The Capital Region sets the table for these mouth-watering holiday traditions from around the world.
by Dani Testa-Sgueglia
In this month of togetherness, where we count our blessings and find ourselves unified in our search for the perfect turkey or craving moms chestnut stuffing, we see the core of what brings us together and it involves our stomachs.
Everyone has family traditions for the winter holidays. These may include an evening in a house of worship, or perhaps ancient prayers uttered from memory above a flickering candle. It may include a house filled with raucous cousins from the far‐reaching branches of the family tree or a quiet dinner with your closest friends. Whatever your family’s holiday tradition, most likely, there is one special dish that would never be left off the holiday table. The menu may change and morph to encompass changing times, but that one, time‐honored recipe will continue to grace the table for years and generations to come. This tradition, we have found, is one of those borderless similarities that is found around the world, and the thread woven through so many cultures.
So moving past Thanksgiving, what about those from around the globe that are celebrated by your neighbors right here in the Capital Region? Let’s take a quick foodie journey to find out.
In Thailand, the heavily Buddhist population gives thanks and makes offerings to the water goddess during the first full moon of November. The Loy Krathong festival draws Thai people of all ages to the banks of rivers, streams and ponds to set small banana leaf boats called Krathong afloat. The small vessels carry incense, candles, and other offerings as well as thanks for the life‐giving water, wishes for the future and penitent apologies. The incense and candles are lit, and the boats are placed in the water; with a gentle push they float towards the others, creating a flickering tableau.
The holiday would not be complete without a large holiday meal of salads, grilled meats, curry stews, and noodle dishes. One of the traditional dishes is Gaeng Panang Gai (Panang Curry Chicken). Even though this festival isn’t really practiced in the Capital Region, you can certainly visit your favorite Thai restaurant to sample the flavors of the festival. Or for a fragrant addition to your repertoire, try making it at home. As with most traditional dishes, there are many variations, but the following recipe is a great starting off point. Make it your own by adding different vegetables and tweaking the spiciness to suit your family’s palate.
Traveling west from Thailand, we land in India, where the largest holiday of the year follows the lunar calendar and falls on the night of the new moon, mid‐October to mid‐November. This year Diwali fell on October 27 but deserves to have its place on this journey since it is celebrated by such a huge population throughout India, Southeast Asia, and in Indian communities throughout the world (even here in our Capital Region!)
The five‐day Hindu holiday celebrates the victory of good over evil and is memorialized as a festival of lights. The first day of observance includes a thorough cleaning of the home and the creation of an intricate design of colored sand, rice and flowers on the floor of the home called rangoli. The main celebration falls on the third evening, when small clay lamps known as Diya, candles, lanterns and colored lights are lit in homes, places of worship, on streets and even (as in Thailand) afloat on water to welcome good fortune.
Families and friends gather to celebrate, perform puja (prayers and rituals), exchange gifts, and feast on mostly vegetarian specialties like pakora, samosas, Aloo Tikki and dishes with paneer. Although these scrumptious savory dishes are hard to pass up, sweets like kheer, gulab jamun and various types of halwa (grated vegetables mixed with condensed milk and ghee) take center stage throughout the celebration. Kheer caps off most meals at our local Indian hot spots.
This is a basic kheer recipe using the most common and quintessential ingredients. As with most traditional recipes, every home and restaurant has its own variations, so sample different iterations around the area to find what you like best. Experiment with using rose water (about 1½ teaspoon), saffron (a few strands), or kewra essence to change the flavors a bit.
From the lively colors of India, we travel to the Mediterranean and land in the diverse melting pot of Lebanon. The small country, the most religiously diverse in the Middle East, is home to Muslim, Christian and Druze people, all celebrating their holidays and traditions in different ways. Representing about 40% of the population, Christians marry traditions from the Mediterranean, colonial French and the Middle East in the celebration of Christmas.
Stemming from Maronite traditions, the building of a crѐche or manger scene in a home, public squares and places of worship, is a sacred event and becomes a consistent reminder of the holiday as well as a place to offer prayer. The scenes blossom to life during the season as chickpea, oat and lentil seeds are spread during construction and sprout from the cotton underlayment as Christmas approaches.
The traditional Lebanese Dabke dance is performed during the season. The beating rhythm of the percussion, the vibrant costumes and joy of participants is truly a Lebanese sight! After working up an appetite, a feast awaits. A table filled with Lebanese specialties such as tabbouleh, hummus, beet and lentil salad, lamb Rotis and sweets like a bouche de noel (a nod to French colonialism) await, but the star is the Kebbeh Pie – considered the national dish of Lebanon. Most Lebanese restaurants serve their own version, usually football shaped pockets that are fried. Call ahead to make sure they are serving it before you visit. Of course, for the adventurous home cook, try it at home. This is a basic recipe – other spices you can experiment with include marjoram, parsley, rose petals, cumin, pomegranate molasses, coriander, pine nuts and sumac.
From the seas of the Mediterranean, we head north to the snows of Poland, where the Christmas celebration begins on Christmas Eve and continues over the next few days. “Our family traditionally attends midnight mass on Christmas Eve,” says Latham’s Jay Wynn of his Polish family. “On Christmas Day we celebrate with family and a feast of 12 dishes, followed by sharing the altar bread.”
“Our family table always includes Golumbki,” he adds. “We hope you enjoy them.” And of course, his family’s famous Golumbki are part of the special Thursday evening tradition at his Golden Krust Bagels (638 Columbia Street, Ext, Latham; goldencrustbagels.com) – The Blue Plate Special!
Crossing the Atlantic, we find ourselves in the Spanish colonial city of Puebla, Mexico. The Bermejo family of El Mariachi Restaurant (289 Hamilton Street, Albany; elmariachirestaurant.com) hails from the rich cultural and gastronomic traditions of this region, where their Christmas celebration falls on Christmas Eve. “We start early in the morning,” says Patty Bermejo‐Bhola. “We cook all day – it is a big part of the celebration for us.” Preparation of the feast is followed by worship at church. “Christmas is a very religious holiday for us. We go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve as a family and then come home and eat.”
“It wouldn’t be Christmas without Chiles en nogada!” she says. “This is our traditional family recipe that our mom made when we were children. We carry the tradition on and make them every Christmas.”
Whether you are picking out the perfect tree for your home, counting your seven fishes for a Christmas Eve feast, or celebrating miracles of ancient births or festivals of light, take comfort in your traditions, and experiment with a few from around the world. Maybe they will become new traditions for your family for years to come.
¼ cup basmati rice, uncooked
1 teaspoon ghee
3 – 4 cardamom pods, slightly crushed
4 ¼ cups whole milk
¼ cup sugar
3 tablespoons chopped nuts like pistachios, almonds or cashews
• Rinse the rice in cool water until it turns clear. Drain and reserve.
• In a dutch oven or saucepan, heat the ghee over medium-high heat.
• Add the drained rice and cardamom pods.
• Stir and toast until aromatic.
• Add the milk and sugar, stir well.
• Allow the milk to come to a boil, stirring frequently.
• Lower the heat to low and cook for about 25 minutes, stirring often, until the rice cooked.
• Remove from heat, stir in nuts. Enjoy hot or cool.
Courtesy of Jay Wynn, Golden Krust Bagels
2/3 cup water
1/3 cup uncooked rice
8 cabbage leaves
1 pound ground beef
¼ cup onion, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 (10.75 oz) can condensed tomato soup
• In a medium saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add rice and stir. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until rice is cooked.
• Preheat oven to 350⁰F.
• Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add cabbage leaves and cook for 2 to 4 min or until softened, drain.
• In a mixing bowl, combine the ground beef, 1 cup cooked rice, onions, egg, salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons tomato soup. Mix thoroughly.
• Divide the beef equally among cabbage leaves. Roll and secure with toothpicks.
• Place cabbage in a large pan. Add about a ½” of water to the pan and spread the remainder of soup over the cabbage. Cover and bake at 350⁰F for 1 hour.
Chiles en Nogada
Courtesy of Patty Bermejo‐Bhola, El Mariachi Restaurant
2 poblano peppers, roasted, seeded and peeled
1 teaspoon olive oil
½ pound ground beef
2 tablespoons onion, chopped
2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
½ plantain, chopped
2 tablespoons raisins
¼ cup almonds
½ cup walnuts
½ cup sour cream
1 cup milk
½ cup pomegranate seeds
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
• In a large frying pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add meat, onions, and garlic and saute. Add plantain, raisins, and almonds and cook until meat is cooked through. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Once cool, stuff peppers with filling and set aside.
• In a blender, combine walnuts, sour cream, and milk and blend until thoroughly pureed. Reserve in the fridge until ready to serve.
• When ready to serve, plate peppers on individual dishes, top with nogada sauce, and garnish with pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley. Serve at room temperature.
For the dough:
1 cup fine bulgur
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 pound ground lamb
½ cup fresh mint leaves (or 1 tablespoon dried)
1 teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
For the filling:
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound ground lamb
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
• In a small bowl, cover the bulgur with cool water and rinse twice or until all of the dust is removed. Cover the bulgur with cold water and let sit for 10 minutes. Drain in a fine‐mesh sieve, pressing to remove as much water as possible, and reserve in a large bowl.
• In a food processor, pulse onion until finely chopped. Add lamb, mint, and spices and pulse until well mixed, and meat is smooth. Add meat mixture to the bulgur and mix well. Set aside until ready to assemble.
• In a heavy skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Sauté onion and garlic until fragrant. Add meat and spices, and cook through breaking up meat as much as possible. Remove from heat and add pine nuts.
• Preheat oven to 400⁰ F. In a greased pie plate, press half of bulgur mixture evenly onto bottom and up sides. Spoon filling (meat and nuts) into shell and top with remaining bulgur mixture, smoothing the top as you go. Brush top with about ½ tablespoon of olive oil and score top in a crosshatch pattern. You can decorate the top with additional pine nuts if desired. Bake 35 – 40 minutes or until cooked through. Turn on broiler and broil until top is crisp, about 5 minutes (keep watch, so you don’t burn the nuts.)
• Cut into wedges and serve.
Gaeng Panang Gai
1 tablespoon coconut oil
2 medium bell peppers (one green, one red)
2 cups coconut milk
¼ cup Panang curry paste (available at Asian groceries or make your own)
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced to about ¼“ thick
2 cups chicken stock
3 kaffir lime leaves
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
¼ cup Thai basil leaves, chiffonade
• Heat large saute pan, wok or dutch oven over medium‐high heat. Add oil and peppers and sauté until firm tender. Remove from pan and reserve.
• Add coconut milk and curry paste to the pan and simmer over medium‐high heat until oil begins to separate, stirring consistently, about 12 minutes.
• Add chicken and simmer until cooked through, about 5 minutes.
• Add stock, lime leaves, sugar, fish sauce, and peppers to pan and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
• Remove from heat and add basil. Serve immediately with jasmine rice.