Tuesday, 1 November 2011

SmartCooks Vegetarian Sushi Rolls: I Maybe Rock but Cannot Roll!

November 2011

SmartCooks here.

Vegetarian Sushi Rolls from scratch.

All I can say is Wow.  Double Wow.  This takes Commitment.  Time Commitment.  Babysit your Sushi Rice Commitment.  Learn How to Roll Commitment.  Cut it Properly Commitment.  I suppose I will get better in time but my first attempt at this had its Challenges in the plural.  

The websites were confusing about how to actually do this, what type of rice to use, what equipment, how to roll etc.  I decided to stick with the experts, like the Just Hungry website and recipes and instructions first posted there in 2004.  She has since updated them a few times and each time exhorts her readers to follow the instructions to the letter.  The Just Bento Cookbook was also helpful although the information is divided up in two chapters, with no cross-referencing. 

First, the Staples

The visit to T&T Supermarket to get supplies for making Sushi was the first challenge. 

First, it was the all-important Sushi Rice.  You think that would be a simple task (not).  It LOOKed easy at first.  As Husband and I walked in, there were bags of rice marked 'Sushi Rice' right at the front door.  40-lb bags that is.  I could not even lift that much rice, let alone store and use it.   

I scoured the store for smaller bags of rice.  Again, a challenge.  I finally found the Rice aisle but all the rice was either bulk-food size or not labelled Sushi Rice in English.  My attempts to ask the folks stocking the shelves ran into language issues.  I persevered and found one -- not as small as I really wanted but it sufficed.

The second challenge was finding Sushi Vinegar, which is an important step for spreading the rice onto the bamboo mat and cutting the sushi rolls (more on that later). Kikkoman makes one. 

The third challenge was finding the right type of Nori (seaweed) to use.  I was looking for one that specifically said 'Sushi Nori' and couldn't find it (in English anyway) at T&T.  There is one made by Eden Foods that I find all the time at Herb and Spice on Wellington Street.  Its importance will be clear later in the post.   

It took me less time to find the other staples -- the Bambo Rolling Mat (or "makisu") and rice paddle ("shamoji"), and plenty of pickled Ginger and Wasabi condiments. 

I did not buy the other staple recommended for making Sushi Rice, a wooden Sushi Oke Bowl (or "Hangiri").  Some websites consider a hangiri wooden bowl (cypress wood is the premium wood) essential to making perfectly seasoned sushi rice as it helps absorb excess moisture.

Origins of Sushi and Sushi Rice

Many people (I think I was among them) thought that Sushi MUST have raw fish.  So not true.  Sushi refers to the rice, not what goes in it.  Vegetables are Fine.  Phew. 

The term "sushi" comes from an archaic grammatical form no longer used in other contexts; literally, sushi means "sour-tasting", a reflection of its historic fermented roots.
The vinegar produced from fermenting rice breaks down the fish proteins into amino acides. This results in one of the five basic tastes, called "umami" in Japanese.

The common ingredient of sushi is of course "sushi rice".  The type I want to make is called "rolled rice" or "makizushi" .  More specifically, I was going for "futomaki" or thick rolls rolled into a large cylindrical piece using a bamboo mat and wrapped in nori on the outside.  Usually futomaki are rolled with two or three fillings and is often vegetarian, so this was exactly what I wanted.  Toooooo bad I didn't have this kind of information on my trips to Japan... it would have made my life, and attempts at ordering food, so much simpler. 

The Rules

There's a definite 'must-follow' set of procedures for making Sushi Rice and websites are just filled with contradictory advice.  I stuck with the experts.  Sushi rice is a particular variety of Japanese rice, or "japonica" rice and simply cannot substitute long-grain rice, or the regular stuff we get in our 90-second microwavable Uncle Ben's packages.  Those will all go "mushy".  

Rice first..... Sushi rice has to be medium grain so that the rice grains cling together without becoming mushy.  (Note:  many websites said 'small grain' is best but again I went with my reference source of Just Hungry/Just Bento.) 
The washing and rinsing steps are critical to producing properly cooked Japanese style rice.

Did I mention the TIME commitment?  In spades.  Read on.

To make 4 cups of cooked rice, I used:
- A heavy-bottomed pot with a tight fitting lid
- 2 cups of uncooked 'sushi rice'
- 2 1/4 cups of water or dashi stock

Washing the rice is a 'must do'.  Measure out the rice carefully into the pot and rinse vigorously under running water. Swish the rice around with your hands -- the water will turn a milky white color. Do this until water starts to look clear (3-4 times).  Experts suggest swishing with your hands and even rub the grains together with your palms. 

Once satisfied, drain the rice with a fine mesh sieve and let it rest for a minimum of 30 minutes.  Then put the rice in a pot and add the 2 1/4 cups of water or dashi stock. Again, let it soak for awhile (30 minutes to an hour but not more than 8 hours).  Once ready, bring rice to a boil over medium heat then put on a tight fitting lid. Cook on high for 1 minute, then reduce the heat to medium, and cook for another 4-5 minutes, reduce to low heat for about 10 minutes or until the water is completely absorbed. (Don't open the lid to peek!) 

Finally, remove rice from the heat and drape a cloth over the pot for about 10-15 minutes to let it fully absorb the moisture and rest.  The final step is critical for having grains that will stick together but are not mushy or watery.

Take 1/4 cup of Sushi Vinegar. Moisten your spatula or paddle with a little of the vinegar. Turn your hot rice out into the bowl or plate. Pour the sushi vinegar over the rice. Working rapidly, turn and mix the rice, taking care not to squish the grains. Use a cut-turn-fold motion with one hand. With your other hand, rapidly fan the rice to cool it.  The book suggests roping in an assistant to help with the vinegar and cooling or even use a hair dryer on the 'cool' setting.  I did this part on our back deck where it was downright COLD.  Anyway, you keep going until the rice has absorbed the vinegar, and has cooled down to about body temperature (it should be just a bit warm to the touch). 

Vegetables for the filling .... There are endless variations for filling vegetarian sushi rolls.  Vegetables are all seeded and cut into matchsticks. Some can be cooked slightly or left raw (my preference).

Usually 3-4 of the following list are used in any one roll:
- Asparagus
- Avocaco
- Cucumber (Kirby or English)
- Japanese Daikon radish
- Mushrooms (shitake, enoki etc.)
- Snow peas
Peppers (red, yellow, green, orange)
- * Salmon (also a favourite, about the only fish I really like)

There are other fillings of course but the above are my favourites. 

Notes on Sushi Brown Rice, Sushi Vinegar and Dashi Stock:  Sushi brown rice is harder to find (I didn't find it) but the websites have the variations if you are able to find it.  I bought Sushi Vinegar but it is also very easy to make; the Just Hungry website has an easy recipe using regular and cider vinegars.  

I had to do a lot of research to figure out Dashi Stock.  In fact, I just used water so you could say I wasn't doing real Sushi Rice.  Dashi stock has fish (bonito) flakes in it and I am not keen on fish so I avoided it and went with water.  However, my research also turned up a vegan recipe for Dashi Stock where either kombu (another type of kelp seaweed like Nori), shiitake mushrooms and/or soybeans can be used.  I will try that next time.....

Filling and Hand Rolling Sushi Rice ...

I watched a few videos on You Tube before diving into this part of the recipe.  Bamboo mats are apparently best because they absorb any excess moisture that occurs during the rolling process.  I rolled out my bamboo mat and made my first mistake.  The mat needs to be positioned so that the lines run horizontally; if placed vertically, the sushi won't roll.  I then spent a few minutes trying to decide which side of the nori seaweed square was 'shiny' side down and rough side up.  I gave myself a 'D' for Dumb as I ended up guessing. 

Then came the process of rolling out the rice onto the nori sheet.  The Sushi Vinegar comes into play at this point. Moisten the rice paddle in a mixture of water, Sushi vinegar and salt to keep the rice from sticking to the paddle. A small ball of rice is placed in the centre of the nori sheet and spread evenly out to 3 of the 4 edges.  At the top of the seaweed, leave 1/2 to and 1 inch for sealing the roll.  Then spread the filling in a line across the centre (I started with a very thin line of wasabi as I love it... but only a bit!).  Then avocado, etc.  

Rolling up the mat did me in.  I watched videos.  I practiced.  My rolling did not rock or roll.  I started folding the end of the bamboo mat with the exposed nori toward the opposite end.  At the same time, you keep guiding the filling to the centre.  (My fillings kept trying to escape.) 

Eventually I got a kindof tube shape and I squeezed to shape it further.  Then I unrolled the mat and realized it was sticking to the mat in spots (some instructions suggest using Saran Wrap over the bamboo mat to keep it from sticking.... Then ideally you use some water to ensure the nori ends stick together (some of mine did, some didn't)... I ended up chasing all the escaped rice and vegetables...

Even cutting the tube became a challenge.  I had a sharp knife and moistened it slightly with vinegar/water mix and tried a smooth cut down the sushi.  Mostly rolls stuck and crumpled to a blob. 

In the end I got 30 pieces out of 6 logs.  Avocado, cucumber and carrot with wasabi and ginger on the side.  I took a few in a bento but forgot to bring the soy sauce or would have used it as well.  Despite the time and failed attempts at rolling, they were of course delicious. 

Is it worth it?  Well, it's a challenge.  I liked that I tried it myself.  I found going back and forth among all the various "how-to" guides a pain.  It's a major commitment of time for sure!  I will see how long it is before I try this again. 

Final word, alternatives!!!

There's rice cookers of course but the whole idea was to make them from scratch so I did no research on rice cookers.  Besides, I have no room in my kitchen for another gadget-y thing.  

There's also a novel little, low-tecky gadget that allows roll-challenged people like me to sidestep the bamboo mat rolling diasters.  Basically, you put nori, rice and the fillings in a tube and out push it out at one end, perfectly formed.  That type of mold just might work for me! 

Have to go now.  My reading is a "Sushi for Dummies" Guide.   
Try it yourself.  Don't get discouraged.  If I did it again, I'm sure it would take less time.  I'm positive practice is the key to success with this.  


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