The key to make homemade sushi is getting great ingredients, the freshest and best-quality fish you can. For anyone still uncertain, you can always “cheat” a bit and make a California roll (a 1970s LA creation that features avocado instead of raw tuna). You could also be a conservative traditionalists and swap out the raw fish for Hanaya’s method: marinate the fish in soy sauce, which will lightly pickle it in acid and kill off any lurking bacteria.
My favorite sushi of all is actually unagi, which is completely-cooked freshwater eel in a sort of caramelized sauce (though you’re not going to catch me buying a fresh eel to take home and dismantle for lunch). But perhaps the easiest starting point is to use something we’re all familiar with, but which we tend not to think of as raw fish: smoked salmon. It’s smoked, which is a preserving action but also adds flavor, and if we’ve eaten it on bagels, then we can eat it in sushi. My tentative approach has nothing to do with taste—I love sushi, especially with lots of sliced ginger and a ton of sinus-expanding wasabi green horseradish.
I begin by making short-grain rice—if you have a rice cooker, it always comes out perfectly done. I don’t, and so I had to make it the old-fashioned way. Careful not to have the rice too wet—it will get sticky from the vinegar and can become hard to work with. When buying fish, choose bright-colored fish, make your life easier by asking for a fillet, and be sure the fish has no strong smell (as Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin says, good fish doesn’t smell like fish—it smells like the ocean), and its skin should be smooth and firm. I take the easy way out and just buy some good smoked salmon, already in slender, boneless slices. I prepare the rice…twice (the first batch was too wet), and mix it in a large bowl with rice vinegar and a little sugar, which are first mixed in a pan at a low temperature and then allowed to cool. Try to coat each grain of rice with vinegar—that sounds like an impossible Zen monk task, and no need to obsess about it, but that’s the idea, at least. Pour a little at a time, otherwise the rice clumps into balls.
Wrap the bamboo mat in plastic (to prevent sticking) and also have a bowl of water with a little vinegar to dip your fingers into (also to prevent clinging rice). Place half a sheet of nori toasted seaweed shiny side down on the plastic-covered mat. Cover the bottom two-thirds of the nori with scatterings of rice. It’s sticky, and it’ll drive you nuts if grains keep clinging to your hands, but hang in there. Press a line along the rice to create a sort of trench all the way across it, into which you lay the vegetables and fish—I went easy for my first time, and included thinly-sliced avocado and smoked salmon. Add wasabi to this trench full of goodies if you like (I do). Then you roll: with your fingers atop the ingredients, so they don’t try to escape, roll the mat forward with your thumbs, creating a tube with nori on the outside, a layer of rice, and the trench of fish and vegetables hugged in the middle. Don’t press too hard, or you’ll get fish flying out of the ends of the roll, or your roll may end up square (which happened to me). Remove the plastic and slice with a very sharp knife.
As they say in Japan, “Tekidona shokuyoku!” Buon appetit!
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