lemons grown in drier climates may have very thick skins and may need a bit longer than two weeks to soften.
  3. Once the lemons have cured, remove them from the jar and rinse to help remove excess salt. Then soak in fresh water for about 15 minutes and strain.  As the lemons are draining, lightly roast each of the spices separately in a dry sauté pan. They should be fragrant and just beginning to color when done. Be careful not to burn them or your pickle will have a scorched flavor instead of a lightly roasted one. Set aside to cool.  When cool, grind the chili peppers and the fenugreek seeds.
  4. It is traditional to leave the lemons in large chunks, but I recommend slicing them into thin strips of about 1 by ¼-inch. It is also traditional to leave the pith on the lemons, but you can remove it if you desire.
  5. Heat the oils in a sauté pan. When warm but not sizzling hot, remove from the fire, add the asafetida. Stir and cover the pan. Let sit for 2 to 3 minutes. Then add the whole roasted seeds and the ground spices; mix well. Cool for another 30 minutes to 1 hour, so the mixture is barely warm.
  6. In a large bowl, mix the salted lemon slices, the lemon juice and the sugar until blended. Add the oil and spice mixture; mix well. Let sit covered for an hour or even overnight. When almost ready to bottle the pickle, spoon off the excess oil for a cleaner pickle.  Taste the pickle and add a pinch or two of salt if desired.
  7. Spoon the mixture into jars, cover, refrigerate 2 weeks before serving. Store opened jars in the refrigerator.

As a condiment or a spread, this pickle is delicious. Give it a try and let me know what you think!  (Words, recipe, and photograph by Laura Kelley.)

Sweet and Savory Eel – Feast of Seven Fishes

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.

Serving Food at the Festa
Serving Food at the Festa

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.

Chinese Sweet and Savory Eel
Chinese Sweet and Savory Eel

 

Sweet and Savory Eel

Ingredients
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

Directions
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.

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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.

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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:

Salt Cod Tomato Sauce with Linguine by Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure.
Sicilian Citrus Shark Filets by Amanda Mouttaki, MarocMama.
Whipped Salt cod | Baccalà Mantecato by Deana Sidney, Lost Past Remembered.

To read more about Italy on the Silk Road, check my earlier posts.

Lots of other great Silk Road fish recipes here on the site, including a Bhutanese curry of Fish and Oranges

(Words by Laura Kelley; Photograph of Pete serving food at the Festa borrowed from a St. Anthony of Padua newsletter, photograph of Chinese Sweet and Savory Eel by Laura Kelley.)

Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

Uyghur Five-Spice Blend
Uyghur Five-Spice Blend

This five-spice mix forms the backbone of Uyghur cuisine – at least that part of it that deals with roast meats.  Variations of this mix are used to flavor many Uyghur dishes, with other ingredients – salt, garlic, onions, etc., added to the mix as needed.

The flavor of the Uyghur five-spice blend is robust and smoky with light spicy bites from the Sichuan peppercorns, and the effect it has on roast meats is phenomenal.  Feel free to use it on kebabs and roasts like the Uyghurs do, or just on regular old steaks like I do.  My kids love when I use it on beef and lamb, and miss it when I don’t.

It has a great deal in common with other five-spice mixes from East Asia, and also with some of the masalas from the Himalayas – especially those from Tibet and Nepal.   (To read a post about the variations in these spice mixes, follow this link.)  In fact it is sort of a combination of both sets of spices.  With the east, it shares Sichuan pepper and star anise, and with the Himalayan masalas it shares black peppercorns and black cardamom.  Interestingly, the base of the Uyghur five-spice blend is made up of roasted cumin, which is found in abundance with Western and Southern Asian spice mixes.  So once again, the Uyghur recipe blends ingredients from across the Silk Road with unique results.

As to chili peppers, there are a number of them used in Uyghur cooking that range from mild to blazing hot.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any of these in the US, and thus turned to the familiar and widely available Japone. If you can find Sichuan chilis, these are a good moderately-hot substitute for Uyghur chilis.

I need to stress that there is no set recipe for these mixes.  They vary by region, city or even by household, depending upon individual and familial tastes.  That said, however, the roasted cumin is always there as are the Sichuan peppercorns to some degree or another.  The smokiness, however, can sometimes come from black cumin instead of black cardamom, and sometimes I have had versions that distinctly had cinnamon as part of the mix.  Here’s my favorite blend:

Ingredients
1/4 cup cumin seeds
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
3 tablespoons black peppercorns
10 dried red chilies (Japones will work but Sichuan is best)
Seeds from 4-5 black cardamom pods
3-4 star anise pods (pieces are fine)

Method
Dry roast spices separately until fragrant (do not scorch or burn)
Grind together

Uyghur Big Plate Fried Chicken

This is a quintessential Uyghur Dish. Stir-fried chicken, potatoes and bell peppers in a rich, savory sauce redolent with star anise and cinnamon. Roasted cumin flavors the base of the sauce, with black cardamom lending a smoky taste, and Sichuan pepper offering up a few bright, spicy lights. Interestingly, the heat of this dish is extremely variable and ranges from mild to four-alarm hot, although most people prefer the dish with moderate to high heat.  As written, the dish is moderately spicy and sure to please anyone who desires a taste of The Silk Road.

Uyghur Big Plate Chicken
Uyghur Big Plate Fried Chicken

Marinade
2 cups water
¼ cup light soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 cinnamon stick
3-4 whole black cardamom pods
2 star anise pods
1½ teaspoons fine sea salt

Ingredients
2 pounds of chicken (bone-in pieces or boneless breast meat)
3 tablespoons hsao xing rice wine
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons black rice vinegar
1 tablespoon broad bean paste (Doubanjiang) *
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper
3 – 4 star anise pods
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small bunch spring onions (6-8 stalks) roughly chopped **
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
1½ – 2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced or minced
1 heaping tablespoon Uyghur five-spice mix
6-8 dried mild-to-moderately hot red chili peppers ***
1 cup water
2-3 medium golden potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ -inch chunks
2 medium red bell peppers, cored and cut into chunks
2 tomatoes, diced

Method
Marinate the chicken. Mix the liquid marinade ingredients together in a large bowl. Break the cinnamon stick into pieces and lightly crush the black cardamom and the star anise pods before adding to the marinade. Add salt and stir well. Add chicken pieces and stir well to evenly coat the chicken with the marinade. Cover and rest at least overnight, stirring occasionally.

Preparing to cook. In a small bowl, mix together the hsao xing, light and dark soy sauces, black vinegar, bean paste, sugar and salt. Stir well until sugar and other solids are dissolved. Lightly crush the Szechuan pepper and the star anise pods and stir into the mixture. When other ingredients and prepared, drain chicken but do not rinse.

Cooking. Heat the oil in a wok on high heat and when the oil begins to smoke add the drained chicken pieces and stir fry for about 3-4 minutes or until the chicken becomes opaque and starts to color. Remove meat from the wok with a slotted spoon or strainer and set aside.

If necessary add a bit more oil to the wok and when it smokes, add the spring onions and stir fry for 1-2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until the garlic begins to swell and color. Add the ginger and stir for another minute or two. Add the Uyghur 5-spice mix and the whole chili peppers and stir well to coat the onion mix in the wok. Cook for 1 minute to warm the spices.

Add about 1/3 – to ½ cup of the water and stir. When the water has heated up, add the potato slices and stir well. Cover and cook for 6-8 minutes stirring occasionally. Add more water as necessary to keep the potatoes from burning.

Now add the bell peppers and tomatoes and stir – lifting more than stirring to keep the partially cooked potatoes intact. Give the hsao xing and soy sauce mixture a good stir to bring the solids back into solution and then pour into the wok and stir once more. Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes then add the chicken back into the wok and stir. Cover and cook another 3-5 minutes or until the chicken has warmed and the rest of the vegetables are cooked but still firm.

Plate and serve with rice, noodles, or naan flatbread.

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My favorite things about Big Plate Fried Chicken – called “Chong Tahsilik Tohu Qorimisi,” in Uyghur –  are the clear links the recipe has with Central Asian and Himalayan cuisines.  In particular, the rich star-anise laden sauce has many variants across Central Asia and the use of black cardamom is common in the Himalayas and parts of Central Asia.  That said, however, there are several clearly Chinese ingredients as well, such as black vinegar, broad bean paste and hsao xing rice wine.  Although Chinese in origin, Sichuan pepper has many close relatives (same genus, different species) that impart similar flavors in Himalayan cuisine as well, so it is difficult to know whether this ingredient links the recipe to China, or to the Himalayas.  The bottom line is that this is a UYGHUR dish, and as such it is a product of the Silk Road that joins ingredients and preparation methods from a variety of cultures to form its own unique recipe. Uyghur cuisine is a one of the world’s lesser-known fusion cuisines.

Big Plate Fried Chicken is available everywhere in Xinjiang Province. It is a standard in restaurants and is also a commonly prepared home-cooked meal.  It can be served as single main course –  which is the most common presentation at lunchtime – or it can be part of a larger multi-course (usually) evening meal.  With only a couple of changes, the sauce is used with lamb or mutton as well as chicken.

Some adjustments have been made in cooking to adjust for vessel shape and material.  Uyghurs usually prepare stews in a large cast iron pot with slightly slanted sides very much like the Uzbek qozon or cauldron.  These vessels can get blazingly hot, but like any cast-iron pot or pan, they take a long time to heat up and to cool down.  The meat and the potatoes cook much quicker Uyghur style than they do in a steel wok. Because of this, I suggest stir-frying the meat first, then removing it from the stew while the vegetables cook, and then returning it to heat up before serving.

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*   I used the kind that has few (if any) chili peppers in it (low heat).
** If you use the giant Asian spring onions, 1-2 should suffice.
*** Any mild-to-moderate red chili will work, but I used Japone chilies.

(Words, recipe and photograph of Uyghur Big Plate Chicken by Laura Kelley.)