TRAVERSE CITY — Home chefs have spent decades trying to re-create their favorite sushi with varied success.
The traditional Japanese fare once was relegated to specialty restaurants, but the proliferation of it’s staple ingredients has landed many a foodie in sticky situations trying to mimic chef-quality rolls for dinner guests.
But a little practice, a few good tips and a little imagination can cure even the worst homemade sushi experience.
”It’s not that difficult,” said Gary Jonas, owner of The Little Fleet. “You could do it at home.”
He’s rolled his own sushi at home before with pretty good success.
Jonas’ bar hosted a sushi rolling workshop last week where Chef Anie Driscoll, sous chef for Aerie restaurant at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, taught more than 100 people the basics of rolling their own sushi.
”When you’re doing it at home, practice makes perfect,” she said. “Have a party with your friends and expect your first few rolls won’t be perfect.”
Tables of amateur sushi chefs packed into the small bar for a chance to hone their skills under the tutelage of a trained chef. And most of them walked away with the techniques they will need to whip up a roll or two on their own.
Homemade sushi certainly can’t replace a good restaurant that has the ability to create specialized pieces, Jonas said.
But it’s not a bad way to inject a healthy alternative to a pregame spread on any given Sunday.
Driscoll provided a few ingredients that you probably won’t find on the shelf at a local grocery store. And most seafood counters don’t stock eel and smoked octopus. Nonetheless, the techniques are the same and Traverse City isn’t exactly far from the source of good fish.
Jamie Dalke, sushi chef at Firefly Restaurant, said the restaurant often constructs as many as 450 rolls during a busy July day. That much practice operating a bamboo rolling mat has supplied Dalke plenty of time to perfect his technique.
He has a few important tips for the beginning sushi chef. He suggests a few minutes of study on one of a number of YouTube tutorials and a start with a simple recipe like a California roll.
Rinse your rice:
”One of your number one things you want to do is to rinse your sushi rice,” Dalke said. “This is rinsing the starch off of the rice.”
Dalke suggests putting the uncooked short-grain sushi rice in a pot and running cold water over it. You should stir the pot every few minutes until the water in the pot runs clear.
Eliminating the excess starch from the rice before cooking helps make it easier to work with when making rolls and nigiri, fish atop of a small rice patty.
”It’s going to help keep it from being so sticky,” he said.
The rice also should be sprinkled with a simple syrup made of equal parts water, rice vinegar and sugar before it goes into a roll.
Driscoll suggests investing in a rice cooker to make more consistent rice.
Wet your hands:
Sushi rice can be sticky and difficult to work with even after proper rinsing.
Most sushi chefs create a concoction of about 3 tablespoons of sugar dissolved in 1/3 cup of rice vinegar and 8 ounces of water. The mixture isn’t a garnish or ingredient, rather it is a finger bath set near your work space.
”That’s a very important step because you’re going to use it throughout the process,” Dalke said. “You keep your hands completely saturated in it.”
The vinegar keeps the rice from sticking to your fingers while also helping the nori, the seaweed wrap, stick to itself.
Japanese tradition says sushi rolls should contain odd numbers of ingredients, usually three or five, but nobody’s paying the sushi police to hide outside in the bushes preventing a fourth or sixth ingredient from falling into your rolls.
”Whatever you add to the roll is your preference,” Dalke said. “It’s great to experiment.”
Dalke’s menu features rolls that include centerpieces like cured salmon, black bean avocado cake and pan-seared tuna. And don’t be afraid to use some raw fish at home.
Dalke points out that some local purveyors of seafood, like Burritt’s Fresh Market on Front Street, often have a supply of good quality fresh salmon and tuna.
”Salmon and fresh tuna are available, absolutely,” he said, adding that it’s important to know the person selling the fish. Freshness is very important when it comes to making sushi with raw fish.
It’s important to look for sushi-grade fish fillets that are bright in color, don’t have a strong fishy smell and aren’t slimy.
Driscoll tells her students to steer clear of raw fish at home if they’re not confident using it. Instead, she encourages experimentation with flavors.
“Smoked salmon I would really recommend,” she said. “It’s really easy to do a smoked salmon with cream cheese and scallions. And if you like pulled pork, put pulled pork on a sushi roll.”
1 recipe prepared sushi rice
1 avocado, sliced into thin strips
1 small cucumber peeled, seeded and cut into matchstick-sized pieces
4 sheets nori
4 sticks imitation crab meat
Lay out a bamboo rolling mat and cover it with plastic wrap. Cut nori sheets in half. Lay one of the cut sheets shiny-side down on the rolling mat, wet your fingers in vinegar and spread 1/2 cup rice on the nori. Leave a 1/2 inch section of the nori uncovered along one long edge of the roll.
Cut a small trough in the rice along the opposite edge of the nori from the open edge. Lay crab meat, slices of avocado and cucumber into the trough. Begin to close the roll from the trough side by curling the rolling mat over the ingredient-laden nori. Be careful not to compress the roll too much and create a hard rice log.
Dampen the uncovered edge of nori to help it stick to and seal the outside of the roll as it closes. When finished, let the roll sit for a few minutes before cutting.