29 April 2011

Now I Ain't Sayin' I A Sushi Chef...

...but I ain't messin' with my dinner!

Well, not sushi, really.  Still deep in the throes of my missing-Japan-being-a-vegetarian-a-la-Julia-Child phase, I decided that instead of missing my favorite Japanese quick meal, I was just going to make it myself.  Onigiri are what I like to think of as the Japanese version of a sandwich: quick, nutritious, easy; requires a few basic ingredients but can be dressed with anything you might have on hand.  The process seems simple enough: take something flavorful, wrap it in the center of a tightly-packed ball of rice, and then wrap the whole thing in a sheet of seaweed.  Voila.  Your perfect 7-11 lunch.

Let me just take a moment to honor the Japanese 7-11, where you can choose from a huge list of edibles, including dried squid, fresh salads with hard-boiled eggs, my favorite types of onigiri, delicious soy "desserts" that fall somewhere between tofu and ice cream, actual (green tea) ice cream...Dried squid excluded, oh 7-11, how I miss you so! 

The whole process of making onigiri was, of course, more involved than I anticipated.  Let's start with the basics.  My favorite type in Japan had a little ball of salmon in the middle.  A coworker friend (here in Jersey) kindly informed me that instead of buying, cooking, and then demolishing a filet of salmon, I could just get a can of the stuff, like tuna.  This was news to me!  So I happily brought home a can of salmon, "skin and bones included."  This will be easy enough, I thought, especially since salmon is so flaky, I'm sure I can get little pieces to flake right off.  That part I was right about, but I wasn't actually expecting the salmon to slide right out of the can in a cylindrical shape.  On to my plate I poured a tuna-smelling glob of salmon fat, skin, scaly-feeling stuff, a spine, bones, and finally, some flaky fish.  The fish parts I could not recognize upset me, and the fish parts I could recognize just upset me more. 

I had a flashback to the time--upon the recommendation from a very kind, respected teacher in Fuji City--I left the grocery store carrying 2 whole samna fish, eyes and all.  I'm not sure what samna translates to in English, but it was rumored to be delicious, and I was going to filet and cook those suckers up myself.  I remember calling John, the only other non-Japanese person for a twenty-mile radius, to ask if I could borrow his kitchen and his sharpest knives.  I'm not sure why I decided to attempt fileting the fish in John's kitchen instead of my own, but I remember being glad I wasn't at home.  John had a lot more cooking experience than I did, so I figured, if I got stuck, he could help me out in a pickle (or samna, in this case). 

John sighed over the phone.  "Sure, Lauren, you can try it here, but fileting a fish is a lot harder than it sounds.  You need extremely sharp knives, which I don't have.  And when you can't do it yourself, I'm not going to help you, because I already know that I'm not good at it." 

Fine.  He warned me, but for some reason, I didn't believe him.  I thought a little elbow grease could surely get me through a fish.

Flash forward an hour.  John's in his living room watching TV and I was staring down at the slick, glimmering mess I'd created trying to butcher these poor fish.  It looked more like a grisly murder scene than a cooking expedition.  John was right - it was a lot harder than I thought, and his knives weren't sharp enough.  Fish guts spilled over onto the floor, making me wish I'd attempted the whole thing in a bathtub.  For some reason, the fact that fish actually had blood came as a shock to me.  I had only expected to see the warm, red liquid from mammals, or other luckier creatures I'd never dream of cutting up whole. 

So tonight as the salmon lay before me on a plate, I thought back to that exhausting night in Japan and had to giggle.  I could handle some bones, some fat, and some skin.  But I'm still glad this is the only kind of 'meat' I'm eating!

Here's what I had left over after picking out the choicest flakes of flesh:

I decided this occasion called for:


Now on to the next step, gathering the other "surprise ingredients" that can comprise the centers of your rice balls: French cornichons (I'm sooo cosmpolitan!) and Japanese umeboshi (pickled plums).  These little guys are SO powerful that the carton actually states, "One per day," as if it's a warning.  One per day or else what, I'm not sure.  According to macrobiotics, umeboshi are very good for alkalizing the blood, easily curing all kinds of ailments, including hangovers.  Currently I am neither unhealthy nor hungover, but I wanted to give these guys a go since I haven't eaten them since 2005.  Plus, they are VERY flavorful, and I was in a pack-a-punch kind of mood.


I seasoned the salmon with soy sauce while the sushi rice was cooking, and then I seasoned the rice with two of my FAVORITE Japanese ingredients: (regular) sesame seeds, and black sesame seeds:

Alright, NOW the fun part!  First of all, don't be an overeager idiot like I was and start spreading "warm" rice all over your palm before it has a chance to cool a bit.  I was so hungry and excited to start that I burned my hands.  It's also imperative to have a little bowl of saltwater at your fingertips, because if your fingers are dry whenever you handle the rice, you'll have sushi rice stuck all over them!  So keep your fingers moist.

Since I have small hands, I found it easiest to press the rice directly onto the rice paddle, smoosh my surprise ingredient in the center, and then slide the rice off of the paddle into my hands, like sliding a pizza off a pizza stone.  Then, with (wet and salted!) hands, I cupped them together to squeeze the rice into balls around the center ingredients.  Smoosh everything tightly, so it's compacted! 

I am not a crafty girl, but fortunately for my sense of aesthetics, I'm a quick learner.  You can see the dramatic improvement in each rice ball below.  I started at 11 o'clock and went counter-clockwise.  The 1 o'clock ball is clearly the best:

Then it was on to the seaweed wrap!  It came like this:

And unfolded into this:

Which promptly gave me the idea to make one big onigiri burrito with all my leftover ingredients:

(I told you I was cosmopolitan!)  Then I thought, Hey, why not pretend I'm a sushi chef!  I'll roll the seaweed and then cut it into smaller rolls and eat them like sushi!
But, as it turns out, I don't have the right kind of knife to successfully saw through seaweed while keeping everything neat and tidy.  Again I was reminded of the samna experience, and I laughed.  If you're making anything Japanese, even if it's "finger food," you gotta' be serious about your knives.

I did make real onigiri though, in the right shape, and I enjoyed every bite.  The smell of the nori before it hit my lips was the closet thing to time-travel, as it immediately sent me right back to Tokyo.


Clearly, I have a newfound appreciation of my beloved 7-11 convenience food.  More experience would probably make them quicker and easier.  I saved some rice balls for breakfast and put the remaining ones in the freezer. I can't wait to eat the rest of them.  :) 

This post has made it official: if I so choose, I can be one of those people with enough time at home to actually cook, AND take photos, and then WRITE about it.  What a great night!  Now if only I had some green tea ice cream...

Many thanks to the blog Recipe, interrupted for the onigiri-making instructions!!

19 April 2011

Carnivores, beware: this requires a strong stomach. ;)

Lot of changes and emotions lately - fear and sadness over the loss and devastation in Japan; admiration for my family in the very Japanese-style kindness they extended by offering safe, radiation-free housing to my friends and their families; my elation over leaving a bad relationship; my 28th birthday and either an early mid-life crisis or a delayed quarter-life crisis; my realization that I had happily and single-handedly gone through half a gallon of ice cream and too much wine in a mere week...WHOA.  There was a moment in time that became the eye of my hurricane...when I was cooking and the TV droned in the background.  I tuned in, without looking, when I heard one female character ask another, "What's the nicest thing you've ever done for someone?"  I stopped stirring my pot, raised my head and repeated the question to myself. And then I stammered out loud.  "Uhh...." I drew a big, fat blank.  Well, I had just made dinner for a friend and her sick husband.  "That was nice of me," I thought.  But was I changing anyone's life?  Hardly.  Twenty minutes of blank thoughts and pot-stirring later, my mind a reel of empty filmstrip, I suddenly remembered that I've been running a book club for the past three years!  I enjoy that, certainly, but I also view it as a form of community service...  I really try my best to be an exceptional friend, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that doesn't always work out as planned.  Um...

So, I looked further back into my life.  I've been extremely lucky, and I've worked hard, and that combination means I've been able to accomplish some pretty awesome things.  But what do those accomplishments mean for anyone else?  I realized then how exactly my entire life has been all about me.  I started to feel an itch, perhaps a very early clicking of gears of my 'biological clock,' an annoying little presence that conjured visions of myself in my deathbed, thinking, "Gee, you had a fabulous life.  But what exactly was the point if it was all about you?" 
These thoughts were tumbling around in my head at the same time I began reassessing my health and my diet - because it entertains me - and thinking nostalgically of certain aspects of my lifestyle in Japan. 

Then I picked up a vegetarian book.

If you have ever spent any quality time with a book on vegetarianism, then you are well-acquainted with the nightmarish horrors of meat (and even dairy!) production and what it does to animals...not to mention poor people; our rain forests; our water supply; our ozone layer.  Alicia Silverstone's book The Kind Diet reports that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one 16 oz. steak, and that's the same amount of water you'd use taking 6 months of showers.  If you have never been truly curious about how your meat is actually procured, I'll spare you the details - but just know that's much, much worse than 'we breed animals for food, and then we kill them early.'  While I acknowledge that the following is dramatic, I believe it's an accurate analogy to say that that line of thinking is akin to summarizing the Holocaust as 'a period of time where a lot of people died.'  The truth is much more horrific than that.

So I sit here thinking, "Now that I know of all of this, how could I really detach myself from the knowledge, shrug my shoulders over my rib eye and whip out a knife and fork?"  I want to celebrate life, and other living things, and not cause unnecessary harm.  I want to know that the life I lived, while fabulous for me, also made some kind of a difference for someone else.  And I decided that not eating meat is a very good place to start. 

I'm very excited because today is the first day in years (years and years!) that I have chosen to forgo dairy.  (I was a vegetarian for 6 years in my previous life*, but I always ate dairy products).  Today, buying soy milk is just as easy as buying cow's milk, and I have a really strong inkling that as the months go by, I'll see a difference in how I feel, similar to the changes I experienced in Japan.  Not to mention, after living in Japan for a year, I have no problem embracing any and all types of soy products.  It's a magic plant!  And, the calcium argument doesn't really work, because guess what?  Calcium is in the soy milk, too.

So.  Please help me as I go forward, to be mindful of my choices and how they will affect the peace and well-being of other living things on this planet.  Deep down I know that if a little piglet came up and nuzzled my leg (because they are affectionate, intelligent creatures), I would want to grab him and comfort him just like a kitten.  I don't know too many people who would willingly slaughter a kitten.  What is the difference, really?

It may sound like a very Zen philosophy, but I don't believe in a hierarchy among living things.  I believe in protecting myself if necessary, for sure, but nothing was put on this earth for the sake of anything else.  I believe in evolution and the fact that we're all struggling to coexist within life cycles and food chains.  And I really want to believe that this is a Christian attitude, as well, because of the one line in the Bible that holds more meaning for me than any other: The Kingdom of God is inside you and all around you.  God is in the spider we freak out and smash; in the old, tired, arthritic dog; in the harsh wind, and the trembling leaves on a tree.  God is in your best friend; your boss; your elevator man...and cows, and pigs.  

To steal a quote from the poet David Whyte, "The world was made to be free in." 

For everything to be free in.  If I can contribute to that, then I'm going to try.    

*Why I 'stopped' being a vegetarian in the past is a long story, but suffice it to say, I was living in the homes of different people, in different countries, and as a guest of these other cultures, I wanted to adapt.  It has taken a while for me to come back to myself, and remember why I made those choices...and remember that I can re-make them, now.  For that freedom, I am grateful.