Saturday, November 14, 2009

November Daring Cooks Challenge - Sushi

The November 2009 Daring Cooks challenge was brought to you by Audax of Audax Artifex and Rose of The Bite Me Kitchen. They chose sushi as the challenge.

Sushi is a great love of mine. I remember the first time eating it - in my parents' kitchen, after my father decided to try his hand at making the California rolls he'd tried and enjoyed at a business lunch. (I think this Daring Cook thing might be genetic.) It was an interesting experiment, but one of his better ones, and inspired me to try the real thing. So when we moved to New Jersey and there was (and still is) a great sushi restaurant just down the street from the new house, I was game. And then when the new A&P opened and they had sushi, it became a favorite place to stop and get a quick lunch or dinner on the way home from work. Every place I've lived, I've sought out and found good sushi. I even tried making it at home once - without doing much research on technique, it was tasty but a bit of a mess.

This time, I was well equipped, both with various gadgets and tools to make sushi easy and with a fantastic treatise on sushi-making from Audax and Rose. The most important part of sushi making is the rice. It is the first layer of flavor and the glue that holds it all together. It was vastly superior to the recipes I'd used in the past, with a perfect balance of tangy and sweet.

PART 1 : SUSHI RICE (makes about 7 cups of cooked sushi rice)
Preparation time: 1¾ hours (much of it inactive time)

2½ cups uncooked short grain rice
2½ cups water

Sushi vinegar dressing
5 T rice vinegar
5 t sugar
1¼ t salt

Rinsing and draining the rice:
Swirl rice gently in a bowl of water, drain, repeat 3-4 times until water is nearly clear. Don't crush the rice in your hands or against the side of the bowl since dry rice is very brittle.
Gently place rice into a strainer and drain well for 30 minutes.

Soaking the rice:
Gently place the rice into a heavy medium pot with a tight fitting lid (if you have a loose fitting lid use a piece of aluminium foil to make the seal tight). Add 2½ cups of water. Set the rice aside to soak for 30 minutes, during this time prepare the sushi rice dressing.

Preparing the Rice Vinegar Dressing:
Combine the rice vinegar, sugar and salt in a small bowl. Heat on low setting. Stir until the mixture goes clear and the sugar and salt have dissolved. Set aside at room temperature until the rice is cooked.

Cooking the rice:
Bring rinsed and soaked rice to the boil. Reduce heat to the lowest setting and simmer, covered, until all the water is absorbed, 12-15 minutes. Do not remove the lid during this process. Turn off heat. Let stand with the lid on, 10-15 minutes. Do not peek inside the pot or remove the lid. During this time the rice is steaming which completes the cooking process.

Finishing the rice:
Moisten lightly a flat thin wooden spatula or spoon and a large shallow flat-bottomed non-metallic (plastic, glass or wood) bowl. Do not use metallic objects since the vinegar will react with it and produce sour and bitter sushi rice. Use the spatula to loosen gently the rice and invert the rice pot over the bowl, gently causing the cooked rice to fall into the bowl in one central heap. Do this gently so as not to cause the rice grains to become damaged. Slowly pour the cooled sushi vinegar over the spatula onto the hot rice. Using the spatula gently spread the rice into a thin, even layer using a 45° cutting action to break up any lumps and to separate the rice. Don't stir or mash rice. After the rice is spread out, start turning it over gently, in small portions, using a cutting action, allowing steam to escape, for about a minute. Continue turning over the rice, but now start fanning (using a piece of stiff cardboard) the rice vigorously as you do so. Having an extra set of hands to help with the fanning is ideal - thanks, James! Don't flip the rice into the air but continue to gently slice, lift and turn the rice occasionally, for 10 minutes. Cooling the rice using a fan gives good flavour, texture and a high-gloss sheen to the rice. The vinegar dressing will be absorbed by the hot rice. Stop fanning when there's no more visible steam, and all the vinegar dressing has been adsorbed and the rice is shiny. Your sushi rice is ready to be used.

Keeping the rice moist:
Cover with a damp, lint free cloth to prevent the rice from drying out while preparing your sushi meal. Do not store sushi rice in the refrigerator leave on the counter covered at room temperature. Sushi rice is best used when it is at room temperature.

After making the basic rice, we were asked to make three different varieties of sushi - a dragon roll, a decorative spiral roll and nigiri. I'd never eaten a dragon roll or any decorative sushi before, but I'm a big nigiri fan. I surprised myself by enjoying the dragon roll and the spiral roll far more than the nigiri, but that could easily have been fatigue setting in. I got a little lazy making the rice balls (logs?) for the nigiri and had trouble getting them to stick to themselves without sticking to me. Or the plate. Or the counter. Or the floor.

The spiral roll was the first of the rolls that I attempted. I chose to use smoked salmon, asparagus and cucumber for the filling. It turned out very nicely and was lovely, but was far larger than the sushi I'm used to and rather difficult to eat.

2½ cups prepared sushi rice
2 sheets of toasted nori, each sized 7”x8” (17.5cmx20cm)
Six assorted fillings, each filling should be the size of a pencil (see note below)

1.Join 2 sheets of nori by moistening the adjacent edges and overlapping them about ½ inch (12mm).
2.Place this double sheet shiny side down on a rolling mat, part of the nori will extend beyond the mat.

3.Using moist fingers place 2½ cups of rice on the nori and gently rake your fingertips across grains to spread rice evenly, leaving ¼ inch (6mm) nori showing on the both ends of the sheet. Do not mash or squash the rice onto the nori, the rice should appear loosely packed and be evenly distributed over the entire sheet, you should be able to see the nori sheet in a few places.

4.Using your fingers form six grooves (in the same direction that you will be rolling the mat) at even intervals across the bed of rice. Make the first groove about 2 inches (50 mm) from the edge of the nori sheet. Form the grooves by pushing the rice away, do not mash or squash the rice, leave a loose one grain layer of rice in the bottom of the grooves. Level the areas between the grooves where you have pushed the rice.

5.Place your fillings in the grooves. Fill the grooves a little higher than the surrounding rice bed.

6.Then roll the sushi up from the edge closest to you, this will form a spiral pattern of nori, rice and fillings inside the roll.

7.Slice into 8 pieces with a very sharp wet knife, wiping the blade with a damp cloth after each cut.

8.Place the pieces on a platter and garnish.

NOTE:Make each groove about a finger-width wide they will hold about 1-2 tablespoons of filling. Use fillings that compliment each other and are highly coloured.

The other roll we were to make was a dragon or caterpillar roll, so called because it is an inside-out roll topped with strips of avocado that are reminiscent of a dragon's scales or the segments of a caterpillar. The usual filling for this roll is broiled eel, which I enjoy, but I wanted to take advantage of the avocado topping make a variant of my husband's favorite inside-out roll, the California roll. Instead of stuffing it with imitation crab, avocado and cucumber, I just used the crabstick and cucumber inside and the avocado on top. This was especially yummy with a spicy mayo sauce (made by adding sriracha to mayo to taste - thanks to Jill for putting this together!). The recipe below makes two rolls.

1 sheet 7”x8” (17.5cmx20cm) of toasted nori (dried seaweed sheets), cut into halves
1/2 Japanese cucumber
2 cups of prepared sushi rice
4 pcs imitation crab meat (crab stick)
1 Avocado
Vinegared Water – ½ cup of water combined with a dash of rice vinegar
Various small amounts of sauces to use as the flames of the dragon (or legs of a caterpillar)

1.Cut cucumber into strips ¼ inch (6mm) x 7” (175mm) long, then salt, rinse & dry the strips.

2.Grill (broil) the eel for about 2-5 minutes until bubbling. Cut into two lengthwise strips.

3.Halve, pit and peel the avocado. Cut the avocado halves into thin even 1/8 inch (3 mm) slices. Fan out the cut avocado into a 7 inch (175 mm) overlapping pattern.

4.Cover bamboo mat with plastic wrap. Place a sheet of nori shiny side down, lengthwise, on the edge the mat.

5.Moisten lightly your hands in the bowl of vinegared water.

6.Place one cup of rice on the nori and gently rake your fingertips across grains to spread rice evenly. Do not mash or squash the rice onto the nori, the rice should appear loosely packed and be evenly distributed over the entire sheet, you should be able to see the nori sheet in a few places.

7.Flip the rice-covered nori over (so the bare nori is now on top) and place on the edge of the mat closest to you.

8.Arrange one of the eel strips across the length of the nori, not quite centred on it but a little closer to you. Place half the cucumber sticks next to the eel.

9.Lift the edge of the mat closest to you with both hands, keeping your fingertips over the fillings, and roll the mat and its contents until the edge of the mat touches straight down on the nori, enclosing the fillings completely. Lift up the edge of the mat you're holding, and continue rolling the inside-out roll away from you until it's sealed. Tug at the mat to tighten the seal. If the rice doesn't quite close the roll add more rice in the gap and re-roll using the mat to completely cover the inside-out roll. Place the roll on a damp, clean smooth surface.

10.Spread about 1 tablespoon of the optional fish roe along the entire top of the rice-covered roll. Using the plastic covered mat gently press the fish roe so it adheres to the rice.

11.Slide a knife under one fan of avocado and transfer it onto the top of an inside-out roll. Gently spread out the avocado layer to cover the entire roll. Lay the plastic wrapped mat over the avocado-covered roll. Squeeze very gently to shape the roll.

12. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap over the roll. Slice the roll into 6-8 equal, bite-sized pieces, wiping your knife with a damp towel before each slice. Discard the plastic wrap. Repeat the above to make one more roll.

13.Arrange the cut pieces on a serving plate with the sauces so the finished dish appears as a dragon breathing fire and flames (or a caterpillar with many legs).

Last, but not least, was nigiri. This is how I eat most of my sushi, but this was probably the most challenging part of the recipe. My hands were either too wet and the rice wouldn't form a tight ball or not wet enough and every grain of rice stuck to my fingers. We were allowed to choose our own toppings of choice. I decided to make marinated shiitake mushrooms, tamago (or omelette) and used shrimp and crab stick. I learned that the secret to cooking shrimp so they're flat enough, is to run a skewer between the shrimp and it's shell from head to tail prior to cooking. Then you can dunk them into boiling water and get a delicious flat shrimp!

Yield: 14-16 pieces of sushi

2 cups prepared sushi rice
8 pairs of assorted toppings, 200 gms/7 ozs total of fish, meat or vegetables (see note below)
1 tablespoon Wasabi (paste, reconstituted powder) or any other paste to adhere topping to rice
Optional Garnishes include pickled ginger and thin strips of nori (for securing non-fish toppings)

1.When handling sushi rice, make certain your hands are very clean. To keep the rice from sticking to our hands moisten your hands with vinegared water.

2.Form nigiri sushi by scooping up a small amount (about 2 tablespoons) of rice with your forefinger and second finger of your right hand and placing it in your cupped left palm.

3.Use the fingers and thumb of your right hand to form it into a long, narrow mound (about 2 inches x 1 inch wide or 50mm x 25mm) in your cupped palm.

4.Press enough to make the rice hold firmly together. Place the nigiri on a damp cutting board flat side down. Don't let sushi touch or they'll stick to each other. At this point, you can cover the sushi with plastic wrap, and they'll keep at room temperature (not the refrigerator) for several hours.

5.Smear a thin line of wasabi on top of the rice and place the topping piece on it. You may need to press the topping down lightly with your fingers and adjust the shape of the rice accordingly to form an attractive piece of nigiri sushi. If your topping is very loose like fish roe you can place a strip of nori (higher than the rice) around the nigiri and form 'battleship' sushi. The cavity that the nori forms holds the topping so it does not fall off.

6.Garnish as desired and use strips of nori (or vegetable) to tie the topping to the nigiri if needed.

7.It is customary to make nigiri sushi in pairs, so make two of each variety.

Marinated Shiitake Mushrooms
4 dried shiitake mushrooms
2/3 cup boiling water
3 T soy sauce
2 T sake or white wine
1 T sugar

Place mushrooms in a bowl and cover with the boiling water. Soak for 20 minutes. Drain and rinse mushrooms, reserving liquid. Add reserved liquid to remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Add the mushrooms and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and slice mushrooms.

Tamago (omelette)
4 eggs
3 T water
pinch dashi granules
1 T sugar
1 t soy sauce

Stir together all ingredients gently to create as little air as possible in the eggs. Using a non-stick pan (I used a rectangular pan to get the traditional shape), pour in about 1/4 of the egg mixture. Using chopsticks, pop any bubbles that form. When the egg is set, fold the egg in half toward you and slide it to the far side of the pan. Add another 1/4 of the egg and gently lift the cooked portion to allow the new egg to flow underneath. Cook until set, popping any bubbles that appear. Fold the egg again and move it to the far side of the pan. Repeat two more times with the remaining egg. When all of the egg is cooked, you should have a small egg brick. Use a flat spatula and press the egg against the side of the pan to get firm straight edges. Flip and repeat. Remove the egg from the pan and set aside to rest. When you are ready to use it, slice the omelette brick into 1/4" slices.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

October Daring Cooks Challenge: Pho Ga

The October 2009 Daring Cooks’ challenge was brought to us by Jaden of the blog Steamy Kitchen. The recipes are from her new cookbook, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook.

When I first met my husband, he was a classic meat and potatoes man. Vegetables were an afterthought at best, exotic cuisine was Beef and Broccoli from the local takeout place and the first thing he ever cooked for me started from a little blue box – the less said about that, the better. The exception to this was pho. Probably half of our dates that first year were at his favorite pho restaurant. He loved pho and he taught me to love it, with its delicious fragrant broth, paper-thin onions, slurp-able rice noodles and thin slices of tender, just barely cooked by the heat of the broth, beef. As I got used to pho, I experimented with adding different amounts of hoisin and sriracha (more when you have a stuffy nose), as well as lime juice, bean sprouts (just a few, please) and fresh herbs (the tiniest basil leaves are the best). He was more adventurous with his choices of meat (tripe, anyone?), but we both enjoyed getting to know each other over steaming bowls of pho.

Several years later, we still turn to pho to provide a quick meal on a busy night, to warm us on chilly days or to cure what ails us – nothing beats it when you feel a cold coming on. Pho is one of our comfort foods. I’d played around with the idea of making pho from scratch in the past, but the recipes I found required hours of boiling stock and called for enormous quantities of oxtails and marrow bones and an industrial sized pot. That plan got quickly set aside. So I was thrilled when this month’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge was announced. I even squealed to my husband that he’d never guess what the challenge was. And he did – based solely on how excited I sounded. It’s amazing the things we’re willing to do when you throw in the words ‘daring’ and ‘challenge’.

Jaden of Steamy Kitchen provided us with the recipes for Pho Ga or chicken pho. She gave us the option of making Quick Vietnamese Chicken Pho from her new cookbook, which makes pho a weeknight option by using store-bought stock instead of homemade. Or we could live up to our Daring name and make the longer, more traditional version with either beef or chicken. I, of course, opted for the longer version found here because homemade stock would have only the flavors I wanted in it – most store bought stocks are made with vegetables that are not traditional in pho stock.

After some of the recent challenges, I felt lucky that I already had most of the ingredients on hand, even the spices and condiments. The stock making process was very similar to making an ordinary chicken soup. Plus I had a devoted four-legged volunteer ready to assist in the process, should I need him. He was very attentive to the entire process, since he usually gets some part of any chicken I butcher, but not this time – I needed all the precious bones for the soup. Jaden suggested a new-to-me method of par-boiling the chicken for five minutes to remove most of the impurities and discarding that water before starting over to simmer the stock. This drastically reduced the amount of skimming I had to do later.

There are two keys to a fragrant and rich-tasting pho: first you must toast the whole spices to release their oils before adding them to the simmering stock. This step is not included in the recipe link above, but it’s essential. Second, you must char the onion and ginger – I put it under the broiler while I was butchering the chicken. Neither of these steps took long at all, but they were absolutely worth it. I simmered my stock longer than suggested, closer to 3 hours, so the stock was probably reduced more than normal; we got four bowls of pho from it. When the stock was finished, it had a light, delicate flavor that only needed salt to round it out. I am used to the stronger beef version, so this was quite different. I will probably decrease the amount of water or double the chicken and spices when I make this again. I also sliced my chicken breast instead of shredding it, added sliced napa cabbage to get in an extra vegetable and used the red onions called for, though I’ll use white in the future because the red was too strong. I think I’ll try out the beef version soon, now that fall has really started. Most importantly, I’m no longer afraid of making my own pho and I’m more appreciative that my husband and I still have our pho place for those times when I just don’t feel like making my own.

Monday, September 14, 2009

September Daring Cooks Challenge: Indian Dosas

This month's Daring Cooks Challenge was hosted by Debyi of Healthy Vegan Kitchen. She challenged us to make Indian Dosas from Ruth Tal's reFresh Vegan Cookbook and to keep it vegan!

I'm a big fan of Indian cuisine and have made several different varieties of breads before (chapati, roti, poori and paratha), but I've never made dosas. It's a simple pancake-like batter and cooked like crepes. I used chapati flour because I had that on hand and substituted coconut milk for the soy milk. I had trouble getting the batter thin enough, but was afraid of making it too thin. I'll definitely thin it even more next time since we only ended up with 6 dosas from the recipe. I asked my crepe-master husband to cook them for me and he had to shake the pan a lot to get the batter to spread across and we ended up with a couple that were irregularly shaped. It's definitely something we'll play around with, searching for the elusive paper dosas.

Dosa Pancakes
1 cup (120gm/8oz) spelt flour (or all-purpose, gluten free flour)
½ tsp (2½ gm) salt
½ tsp (2½ gm) baking powder
½ tsp (2½ gm) curry powder
½ cup (125ml/4oz) almond milk (or soy, or rice, etc.)
¾ cup (175ml/6oz) water
cooking spray, if needed

1.Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, slowly adding the almond milk and water, whisking until smooth.
2.Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Spray your pan with a thin layer of cooking spray, if needed.
3.Ladle 2 tablespoons of batter into the center of your pan in a circular motion until it is a thin, round pancake. When bubbles appear on the surface and it no longer looks wet, flip it over and cook for a few seconds. Remove from heat and repeat with remaining batter. Makes 8 pancakes.

The dosa filling was curried chickpeas. I have a chickpea curry made with yogurt that I make often so I was excited to try a vegan variation. It was a very simple and straightforward curry, much like those I've tried before. The only change I made was to use a red pepper rather than green. I mashed the chickpeas with a potato masher after I added them to the curry rather than pureeing them first to get a rougher texture. I wished that the filling was a little saucier, but it was otherwise a nice complement to the dosas.

Curried Garbanzo Filling
5 cloves garlic
1 onion, peeled and finely diced
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 green pepper, finely diced (red, yellow or orange are fine too)
2 medium hot banana chilies, minced
2 TBSP (16gm) cumin, ground
1 TBSP (8gm) oregano
1 TBSP (8gm) sea salt (coarse)
1 TBSP (8gm) turmeric
4 cups (850gm/30oz) cooked or canned chick peas (about 2 cans)
½ cup (125gm/4oz) tomato paste

1.Heat a large saucepan over medium to low heat. Add the garlic, veggies, and spices, cooking until soft, stirring occasionally.
2.Mash the chickpeas by hand, or in a food processor. Add the chickpeas and tomato paste to the saucepan, stirring until heated through

My favorite part of the recipe was actually the coconut curry sauce. I really like coconut, a lot. A whole lot. Ironically, if I'd made this recipe outside of the daring cooks, I probably would have skipped the sauce, just for simplicity. I'm so glad I didn't. It was again extremely simple to make. I used chapati flour rather than spelt, but otherwise stuck to the recipe. The sauce provided a perfect complement to the dosas and really blended the flavors and brought the whole dish together.

Coconut Curry Sauce

1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic
½ (2½ gm) tsp cumin, ground
¾ (3¾ gm) tsp sea salt (coarse)
3 TBSP (30gm) curry powder
3 TBSP (30gm) spelt flour (or all-purpose GF flour)
3 cups (750ml/24oz) vegetable broth
2 cups (500ml/24oz) coconut milk
3 large tomatoes, diced

1.Heat a saucepan over medium heat, add the onion and garlic, cooking for 5 minutes, or until soft.
2.Add the spices, cooking for 1 minutes more. Add the flour and cook for 1 additional minute.
3.Gradually stir in the vegetable broth to prevent lumps. Once the flour has been incorporated, add the coconut milk and tomatoes, stirring occasionally.
4.Let it simmer for half an hour.