Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sushi and Serenity

If it’s Sunday, it must be sushi. I’ve been planning this culinary meditation all week, and it is essential to my future well-being. The past seven days have been a tough haul. Too many people, too many issues at the office. Harassment from fellow commuters on the Long Island Railroad. And, seven days of Chocolate Malted Milk Cake for breakfast has given me a severe sugar rush.

It’s time for calm in the kitchen. Sushi and serenity.

I’ve intended to master sushi for some time now. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been feeling a little guilty ever since I attended a sushi demonstration at the Copia Food and Wine Center in Napa, California. The demonstrator made sushi preparation look like a snap. I COULD do this at home! I’d purchased the tools and ingredients and was gearing up for a Zen culinary experience.

That was three years ago.

On the road to sushi and serenity, I got sidetracked by French cooking, French pastry, fresh pasta, bread and a pretty nifty recipe for fondue made with Cheese Whiz.

Now, the time is right. The cosmic forces are aligned. I lay out the bamboo sushi mat (called Makisu) and the bamboo rice paddle (called Samoji), my tools on the journey to sushi and serenity. They are pure simplicity.

I’ve purchased the ingredients, but I must struggle with a critical decision – no raw fish. The risk of food poisoning is too high. In my kitchen, it’s already an occupational hazard. Raw fish is the stuff of a sushi master, and I barely qualify as an apprentice. So I defer. I’m comfortable with my choice – my sushi will hail from the Left Coast – California Rolls stuffed with cucumber and crabsticks.

I study the directions for perfect sushi and I can feel myself starting to perspire. The pamphlet describes sushi as “simple, yet complex; moderate, yet tempting; easy to make, yet refined and requires a creative sense of balance.” Already, I’m feeling conflicted. Am I simple or complex? Refined, or blessed with a creative sense of balance? Or, just plain confused?

Proper preparation of the rice is said to be the biggest challenge. Sushi actually means “vinegared rice,” and the process of cooking the rice and flavoring the grains with vinegar is painstaking.

First, I must rinse the short grain sushi rice to remove excess starch which can leave the rice gummy. I am directed to “drain and repeat” until the water runs clear. I rinse the rice five times, and it’s still a milky white color.

I’m already impatient. “Is it done yet?” I ask out loud. My fingertips are getting a little chilled having plunged them into ice water numerous times and I’m losing precious grains to the drain with each rinsing. After eight rinses, the water is not much clearer, but I decide that I’m probably obsessing over this first step. Then, there’s a moment of panic when I discover that my rice was grown in the USA. Hardly genuine, but maybe that’s actually better for California Rolls. My fingers are like 10 little cylinders of ice but I managed to get the rice into the pot for a lengthy cooking and steaming process.

Meanwhile, I mix the vinegar seasoning that will be added to the rice. The directions say a non-reactive bowl is a must. Do not, under any circumstances, use metal or the sushi will taste “unpleasant.” My stress level jumps. I scramble to find an appropriate stirring devise, pawing my way through dozens of metal utensils in the kitchen drawer. I finally locate a plastic spatula and a wooden cheese spread.

The seasoned vinegar is called Sushi-su, a tangy blend of rice vinegar, sugar and salt. I also combine a vinegar solution for my hands and tools to keep the rice from sticking.

While the rice comes to room temperature, I chop my filling: hot house cucumber and crab sticks, both favorites of the Venice Beach crowd.

Cooling the rice requires a flurry of ambidextrous activity. I must fan the rice with one hand and drizzle the sushi-su into the rice with the other. I am successful and achieve a glossy sheen on the little grains of rice.

I’m beginning to feel the serenity as I massage the bamboo mat and roll the filling and sheets of nori (roasted seaweed). It is a rhythmic, soothing, repetitive motion and actually works remarkably well. I marvel at the fact that I’m not inadvertently squishing the filling out of each end. I am perfecting the art of preparing Hoso-maki, which is thin roll sushi, about 1-inch in diameter with a single filling.

My slicing skills could use a couple of brush up sessions at the Ginsu Knife School of Sharp Cuts. The pieces are a bit uneven and look more like a collection of erratically-cut tree stumps than a pristine cluster of perfectly-formed jewels, but I’m still pleased with the results.

I unroll a set of burnished wooden chop sticks – a gift from a colleague following a trip to Asia – and taste my creations. The cucumber is crisp and the glistening rice is perfumed with a beguiling bite of vinegar, all wrapped in a briny green blanket of nori. A touch of wasabi paste has the alarming but pleasing result of making my hair stand on end.

It is Sunday. The sun is shining. The sushi is sublime. I have achieved that sought-after state of serenity.

I finish typing up my results and realize that the feng shui in my study is way off balance. Correcting this is going to take all afternoon.

Now, I think I’m retaining water and my blood pressure has gone up a couple of notches due to the high level of sodium in the soy dipping sauce. I must fix that.

But, first I’ve got to find a cookie. I’ve got a serious case of that salt-sweet thing happening.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Freya said...

These look fantastic! You know what? Just to complete ruin the serene aspect of them, I would have added a layer of cream cheese (which goes perfectly with cucumber and crab sticks)!

Stella said...

Hi! Oh my, we had the same idea, I made sushi with my friends last Saturday!:)
It's true, it might take time to master sushi but we'll get it soon:) I didn't use raw fish as well but smoked salmon & smoked marlin. They worked wonders!
Your sushis look great & yummy! Wonderful attempt:)

Callipygia said...

Well I think the feng shui of your home must be perfect as well as the alignment of your planets- your sushi look rather buddha like.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Freya/Paul - When my brothers and I were kids, my grandmother used to serve celery stuffed with cream cheese as an appetizer. We loved it! Even better when it had pimento in it!

Valentina -- thanks for stopping by. I'll have to try the smoked salmon version. Your sushi was so colorful!

Callipygia -- all of the allignment happens in my kitchen!

Anonymous said...

Great job! Hope that tasted as good as they look. They chopsticks are beautiful too.

paul kennedy said...

And the good news is that it gets easier every time you do it. Yours looks delicious.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Udderly - they tasted so crisp and fresh - hard to believe it had come from my kitchen!

Kitchen Hand - I'm now thinking about my next session. Would like to try some different fillings and brighter colors.

Jann said...

The cosmic forces must have been with you-the sushi looked really perfect~what an ordeal!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Well done, TW! I've taught sushi making to groups of kids and adults for the past few years, and there's nothing quite so beautiful as the sushi you roll yourself. In fact, my kids' class got quite inventive and even made PB&J sushi! (OK, I wouldn't recommend it -- but the experimentation was hilarious....)

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Hi Jann - I was really glad I did it, but here's a hot tip: sushi rice doesn't keep well as leftovers! It turns to glue in the fridge!

Lydia - Thanks! Since you now know that peanut butter is my favorite pantry item, this actually does intrique me! Have you ever worked with raw fish? I'm now thinking I should try that next.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Kudos on your sushi, T.W.! I thoroughly enjoyed your description of the sushi-making process. Sounds like frozen fingers and little high blood pressure were worth it. ;)

Now, I wish I could treat you to some green tea ice cream. Ahh, serenity.

SteamyKitchen said...

That was a fun post - all of last week was sushi week for me too - taught a sushi class, leftovers the next day and then friends came over for a "Temaki Party" Have you tried doing that?

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Hi Jaden - Never tried a Temaki party but I took a look at your post and it sounds like great fun! Beautiful photos!