Sushi 101

It took me a bloody decade to learn how to properly make sushi rice. I’m going to tell you right here and now so you won’t suffer the same fate.

Crab & matsutake dynamite

Once you’ve got the rice made, the rest is paint by numbers. Although you’ve gotta have a nice sharp knife and really fresh fish, which I get at the Japanese market. They’ve got everything I could want — toro, hamachi, albacore, uni, sweet shrimp, halibut, salmon, etc. If you live in a big city you’ll have no problem finding a Japanese market with sashimi-quality fish. If you live in a reasonably good town, you should at least be able to find some sashimi-grade ahi (Trader Joe’s has sashimi-grade ahi and frozen sashimi-grade scallops, which I’m gonna tell you how to make scallop “dynamite” with…) If you live in the country, you may have to settle for cooked shrimp.

Here’s how to do the rice:

1 cup short-grain white rice (Calrose or sushi rice)
2 cups water
1 tbsp. seasoned rice wine vinegar (or 1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar and 1 tsp. sugar, mixed)

Rinse the rice in water: put the rice in the pot you intend to cook it in, and run some tap water over it. Swish it with your hand. It will become cloudy. Pour the water out, and repeat until it’s no longer cloudy (usually takes me 4 or 5 rinsings/swishings). Then cover with water and let sit for 15 minutes.

Drain the rice (all the water does not need to be drained, just most of it), add your 2 cups of water, cover and place on high heat. Once your rice begins to boil, cook for one minute. (You may need to lift the lid once or twice to prevent it from boiling over.) After the minute, turn to low, cover and cook for exactly five minutes. Once the five minutes is up, turn heat to high again and cook for 30 more seconds. Turn off and leave sitting, covered, for 20 minutes.

When the 20 minutes is up, remove lid and add vinegar, stirring very gently with a wooden spoon or spatula without breaking the rice kernels. When done, spread the rice within the pan and cover with a damp towel until ready to use.

For sushi, you’ll slice your piece of fish width-wise across the grain into sashimi-size pieces. Then you dampen your hands, take about a heaping teaspoon of rice in one palm, place two fingers from the other hand on top of it and fold your hand around it to form a small sushi rice patty. Repeat until you have as many rice balls as you have fish slices. Smear each with a dab of wasabi and place your sushi on top. “Irasshaimase!!!”

Or, you can make the ever-popular scallop dynamite, which I might happily point out makes ample use of mayonnaise (I made it in the above picture with king crab instead of scallops, and delicious matsutake mushrooms which are available in the fall at Japanese markets or in the woods near my mom’s house):

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Scallop Dynamite

1/2 lb large scallops, cut in quarters
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup white onion, cut lengthwise into slivers
1/4 cup shelled edamame beans (soybeans)
Dash of chili sauce (Mexican, srirachi, whatever you’ve got…)
Dash of soy sauce
1/4 cup grated jack, mozzarella or colby cheese
toasted sesame seeds

Mix together all the above ingredients except the cheese and sesame seeds, being careful not to destroy the mushrooms in the process. Place in a small baking dish or a sheet of foil with the edges turned up. Sprinkle cheese over the top, and broil in a hot oven for 10 or 15 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and golden. Remove.

Put a scoop of sushi rice on each of two plates (four smaller scoops if you’re serving this as an appetizer) and flatten out slightly. Carefully divide the dynamite between the two plates, scooping on top of the rice (you don’t want one guy to get all the yummy golden cheesy part). Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.

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Secret Weapon Ingredient #1: Kecap Manis

Get ready to have your presentation skills raised to the next level. This is one of the best secret ingredients you’ll ever discover: kecap manis, a thick, sweet soy sauce from Indonesia.

kecap manis

I often bring bottles of kecap manis for students when I do cooking lessons, especially if we’re doing fish. And you’ll see it in various recipes on this blog. Similar to a variety of labor-intensive sauces in an array of cultures — Japanese unagi sauce, balsamic reductions in Italian cuisine, wine reductions in French cooking, for example — it is rich and multi-layered, suggesting familiar tastes you can’t quite place. Which makes it very adaptable to a number of uses. What I use it for the most accenting dishes — usually fish or meat — with a design flourish just before serving. See the below shot.

Tuna crudo with salmon roe, tempura shiso leaf and kecap manis

I get my kecap manis at the Simpang Asia Indonesian market on National Blvd., if you happen to live in L.A.  If not, you can get it online. Here’s a source online, don’t know if they’re good or not (otherwise, Google it):

http://importfood.com/sakm2101.html

Pepper, Proper

I don’t want to see one of those little rectangular boxes of pre-ground pepper in your kitchen. I’m serious — if I see it, I will throw it away.

When I’m cooking in someone else’s kitchen or giving a cooking lesson in a home, I’m often amazed at the supplies people have on hand. Or lack of supplies, I should say. I ask for garlic, and they pull out a jar of pre-crushed garlic from the fridge. I ask for salt, I get the girl with the umbrella. In cooking, the simplest things are the most important. I will tell you what you need to have, it is your job to get it.

Pepper is one such item. Please, please NEVER use the pre-ground pepper in the rectangular metal container. Get yourself a pepper mill — I like the tall wooden ones they have at restaurants — buy whole peppercorns (they can be expensive, but you’ll find affordable and decent peppercorns at Mexican or Persian markets), and grind as you need. Grind into recipes, grind over finished dishes. Grind, grind, grind with abandon. But I beg of you, just don’t shake.

Things You Would Never Consider Putting In Your Mouth (and Why You Should) Pt. I

Your ancestors put some pretty gnarly things in their mouths. People in different places at different times have eaten what they had to in order to stay alive. People in some places eat sea cucumbers.

You’ve probably put some pretty gnarly things in your own mouth when you think about it. The same people who wince at the idea of eating an oyster will happily shove the leg of a chicken in their mouth; those who gag at the thought of eating a fried grasshopper will eagerly gobble down a fried shrimp, which is basically the grasshopper of the sea. I guess it’s all about what you’re used to.

I’m going to do a series about things you would likely not consider putting in your mouth, and tell you why you should. I’m not going to suggest anything dangerous or overly slimy. This is not an extreme-eating blog. (Once many years ago, when I first got into hunting wild fungi, I found a particular mushroom with a coating of slime on it. It was large and meaty, though, and I wondered if it was edible. I consulted my books, and found out it was — although the description in one book said, “Edible, though hardly incredible.” The mushroom is called the Hideous Gomphideous. As I was preparing it in the kitchen of my mother’s home in Sonoma, California, mom came by and asked me what kind of mushroom it was. I told her, and she said, “I am NOT eating anything called a Hideous Gomphideous.)

Today I want to tell you about bottarga. A specialty of southern Italy, bottarga is the dried, salted roe sacks of either mullet — bottarga di muggine — or tuna — bottarga di tonna. I decided to write about it this morning, as I was in the kitchen with a very sharp knife shaving the the mold off the outside to have some for lunch when our nanny, Karina, said, “What’s THAT?!?” And I explained to her what it was and what you do with it.

bottarga di muggine

As you can see from the picture, it’s appeal is not immediately clear. Somewhat like an unsliced salami — a good analogy for this particular piece, which has molded over. But the mold merely keeps the treasure inside safe. Like most dried, salted things, bottarga originally evolved in the days before refrigeration as a method to preserve the edible egg sacks of these fish for future use. (It seems to me that many of the world’s best foods evolved in the days before refrigeration.) For eons it toiled in the obscurity of rustic regionality, before finding its way onto the menus of upscale Italian eateries from New York to Beverly Hills. I wish I had known it in the olden days, when it was probably pennies a pound. Now it is an expensive delicacy. But a little goes a long way.

Now what on earth, you reasonably ask, does one do with dried mullet roe? Here’s a lusty summer recipe that will transport you to a seaside village on Sardinia as the sun sets. Make sure you’ve got a big red wine to drink with it. And if you can’t find bottarga or don’t have the will to try it, the recipe will still work with parmesan sprinkled instead.

Spaghetti with Bottarga and Tomatoes

1/2 lb pasta (for two people)
2 large, super-ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/4 cup olive oil plus more for drizzling
dried pepperoncini (crushed red pepper)
1 small, thumb-sized chunk of bottarga
salt & pepper

In a large saucepan, cook the tomatoes in the olive oil until most of the moisture is gone and the tomatoes are thick and saucy. Season liberally with salt. Cook the pasta in salted water until al dente. With tongs, lift the pasta out of the water and into the sauce pan, allowing some of the pasta water to come along for the ride. Turn the sauce to high heat, toss pasta until completely coated. If the sauce has become at all watery, continue to cook over high heat. Then turn off when thickened.

With the tongs, divide the pasta into piles on two large plates. Scoop any extra sauce over the pasta. Sprinkle with pepperoncini, then with a cheese grater, shave the bottarga evenly over the two plates. Serve with salt and pepper to each diner’s preference, and a bottle of good red wine.

The Importance of Salt

Salt. The quintessential seasoning. In use since the day that first cave guy realized that the yak carcass tasted better and lasted longer if you sprinkled it with the white crystal you gathered down by the coast.

Snow-powdery Maldon salt

Not all salts are created equal. If you use that round canister with the girl with the umbrella on it, I will ban you from visiting this post. The culinary world these days is filled with every manner of salt from every corner of the world. Most of it is not worth your time. But feel free to experiment and find the salts you like best. There are black smoked salts, red lava salts, pretty pink salts from Australian rivers, smelly sulfurous salts from the Himalayas, you name it. Here’s my two most important salts:

KOSHER

This is the workhorse. Every kitchen should have Kosher salt as their main salt. It works well for cooking and is flaky and light for sprinkling. Morton’s (the kind with the girl and the umbrella) makes a good Kosher salt (NOT in a canister) that I like.

MALDON

This is the finest salt, in my opinion, for sprinkling. I use relatively little salt when I cook, and prefer to season afterward. And this is my seasoning of choice for fine cooking. It comes from England and is formed of these gorgeous little pyramid crystals. It’s like crystal snow on your food, with the most elegant, sexy little crunch. And it’s not as expensive as some of those other salts that the folks at Williams-Sonoma will try to convince you that you can’t live without.

RUNNERS-UP

I also like the French classic, fleur de sel, as well as that pink river salt from Australia. Some of the Hawaiian salts are nice, although the crystals tend to be a little large and hard for my taste. But experiment and see which salts you like best on your food.

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