Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Spicy Tuna Maki

"I see -- it's just like rolling a joint," said Lauren. "Right, only legal," I replied slicing through a spicy tuna maki. I knew those Harvard Business School students were fast learners. Since food is the new golf of the business world, the leaders of tomorrow are in the kitchen today, specifically in Helen's Kitchen learning to make sushi.

It does not take years of apprenticeship in a sushi restaurant to produce a yummy spicy tuna at home, but it does require a great deal of precision, patience, and a smidgen of creativity. Don't mess with the rice! Make sure you measure all ingredients for it correctly and follow the recipe to a tee. Be prepared for a few shopping excursions to find the correct type of rice, an excellent piece of tuna, and the right type of bread.

Bread? Yes, bread -- that's my secret ingredient. A good spicy tuna roll has a crunch to juxtapose the creaminess of tuna and mayo. In restaurants, the crunch comes from deep-fried tempura batter, but I found that to be impractical at home. To avoid deep-frying, I found a surprising (or some people might call it blasphemous) crunchy alternative that works incredibly well: tiny croutons. These aren't just any croutons. They have to be made with good French bread cut into very even tiny pieces and toasted with a lot of canola oil. When you think about it, there is no surprise that this crazy substitution works. It's the same ingredients as in tempura crunchies (flour, water, and oil), just reconstructed to make a home cook's life easier and the results more consistent. If you are outraged by lack of authenticity, please keep in mind that spider maki, caterpillar maki, and spicy tuna are all American inventions.

If I didn't scare you yet with the amount of work, and your mind is set on reproducing that most addictive of rolls at home, keep on reading.

For 8 rolls

1/2 - 3/4 cup crunchies (see the recipe below)
1 recipe sushi rice
1 Lb tuna, chopped into 1/4 inch dice (tips on how to serve fish raw)
1/4 cup mayo (Japanese or Hellmann's)
1 Tbsp hot sauce or to taste (I use Sriracha)
2 tsp Japanese soy sauce or to taste
4 sheets of seaweed (nori)
Toasted sesame seeds
Scallions, sliced very finely

sushi mat wrapped in plastic wrap
a small bowl of water

Step 1: Make the crunchies at least 3 hours before making the rolls to allow them to cool completely.

Step 2: Make the sushi rice. While it's resting, chop the tuna, and mix it with mayo, hot sauce, and soy sauce to taste. The mixture should be creamy and flavorful.

Step 3: Place the sushi mat wrapped in plastic wrap on your work surface. If the mat has a flat side and rounded side, place the mat flat side up.

Step 4: Take a piece of seaweed and locate the perforation lines. Fold it in half parallel to the perforation lines and break in 2 pieces. Note that the crease and the break will be between 2 perforation lines. Inspect each piece to figure out which side is more smooth and shiny and which one is more bumpy. Place the seaweed on your mat the smooth side down.

Step 5: Wet your hands in water, pick up a handful of rice, and spread it on the seaweed. Your goal is to make a layer as thin as possible (almost 1 grain of rice thick), and to cover the entire surface of the seaweed evenly all the way to the edges. Don't squash the rice grains too hard with your hands. Each grain should still hold its shape when you are done. This step is crucial to achieving a well-shaped roll, so don't rush it. Take as much time as you need to do this properly. If rice sticks to your hands, re-wet them.

Step 6: Sprinkle sesame seeds on rice

Step 7: Flip the seaweed over so that the rice is facing down.

Step 8: Spread some tuna on the edge of rice that's closest to you. The first roll is a trial one. It will help you determine how much filling you actually need. At first, err on the side of under-filling rather than over-filling your roll. It will taste best with the maximum amount of tuna it can hold, but it's easiest to shape with a small amount of filling. If you over-fill it, it might not seal. I suggest you start small, and increase the amount of tuna with each roll.

Step 9: Sprinkle on some crunchies and press them gently into tuna so that they don't go flying when you try to roll it all up.

Step 10: Lift the edge of the mat closest to you and flip it away from you. Don't press down, or you'll squash out the filling.

Lift the mat back, revealing the partially rolled up maki. Cover it back up with the mat and roll it gently away from you so that it ends up seam side down. Run your hands gently on top of the mat to give it an even cylindrical shape.

Step 11: Transfer the roll to a cutting board. Wet a long, sharp knife (at least 8 inches) with a little bit of water.

Step 12: Cut the roll in half using long sawing strokes. Don't press down with the knife or you'll squash your roll!

Put the two halves of the roll next to each other. Re-wet your knife, and cut through both of them 2 more times to make 6 pieces.

Step 13: Stand the pieces up by tilting them to the side with your knife.

Step 14: Sprinkle with scallions.


For crunchies (can be done a few days in advance)

1 Lb French pullman loaf (in the Boston area, use Clear Flour or Iggy's)
1/4 cup canola oil

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Cut the crust off the bread and use a good serrated bread knife to cut it into very thin slices (1/5 inch thick). Cut the slices into strips, and then into cubes measuring 1/5 inch on each side. I find it helpful to switch to a chef's knife for the last step of cutting strips into cubes. Measure out 4 cups of bread cubes, toss them with oil and spread in a single layer in 17 by 11 inch baking sheet.

Place in the middle of the oven and toast just until you start to see some color, 5-7 minutes. Stir and continue to toast until the cubes are nicely browned, 7-10 minutes, stirring every 2-3 minutes to ensure even cooking. Check them every 2 minutes towards the end of cooking time to make sure they don't burn.

Remove from the oven and cool completely before using. You'll have leftovers, but they taste good on soups, salads, etc.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Orange Ginger Braised Short Ribs

Driving puts me in this strange meditative state where visions of random ingredients start to appear to me like a mirage. Yesterday, it was oranges. As I was driving to the store to pick up ingredients for this weekend's classes, oranges were dancing in my head. Soon they were joined by spoon-tender short ribs -- that beefiest queen of braising cuts. I was all set to do Lamb Shanks in my Meat class. I had the shopping list written, the recipe ready, and handouts almost finished. I told the stupid short ribs to get out of my head and to take the oranges with them. But they wouldn't leave! This urge, this incredible craving was too hard to ignore.

After a little shopping detour, my house was filled with the heavenly mixture of beef, orange, ginger, balsamic vinegar, and soy sauce perfume. This was an improvisation based on CIA's Korean short rib recipe, Ana Sortun's Balsamic Soy Braised short ribs, and Chinese take out orange beef I was so fond of as a teenager. Since I had to write a recipe for my class anyway, I thought I'll post it here for my readers as well.

Orange Ginger Braised Short Ribs

Meat substitutions: 6 bone-in short ribs, or 3 Lb beef chuck cut into 2 inch cubes

Serves 6

6 boneless short ribs (about 3 Lb total)
2 tsp powdered ginger (optional)
2 valencia (also known as "juice") oranges
2 Tbsp canola oil (plus more if needed)
1 large onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 celery rib, diced
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
2/3 cup low-sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsp chopped fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, minced
2.5 cups low-sodium beef stock
1/4 cup flour
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
  1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 275F.
  2. Dry the meat well on paper towels, season with salt, pepper, and powdered ginger (if using).
  3. Peel oranges with a vegetable peeler reserving the peel. Juice oranges and measure out 1/3 cup juice. If you don't get enough, add a little water.
  4. Set a 12 inch oven-proof skillet (or dutch oven) over medium-high heat. Add the oil. When the oil gets hot and starts to ripple in the skillet, add the meat in one layer and brown well on all sides, about 2 minutes per side. Remove from skillet and set aside.
  5. Turn down the heat to medium. Add carrots, onions, and celery. Season with a little salt. Cook stirring occasionally until tender and starting to brown, 10-15 minutes. If veggies are sticking, add more oil.
  6. Add brown sugar and stir constantly until it melts and starts to bubble. Add the vinegar, soy sauce, orange peel, orange juice, fresh ginger, garlic, and 2 cups beef stock. Bring to a simmer.
  7. Mix the remaining 1/2 cup stock with 1/4 cup flour in a small bowl. Stir well with a fork until absolutely no lumps remain. Stir this stock/flour mixture into the sauce in the skillet and mix well.
  8. Return the meat to the skillet, add a bay leaf, cover with a round of parchment paper and put in the middle of the oven for 4 hours or until the beef is fork tender.
  9. Cool ribs in sauce for at least 1 hour. Remove ribs and chill. Strain sauce, chill overnight, and degrease. To serve, warm up ribs with sauce in a pan on low heat.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My Mom in the News!

I called my Mom last friday to double check who is bringing flour, cilantro, and oranges to the vacation house in the Berkshires. "Um, honey... Can I call you back? The photographer from the Baltimore Sun is here." Oh my! This is serious.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Burn, baby! Burn!

It was one of those weeks when most women get a radically new haircut or splurge on a pair of sexy shoes. You know -- when you get a terrible itch for a change? The problem was that if I cut my hair any shorter, I'd have to shave my head; and my idea of sexy shoes are dansko clogs that I already own. So I decided to do the only other crazy thing that came to mind -- make a dessert.
If you've been reading this blog, you probably noticed that I am not a big dessert person. I don't have much of a sweet tooth and get into a dessert making mood rarely. But last time I was at Russo's (my produce market), a bag of turbinado sugar caught my attention -- the kind they tell you to use for crème brûlée to form the torched crust that is oh-so-satisfying to break with a spoon. This got me thinking... Is this "gourmet" sugar with its "gourmet" price really necessary?

I made a batch of crème brûlée to find out. I used regular sugar on one cup and turbinado sugar for the other. Turns out turbinado sugar is actually worth the splurge, but no, it's not strictly necessary. The cup on the left was sprinkled with turbinado sugar, the one on the right with regular granulated sugar. Turbinado produced a prettier crust that was more crackly, though the regular one was not bad either. The most important thing is to torch it correctly. When I used to work in a restaurant, torching crème brûlées was one of my favorite dessert plating tasks. It's really quite easy if you know a few tricks:
  1. Throw away that stupid crème brûlée torch from William and Sonoma for $40. Go to a hardware store and buy yourself a cheapy Bernzomatic Propane Torch (like the ones plumbers use).
  2. Pat the top of the custard with paper towel to remove any moisture before sprinkling it with sugar.
  3. Sprinkle with sugar evenly.
  4. Don't move your torch all over the custard. Hold it in one place until that square inch is nicely browned, then move to the next square inch.
Here is my basic crème brûlée recipe adapted from the Joy of Cooking.

Serves 4

1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream
6 large egg yolks
6 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla (or 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise)
Extra sugar (preferably turbinado) for torching the top

Heat the cream and vanilla almost to a simmer. If using vanilla bean, put it in the cream and let it steep 5 minutes. Scrape out the seeds from the bean with a small knife and return them to the cream. Discard the bean.

In a medium bowl, stir with a wooden spoon just until blended 6 egg yolks and 6 Tbsp sugar. Gradually stir in the cream. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl or large measuring cup with a pouring lip.

Pour into 4 cups or ramekins and place in the water bath. Set the pan in the oven and set the oven temperature at 250F (that's right -- the oven was not preheated). Bake until the custards are set but still slightly quivery in the center when the cups are gently shaken, 60-90 minutes. Start checking at 50 minutes. Remove the custards from the water bath and let cool to room temperature. Then chill in the fridge until cold. Cover each one with plastic wrap and continue to chill. The total refrigeration time should be at least 8 hours or up to 2 days. Sprinkle with sugar, torch, and enjoy. Have fun playing with fire :)