It is well known that in Japan students must apprentice for years with a sushi chef before they are even allowed to make rice. Another few years and they may be promoted to grating ginger, chopping scallions and, finally, to slicing fish.
We're not in Japan, and you would think that as sushi has exploded in popularity in the United States, its stateside preparation would have become more democratized. Yet, even the sushi kiosk at my local King Kullen, with its traditionally garbed, intensely focused employees, operates with some ceremony and mystique, reinforcing the belief that only properly trained chefs are entitled to practice their art while leaving customers to watch in awe and pay dearly at the cash register.
Now along comes an adorable little book called "Sushi Simplicity" (Vertical, $14.95), written by Japanese dietitian and food scientist Miyuki Matsuo, full of tips and tricks for the novice.
One of the home sushi chef's biggest challenges is molding the rice so it holds together. Another difficulty is making sure the molded rice is just the right size to accompany the topping. Too big, and the sushi is difficult to eat. Too small, and the flavor and texture of the topping will overwhelm the rice. Matsuo offers simple ways to shape sushi rice while avoiding these problems. Pressing rice into small cups or pretty little brioche molds is easier than rolling it by hand or inside a bamboo mat. Small cookie cutters can make star-shaped sushi, and square molds cut from milk cartons give shape to sushi cakes with crab and corn or scrambled eggs and salmon roe.
Matsuo's key innovation is the use of plastic wrap to shape rice into small balls, which look as good as oblong restaurant sushi but are much easier to form. Simply spoon some rice onto a piece of plastic wrap, twist tightly, then roll the wrapped rice in your cupped palm until it is nice and round. To top these cute little balls, arrange your topping on another piece of plastic wrap, place the ball on top of the topping, wrap it tightly again, and then -- through the plastic -- press the topping into the sushi. It works like a charm.
As for toppings, Matsuo's are friendly rather than forbidding. Fish and seafood are well represented, with instructions for draping rice balls with a slice of tuna or salmon, a sliver of scallop, or a bit of shrimp. Pretty garnishes such as scallion tips, watercress leaves, and sliced radish are aesthetically pleasing but unfussy. There are plenty of nontraditional toppings as well, including octopus, tomato and basil, grilled beef with a dab of barbecue sauce, and scrambled egg. Before you start to question the authenticity of ham-and-cheese sushi, remember that "Sushi Simplicity" originally was published in Japan, for a Japanese audience, and only recently has been translated so we can get a peek at how untrained Japanese home cooks are adapting restaurant tastes and techniques with joy and success.
MINI PURSE SUSHI
2 1/2 tablespoons sushi rice (see below)
1 teaspoon canned tuna
1 thin omelet (see below)
1. Combine rice and tuna and form into a ball using plastic wrap.
2. Lay omelet inside a ramekin and place rice in center. Gather edges of omelet and tie up with chive. Makes 1 mini purse
BASIC SUSHI RICE
1 ½ cups short grain white rice
1 ½ cups water
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1. Rinse rice under cold running water and drain in a strainer for 30 minutes.2. Add rice and water to rice cooker and cook until tender (alternatively, place rice and water in a nonstick pan, bring to a boil, cover, turn heat to low, and cook until tender, 15 to 20 minutes).
3. Combine rice vinegar, sugar and salt in a small bowl and stir to dissolve sugar and salt.
4. Transfer cooked rice to a bowl (a wooden one is good because it will absorb excess water) and sprinkle with rice vinegar mixture. While fanning rice with a paper fan or piece of cardboard, stir the rice with a wooden spoon, using a chopping motion.
5. Cover the bowl with a damp, well-wrung cloth and let cool.
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1. Crack eggs into a bowl. Add sugar, cornstarch and salt; whisk gently. Pour through a fine strainer.
2. Heat an 8-inch nonstick frying pan over medium-low. Pour in oil and spread in a thin layer on pan with a paper towel. Pour in one-third of the egg mixture and swirl to spread across pan.
3. Once surface is dried, flip and cook briefly. Drape omelet on an overturned strainer and let cool. Repeat twice with remaining egg mixture. Makes 3 (8-inch) omelets.
CUCUMBER AND TOBIKO SUSHI BALLS
2 1/2 tablespoons sushi rice
5 small slices cucumber
1/4 teaspoon tobiko (flying fish roe)
1. Form sushi into a ball using plastic wrap.
2. Place cucumbers on another piece of plastic wrap. Top with rice, twist up wrap and shape into ball.
3. Top with tobiko. Makes 1 ball.