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Sushi for beginners: Five steps to making sushi at home
Rolling your own sushi at home is easier than you think. At top, cooking instructor Danielle Edmonds demonstrates a simple California roll.
Danielle Edmonds, the resident chef of Sur La Table and cooking class teacher, uses her eight fingers to hold ingredients in place as she rolls a California roll while demonstrating making sushi rolls on Monday, May 14, 2012. Edmonds made a California roll, a spicy tuna inside out roll, and a vegetarian hand roll. Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver P
Danielle Edmonds, resident chef of Sur La Table and cooking class teacher, demonstrates making sushi rolls.
A vegetarian hand roll before it is cut.
Ah, sushi. That popular Asian culinary art form of modest origins. That lovely, subtle cuisine that sates without bringing on the dreaded carb-coma. Some call it the new healthy fast food. Some call it high art. I just want to call it dinner.
Recently back from a hometown trip to Honolulu where my family enjoyed several expertly prepared sushi meals, a question popped to mind: Could I make good sushi at home? I’ve cooked plenty of Italian, created many Chinese dishes and experimented with Indian food. Why not try sushi?
Of two minds, I figured making sushi would be either quite simple or completely beyond my grasp. First, I wondered, how hard could it be? Cook some rice, grab some nori, slice some fish, julienne some veggies and avocados, roll it all together, and voila! I’ll have that lovely and delectable taste of home, right?
But I also knew that sushi chefs spend their entire lives perfecting the craft, so could I really expect my freshman efforts to result in anything remotely resembling the delectable Asian fare I’ve come to know and love? Would my kitchen merely wind up smelling like fish and burned rice? There was only one way to find out.
To start, I quick-scanned several books on sushi-making. This provided background on tools, ingredients, sushi history and presentation. I googled and watched a few do-it-yourself sushi-making videos, and then chatted up the chefs at my favorite sushi restaurant who graciously weighed in with expert guidance on everything from fish-slicing techniques to obscure seafood suppliers.
Finally, with a lot of information in my head but no experience in hand, I knew I needed to get my mitts dirty trying, so I signed up for “Sushi 101,” chef Danielle Edmonds’ beginner class at Sur La Table’s Boulder store. I came away from the class — a two-hour tour de force of sushi skills — with realistic hopes of making my own.
With several sushi sessions now under my belt, I realize my initial expectations and concerns were backward. Making sushi that tastes good isn’t the problem. My kitchen doesn’t smell like fish or burned rice.
The problem: it just hasn’t been pretty. And in the world of sushi, presentation matters. What I’ve made hasn’t been sleek. It hasn’t been elegant. Instead, it’s been rather messy. Uneven rolls, loosely packed rice, ingredients falling out. It’s the assembly and rolling technique that eludes me.
What the best chefs in the business know, and what I have learned, is that technique takes the longest to master. And like the masters, I intend to try and try again until practice makes perfect.
Five steps to making your own sushi
1. LEARN WHAT YOU LIKE
Try several sushi restaurants. Be adventurous: Talk to the sushi chefs. See what they recommend, and watch them. They’re a pretty gregarious and friendly bunch. You’ll pick up some basic techniques by watching closely. You will also learn what types of fish or seafood you like best, and determine which way you prefer it served. There are several sushi presentation styles. The most common include:
• Sushi rolls Maki-zushi (rolled sushi), Futomaki-zushi (thick-rolled sushi with several fillings), Hosomaki-zushi (thin-rolled sushi using a single filling): Nori on the outside of the rice and ingredients, as in California rolls and dragon rolls.
• Inside-out rolls Rice on the outside, sushi ingredients inside, decorated on the outside with fish roe, sesame seeds or tempura flakes.
• Nagiri Hand-formed sushi with a slice of fish or seafood served on top of a small hand-formed quantity of rice.
• Hand rolls (Temaki) Hand rolls or cone sushi with ingredients loosely wrapped in nori.
• Sashimi Raw fish or seafood served alone, without rice.
• Scattered (Chirashi-zushi) Sliced raw fish served over a bed of rice, often with vegetables.
• Wrapped sushi Ingredients wrapped in something other than nori, i.e. tofu pouches.
• Molded sushi Sushi made using molds to shape the sushi.
2. ASSEMBLE EQUIPMENT
Making sushi is much easier if you have the right tools. Here’s what you need:
• Rice cooker A cooker makes rice consistently each time and allows you to cook the rice without constantly watching or stirring, providing time to prep the other ingredients. It’s hard to make good sushi rice in a sauce pan.
• Sushi-grade knives It is very important to have a good, sharp knife for cutting your fish, vegetables and sushi rolls. Common knives used to make sushi include:
— A chef’s knife with a heavy, curved blade
— A fish knife that has a very sharp, long slim blade for slicing fish and cutting sushi rolls. The longer blade allows you to slice fish without running out of blade length, preventing a sawing motion which can smash or otherwise damage your fish and sushi rolls.
— A vegetable knife for fine and quick peeling, cutting and chopping
• Rice rolling mat and plastic wrap to keep rice from sticking to it, and prevent it from being washed frequently to prevent frequent replacements.
• Large bowl for mixing and cutting sushi rice, preferably wood.
• Rice paddle or wooden spoon for “cutting” sushi rice
• Small bowls and plates for lining up ingredients and for final presentation
• Colander or bowl for washing rice and vegetables
• Dish cloths to wipe hands and utensils
3. LINE UP INGREDIENTS
With sushi, like any cooking, the best ingredients provide the best results. For great-tasting sushi, the most scrutiny should be given to your rice and fish. Sushi-grade fish is fairly pricey, but use the proper grade for safety and taste. Get to know your local fish suppliers.
FISH AND SEAFOOD
According to Whole Foods Boulder fishmonger Ryan Foote, these are the qualities to look for when buying sushi-grade fish:
• Bright-colored fish (dull or really dark or brown fish means fish is beginning to oxidize.
• Fish that doesn’t smell A strong smell indicates the fish is old.
• Fish that’s smooth and firm to the touch, not slimy.
• Fillets instead of steaks. Fillets are a better shape for slicing sushi.
Note that if you love eel, octopus or squid, or want specific types of fish other than yellowfin tuna and salmon (sake), you may have a hard time finding them in Colorado. Living in a landlocked state and the growing awareness and adoption of seafood-sustainability efforts reduce the availability of some of the more exotic fish and seafood options.
Use only short-grained sushi rice. It’s starchy and absorbent, which makes it sticky. Jasmine, Basmati or other long-grained varieties aren’t suitably abosrbent, and are too dry and hard.
Look for “sushi rice” on the label of rice packaging, ask your supermarket which brands are best for sushi rice, or visit a local Asian market for the good selection. Well-known brands include: Kokuho Rose, Nashiki, Koshihikari.
OTHER SUSHI INGREDIENTS
Many of these items can be found in standard grocery stores. Most can be found in Asian food stores.
• Nori seaweed wrap.
• Wasabi Japanese horseradish commonly comes in either powder or paste form. Fresh wasabi root is hard to find.
• Mirin sweet rice wine.
• Japanese rice wine essential to the taste of sushi rice. It also has anti-bacterial properties and serves as a preservative.
• Kewpie Japanese mayonnaise.
• Pickled ginger to cleanse the palate, usually served in the corner of a sushi tray.
• Soy sauce dark soy sauce is used both as an ingredient and as dipping sauce.
• Crab meat real or imitation.
• Toasted sesame seeds Inside-out rolls are often rolled in these.
• Kombu a kelp seaweed used to flavor sushi rice during cooking.
• Vegetables carrots, cucumber, avocado, shitake mushrooms, daikon radishes.
4. PREP AND ASSEMBLING
Sushi rice must be washed with cold water prior to cooking to remove any bran compounds or powder. As you agitate the rice, the water will turn cloudy. Rinse until water is clear. If you fail to do this, your rice may be too sticky and smelly.
Sushi rice recipe
This makes enough rice to make sushi rolls for a family of four – all hearty eaters.
3 cups sushi rice (before cooking)
Add to the rice maker and set the time to begin cooking.
When rice is done cooking, prepare the sushi rice vinegar mix. This is what gives sushi rice its distinctive taste.
Rice vinegar mixture
1/3 cup rice vinegar
Place rice vinegar and sugar into a small sauce pan. Over low heat mix until the sugar dissolves. Let the mixture cool.
While your rice is still hot, move it to a large wooden bowl.
Take vinegar mixture and sprinkle it lightly in small amounts over the rice, making horizontal and then vertical cutting motions across the rice. This gives each rice grain a chance to be coated by the vinegar mixture. Don’t pour the liquid on the rice or it’ll clump into big balls of rice, which you don’t want. If you like, use a small hand-held fan or piece of newspaper to fan the rice as it cools. When all of the vinegar mixture is cut into the rice, the rice should be sticky and shiny, and slightly cooled – not hot or cold (If your rice is too hot when assembling your sushi, it will become rubbery on the nori, according to Danielle Edmonds. Once your rice has cooled off a bit, it’s ready for making sushi. It’s best to use your sushi rice right away. (Refrigerating sushi rice makes it hard.)
VEGETABLES AND OTHER INGREDIENTS
Thinly slice or julienne carrots, cucumbers, avocado, crab meat, etc. This can be done with a slicer or by hand. Slice sushi ingredients as thinly as you can.
Set ingredients in small bowls, arranging them for easy access in a line or circle. You will be taking small bits from each bowl as you assemble your sushi.
In Colorado, you’ll most likely be using tuna or salmon fillets. If you prefer, you can also ask your fish provider to further slice the fish for you.There are five basic ways to cut sushi fish.
• A rectangular cut is most common and is usable on all fish. Hold the fish on the bias and start with the heel of the knife.
• An angled cut is often used for nagiri.
• A paper-thin cut can suit some firm, white fish.
• A cube cut can work for soft thick fish.
• A thread-cut is often used for squid and thin white fish filets.
5. WRAP AND ROLL
Place 8 ounces of water and 2-3 tablespoons of vinegar in a bowl so you can dip your hands when assembling your sushi. This will keep the rice from sticking to your hands, one of the biggest issues for rookie sushi makers.
Cover your bamboo mat with plastic wrap to prevent rice from sticking to it.
Position a half sheet of nori shiny side down on your saran covered bamboo mat. (If you are making an inside out roll, it doesn’t matter which side of your nori faces down because it will be inside the roll.)
Dip hands in the vinegar water mixture to prevent sticking.
Grab a small handful of sushi rice. Cover bottom three-quarters of nori sheet with thin layer of rice, leaving the top quarter of the nori sheet empty. (It is this empty section that will seal the roll together.)
Make a groove along the length of the rice.
Depending on your recipe, lay a thin layer of vegetables, crab meat or fish in the groove on top of rice on the bottom third of the nori sheet. (According to chef Edmonds, Japanese tradition calls for an odd — not even — numbers of ingredients, usually three or five items).
Add a small swipe of wasabi on top of other ingredients if you prefer.
Begin rolling your sushi roll by putting the tips of the four fingers of each hand on top of sushi ingredients to hold them in place while keeping both thumbs on the back of the bamboo rolling mat closest to you, as pictured above.
Push the mat forward until the mat is completely around the sushi roll and until the top and bottom edges of the nori meet.
Pull your four fingers out from the mat and roll.
Continue to roll the sushi mat in a circle around the ingredients. Avoid pressing too hard. The mat can be used to shape your sushi into a nice long, round roll, but be gentle or you’ll have a heavy rice log.
Set your first sushi roll on a plate. Make as many additional rolls as you like. Let them set for a few minutes prior to cutting. This will help the rice and ingredients stick and gel in shape.
To cut your sushi roll, place one sushi roll on your cutting board. Using a very sharp knife, gently cut each sushi roll in half, cutting down and through. Place the two halves above and below eachother, and cut each section into three pieces, leaving six bite-sized sushi morsels. Place the sushi on a plate.
Repeat until all of your sushi rolls are cut into bite-sized pieces.
Yes, there is a “suggested” way to eat sushi, but when eating at home, the rules aren’t nearly as rigid as when eating in a restaurant.
Chopsticks and fingers are both acceptable. Bite-sized sushi should be eaten in one bite. Never pass sushi from your chopsticks to someone else’s chopsticks. This is considered bad luck.
Most sushi restaurants hold that sushi shouldn’t be heavily doused with wasabi or dunked in soy sauce as both drown the subtle flavors of the fish, rice and other ingredients. A dab of wasabi will complement the flavor of your sushi. Too much will overpower it.
If you prefer to dip your sushi in soy sauce, do so sparingly. Too much soy will cause the rice to fall apart. Dip a corner of your sushi in the sauce. Place the sushi fish side down, when applicable, on your tongue to maximize the taste.
• Sur La Table, 1850 29th St., Boulder, 303-952-7084, (and other Sur La Table locations)surlatable.com/category/Web-Cooking-Root/Cooking-Classes
• Sushi Den and Izakaya Den, 1487 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0826, sushiden.net/2011/10/30/sushi-event/
• The Seasoned Chef, 999 Jasmine St., 303-377-3222, theseasonedchef.com. Rollin’ Sushi Workshop, with Andrew Lubatty, $80, 6:30-9:30 p.m. Aug. 20.
PLACES TO BUY SUSHI-GRADE FISH
Whole Foods, Marzyk Fine Foods, Tony’s Meats
• H Mart, 2751 S. Parker Road, Aurora
• 88 Asian Market, 421 S. Federal Blvd.
• Pacific Mercantile Company, 1925 Lawrence St, 303-295-0293, pacificmercantile.com
• Pacific Ocean Market Place, 6600 W. 120th Ave ., Broomfield, 303-410–8168
Land caviar from kochia seeds
I almost didn’t believe my first bite of wild-made tonburi—a preparation that involves boiling and soaking kochia seeds to make what is referred to as “land caviar.” The green and black seeds swell to a gelatinous texture with a shiny finish, and the mouth feel is the simultaneously slippery and crunchy texture of caviar.
The flavor is quite nice too. Tonburi has been described as tasting of broccoli and artichoke, and can be seasoned to give it a caviar-like flavor. According to tonburi purveyor BienManger, it is a specialty of the Akita prefecture in Japan and an ingredient in Buddhist vegetarian Shojin-ryori cuisine. It is often served seasoned with smoked fish or blended into a mayonnaise.
Truly, this is a wonderful ingredient—and with a little know-how and effort, we can access it for free. That’s because kochia (Kochia scoparia syn. Bassia scoparia), a non-native and some say noxious weed, is very plentiful in regions west, and in localized areas around the world.
Kochia seeds, winnowed to remove the chaff. The seeds swell, so even if it looks like you didn’t get that much, you will get several times the amount by the time you’re finished.
Getting the Seeds
Kochia seeds can be collected from late summer well into fall. The plant is easy to spot at this time because it often turns bright red before drying out to brown. In cultivated varieties, the entire foliage can appear red, such as in the magnificent display of cultivated kochia spheres at Hitachi Seaside Park in Japan.
Green kochia flower heads, with densely clustered spikes and long, skinny leaves subtending. Wait until these turn brown and dry out before harvesting the seeds. Photo by Gregg Davis.
Kochia proliferates in Denver, where it can grow taller than my head, and in my backyard at 10,000 feet in Colorado’s South Park. It is a common weed, often found in nearly pure stands spanning miles and miles of agricultural field borders and roadsides.
In maturity, kochia has the appearance of a rounded-out, many-branched tumbleweed. Unlike Russian thistle (Salsola kali), another tumbleweed often found growing nearby, kochia is not spiny or otherwise injurious. The dry seed spikes sport tiny, inconspicuous fruits that, upon inspection with a magnifying glass, look a bit like flowers or stars because they have five, somewhat pointed, papery wings surrounding them. Each of the many tiny stars clustered on each branch has a skinny leaf sticking out from its base, and each contains a flat, teardrop-shaped black seed.
Stripping kochia seeds from dry plants near an abandoned building. Kochia likes waste places with disturbed ground; the trick is finding a good patch that isn’t growing right along the road. Photo by Gregg Davis.
Kochia seeds and chaff can be stripped into a collecting container easily by running a gripped hand along the branches. The tips of the branches left behind are filament-like—soft, white, and fuzzy at the tips. Since kochia tends to cover large areas and is a prolific seed producer, a patient forager can gather a substantial amount of fruits and tiny seeds.
My method for making tonburi from the dried, wild-foraged seeds involves first dumping the material into a big bowl and rubbing it between my fingers for a while. This is easy to do while watching TV. The process loosens the chaff and seed coats from the seeds.
Dried seeds, leaves, and fuzzy seed head spikes, stripped from the dry plants.
Next, because kochia is an easily spread non-native species, I don’t use my normal blow-in-the-bowl method to separate the excess leaf material and dry fruit casings. Instead I sift out the smallest bits of chaff through a sieve (I use our spatter guard), then employ my better half’s tap-the-cookie-sheet method to separate the rest. (This involves spreading the material out at one end of the cookie sheet, tilting it slightly, and tapping from underneath or above so the seeds roll and bounce to the other end, leaving the chaff behind.) It’s an imperfect method because the chaff inadvertently slides down too, so every tenth tap or so you have slide all the material back to the upper end of the tray. But the seeds do collect at the base, and can be transferred to a bowl by the spoonful as each batch is completed. Some chaff is likely to remain in the mix, but does not detract too much from the final product.
After winnowing, the next step is to boil the seeds until soft, which for me took about 10 minutes at 10,000 feet, and then plunge them right away into cold water and let them soak overnight. Next, it is good to give the wet seeds another thorough rubbing to loosen any remaining seed coats, which can then be decanted off with the water. Then, rinse and strain to produce the caviar-like, vegan tonburi.
The soaked seeds swelled to produce a vegan caviar many times the dry volume. The texture and crunch are similar to real caviar.
Invasive Species-Made, Vegan Caviar
I used to buy caviar when I lived in California. Since then it seems to have increased in price, or I have just become poorer. In any case, I never purchase it anymore.
Black caviar from wild-caught sturgeon is a no-no on the Seafood Watch list from Monterey Bay Aquarium. “All 26 wild sturgeon species around the world are depleted or near extinction,” they explain. “These fish grow slowly, mature late and can’t keep up with the high demand for caviar.” The group recommends opting for caviar farmed in the U.S. or Canada as a best choice.
The first time I made it, I stared at my invasive-species-made, vegan caviar in disbelief for a while. What would you make if a sudden bounty of almost-caviar landed in your lap?
Online searches produced some exciting ideas. I found an image of butter-poached Murray cod with baby radish, braised Japanese daikon, tonburi, and crystallized wakame; another of chilled oyster soba, champagne jelly, pickled cucumber, and tonburi. I drooled over lobster with fried ribbons of sweet potato, tonburi, and lobster sauce. And the list goes on.
Although many sites describe tonburi as a gourmet delicacy, one commenter noted that according to Japanese-language websites, the seeds “only became ‘food’ after people in modern Akita prefecture were on the verge of starvation.” Whether delicacy, starvation food, or sustainable substitute for a depleted resource, I don’t care. The swollen kochia seeds are simply fantastic.
A roll with cooked fish, avocado, wild plants, and tonburi. Photo by Gregg Davis.
In the end I made a million sushi rolls, using a palette of ingredients both wild and cultivated, topping each with a gorgeous trickle of tonburi.
You Can Have This Much Fun Too
For me, collecting wild seeds is a meditative activity, as is the time spent winnowing and rubbing. The entire process feels quietly transformational—and all the more so with kochia seeds, which turn into such magical “land caviar.”
When the kochia turns red in fall and then dries to brown, I exhort you, go ahead and collect some seeds. Let them dry out fully; it takes but a minute to spread them on a tray. You don’t even have to use them right away. But I promise—if you are willing to one day take the idea to fruition, there is a pot of gold at the end of this kochia rainbow.
UPDATE 10.22.17: Some people have reported an uncomfortable sensation in the throat upon consumption. I suspect saponins in the seed coats could be responsible, but have not verified this. However, I added an extra rub-and-rinse after soaking to the procedure described above as a precaution. That said, as with any wild edible, try just a little your first time. I find that combining it with other ingredients reduces the effect.