Sunday, September 23, 2018
Cooking

Cooking challenge: A novice cook makes sushi at home

How many novice cooks does it take to make a batch of sushi?

For this challenge, I set out to re-create one of my favorite dishes. But I quickly decide I can't do it alone.

When the day for sushimaking arrives, I beg my friend Tori for help. Not only does she share my love of sushi, but I know I can trust her. We've been friends for years. Our past cooking adventures have ended in tragedy — we once burned a batch of scoop-and-bake cookies — but whatever happens today, I know she'll have my back.

"Maybe [sushi] will be our thing," Tori says hopefully.

At the library, I check out every sushi cookbook I can find.

A braver soul would have attempted sashimi. Instead, I flip past the recipes that call for raw fish and opt only for cooked fish. I almost choose boiled eel, but Tori's expression makes me rethink that choice. Finally, I settle on three different rolls: Avocado and Mango, California Rolls and Smoked Salmon and Asparagus With Cream Cheese.

In Publix's seafood aisle, I panic. How do you know what is more fresh: the frozen shrimp in the freezer or the thawed version behind the counter? Nova Salmon or Lox Salmon? Is fish supposed to smell fishy? I pester an employee behind the counter with paranoid questions. He kindly hands me eight thawed shrimp wrapped in white paper, which makes me feel like I've visited an old-fashioned butcher shop. Okay, purchasing seafood isn't so bad after all.

In the produce aisle, I plead with two employees to select perfectly ripe avocados and mangoes for me.

"I'm making sushi," I announce to everyone, as if they care.

Sushi rice is hidden in the international aisle, near a section of soy sauce. I hesitate. Since I'm working on a budget, I decide I don't need the recommended sauces. The sushi will be flavorful on its own, right?

A summer storm batters me on the way home.

Tori arrives wearing sparkly gold nail polish and dangly earrings that catch the light. Her dark hair is pulled back in the fashion of expert cooks. She laughs when she hears that I've opted against any sauces. Nobody likes wasabi, I inform her. Apparently, she does.

To begin, we soak the sushi rice in water to remove excess starch. Tori plunges her hands into the bowl of water, as cold as the ocean in winter. "It's like shock therapy," she says. When she removes her hands, grains of rice stick to her fingers like tiny white coquina shells.

The whole process of sushimaking is satisfyingly tactile. As the rice cooks, we prepare the fillings. Tori shows me how to peel a cucumber into decorative tiger stripes. She lets it slip that she once roasted asparagus. And she expertly prepares the ripe mango.

I begin to suspect she's not such a cooking novice, after all.

"There was a summer ... that I had to take cooking classes," she confesses.

We challenge ourselves with a sushi cookoff: Each of us creates our own roll simultaneously.

Covering bamboo mats with plastic wrap, we place nori (seaweed) sheets on top. After we spread a base of rice with our fingers, we layer avocados, mangoes and cucumbers. It's aesthetically pleasing even before we roll the whole thing into a cylinder.

Tori's turns out the best: a tight roll that produces beautiful slices.

The smoked salmon sushi requires a square roll, which means we must carefully mold our sushi using the bamboo mats.

"It's supposed to be square?" Tori asks. "What the heck? Is this like arts and crafts with your food?"

When we slice the square roll, it turns out better than we expected: White sushi rice encircles a thin black pinwheel of nori, filled with bites of deep pink salmon and fresh green blanched asparagus tips.

There's something innately satisfying about cutting sushi. Each slice reveals a new pattern of vegetables, like unwrapping a culinary present.

The verdict

My favorite roll is the Avocado and Mango, which tastes like a bite of tropical paradise. With a bright square of sweet mango and a crescent moon of avocado, it's both visually appealing and refreshing: a bite-sized fruit salad, wrapped in nori. Each bite makes me feel like I've plucked a ripe mango, wrapped it in seaweed and eaten it on the shore of a private island. (Tori might be right about those sauces, though; the recipe suggested pairing this roll with coconut peanut sauce, which would have definitely complemented the flavors.)

Tori's favorite is the California Roll, because she likes the combined textures of the avocado and shrimp.

"I feel like the meat ones have the most flavor," she explains. This roll has a pastel palette: pale pink salmon beside a tiny cube of cucumber and a square of avocado. The recipe actually called for tobiko (flying fish roe), but I wasn't able to find it in the store. Next time, I would search harder for it, because I think it would have added some necessary saltiness. (And I'm not skipping the soy sauce again.)

The salmon roll is the most filling, and the strongest tasting. I love it because the cream cheese sweetens the smoky saltiness of the cured meat. You need to be a fan of smoked salmon to enjoy this.

We survey the results of our work: tiny circles and squares of colorful fruit and fish, wrapped in seaweed.

"It looks like sushi you would buy somewhere," Tori says.

Sushi is definitely our thing.

Contact Emily Young at [email protected]

 
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