Adventures in Sushi

One culinary challenge that has long seemed overly daunting to me is the making of sushi. There just seemed to be so many things to contemplate and figure out that I had, up until now, simply decided that sushi would be perpetually worth the price of paying other people to make it for me. But as sushi cravings have hit me with increasing frequency, I resolved (as recently detailed in another article) to attempt making sushi myself.

I started by ordering some books from the library and checking out various sushi making kits on Amazon to see what all they entailed. With some further research on the internet, I was ready to get started. A visit to the Giant Eagle proved that the required implements would be easy, if not super cheap (I suspect an Asian grocery in the Strip would be an improvement in that regard), to come by. I already had some wasabi powder and pickled ginger on hand. Nori at Giant Eagle is $2.99 for 10 sheets; while it can be obtained cheaper in bulk online, this was a reasonable start-up cost considering the convenience. Sushi rice was actually cheaper than what I’d found online, though rice vinegar was a little steep for my liking. Bamboo sushi mats are actually quite a deal at the Giant Eagle at under $2, since most of those I found online rang in at $5 to $6.

My First Sushi PlateAccording to my research, the first major hurdle of sushi making is the recipe for sushi rice. As I’ve gathered, there are many ritualistic methods surrounding the making of sushi rice. Apparently, the important ingredient is rice vinegar (so that’s why they call it rice vinegar), though it must be prepared in a dressing with sugar and salt to temper it. I picked up some rice vinegar that already had sugar and salt in it (I presume for precisely this reason), but I also saw in one of my sushi cookbooks that some recipes called for plain white rice, and so wondered whether the rice vinegar would really make that much of a difference. In the interest of making a simplified first attempt, I decided to forego the vinegar and just concentrate on the rice, since it seemed like a big enough to do in itself!

Many of the recipes I found for sushi rice included elaborate and detailed preparations. Several called for the rice to be rinsed many times to release all excess starch, rinsing devotedly until the water runs clear. Thereafter the rice must then be soaked in water for a prescribed period of time before it is then cooked in a precise rice to water ratio (recipes differ in precisely what that ratio is). Many recipes recommend that the rice be cooked uncovered for a period of time, and then covered on low or no flame for the remaining time. After that the rice must be transferred carefully to a non-metal bowl so not to break the grains and then spread carefully with non-metal utensils.

Spicy Salmon Salad RollI decided it was all a little too elaborate for my purposes. I did listen to the advice that one ought to use proper sushi rice (medium or short grain), and not ordinary long-grain rice, but otherwise, I decided to make up my own rules. After all, I’m from the “put all ingredients in food processor and puree” school of making curry sauce. I decided that I would combine the first two steps by soaking the rice in water for about 30 minutes and then drained the water and considered it rinsed. I then used one and a half times the amount of water as I had rice to cook. I simmered it covered on a low fire while I did other things around the kitchen and turned it off when the water had been nearly absorbed. By the time I had finished up my kitchen chores and sushi ingredients preparation, the rice looked about like cooked rice should. I spooned the rice directly out of my stainless steel cooking pan and onto my nori, and it seemed to work out just time.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m staying away from raw fish until I read up on it more and until I get the hang of making vegetable and cooked fish rolls. One recipe I found online suggested making spicy mayo (i.e. mayo plus sriracha sauce), which is used to make “Spicy” rolls of whatever type, and putting in on tuna from a can to practice. I decided to upgrade a notch in fish and so got canned salmon instead. I used this spicy salmon salad in my first attempt, which was an inside out roll.

The inside out roll is probably more commonly seen at sushi restaurants and delis than the “right side in” roll. It’s the one where the rice is on the outside of the nori. It involves simply spreading the nori with rice, as one would do otherwise, and then flipping it, so that the ingredients are put directly onto the nori and the sushi is rolled with the rice side down, thus ending up with rice on the outside. My rolls looked a little small, so I imagined I went a little light on the rice, but otherwise appeared relatively successful.

Right Side In RollI continued on to make a more traditional roll. Again, I spread the nori (non-shiny side) with rice, added the dregs of the salmon salad and some avocado slices directly onto the rice, then rolled it up. By this time I realized that I wasn’t so much using the bamboo mat to roll the sushi, but rather the plastic freezer bag on top of it. Many sushi-making guides I read recommended covering the bamboo mat in plastic wrap before using it; I was out of plastic wrap so I used a freezer bag instead. Turns out, I found the freezer bag easier to manipulate than the bamboo. I guess all I needed was a freezer bag all along… but I suppose it gives me better street cred to have the bamboo mat underneath it as I roll.

Finally, I found myself out of rice, but with avocado leftover. Apparently one of the most difficult things about making sushi is matching the amount of filler ingredients you prepare with the amount of rice you prepare. I had made my rolls in the morning, so I spent the day considering what else I could do with the remaining half an avocado without having to make a new batch of rice. I researched substitutes for sushi rice, or recipes for no-rice sushi. It would be useful to find a good substitution, not only because I happened to be out of rice at the time, but for making sushi compliant with a low-carb diet (as I often cook for low-carbers).

My research yielded little of interest in terms of low-carb sushi recipes, but after researching sushi rolls in general, I came up with a viable idea. I found many sushi roll recipes containing avocado, crab stick and cream cheese. Such cream cheese is generally cut in strips from a block so that it can fit lengthwise into the center of a roll. I wondered what would happen if I used a spreadable cream cheese in lieu of rice as the sticky medium to keep the roll together. I stopped at the store on my way home and picked up the crab sticks and a tub of whipped cream cheese.

Low Carb RollAfter spreading the cheese on a sheet of nori, I added the avocado and crab stick. I attempted to make a small roll, but it looked like it might end up being rather insubstantial, so I unrolled my nori and set more crab stick and avocado along the entire sheet leaving about an inch free at the end. I then rolled my nori pin-wheel style until the whole sheet of ingredients was wrapped all the way around itself a couple times to the end. I chilled it while I finished dinner preparations and while I sliced and prepared the chilled rolls from earlier in the day.

As it turned out, the low-carb roll was one of my favorites of these first experiments. The other rolls turned out to be quite pleasing. The rice did taste slightly unlike the rice I’m used to in store-bought sushi (probably due to the omission of the vinegar), but after being soaked in soy sauce and wasabi, I barely knew the difference.

Overall, I was quite pleased with my first attempt. Despite the lack of vinegar, raw fish and copious rice cooking rituals, I came up with three rolls that scratched the itch of my sushi craving. Maybe next time I’ll venture to try the vinegar. Watch out for more Adventures in Sushi.

Gorgonzola Fondue & Black Russians, plus sushi cravings drive me to Giant Eagle

Gorgonzola Fondue & Black RussianAs I’ve mentioned before in my previous musings on the wonders and pitfalls of fondue, I find the use of traditional French cheese in fondue to be problematic for a variety of reasons. Difficulty melting, expense… who needs it? Besides, breaking away from tradition is a great way to let creativity take flight. One of my favorite experimental fondues has been gorgonzola, but since it is such a strongly flavored cheese, arriving at the best recipe has required a bit more trial and error.

The challenge in refining this recipe was in bringing out the true gorgonzola flavor. I’ve tried this recipe with a blend of gorgonzola and blue cheese, but found the results disappointing. I’ve also made the mistake of using a bit too much garlic, which makes the gorgonzola flavor much too intense, bringing out an unwanted salty quality in the fondue. The use of sherry wine is also problematic in this regard, causing too strong a clash of flavors. This past weekend, I made a batch that, I believe, finally struck a perfect balance.


a scant pinch of minced garlic
1 to 1 1/2 cups half n’ half or light cream
1 (8oz) package of cream cheese
8oz of crumbled gorgonzola cheese
4oz shredded sharp white cheddar
dash or two of white pepper
1 to 1 1/2 cups light white wine
1 tablespoon cornstarch (optional)
bread cubes or vegetables for dipping

Combine the garlic, cream, cream cheese, gorgonzola, cheddar and the pepper in a medium saucepan. Melt over low heat, whisking frequently until the cheeses are melted and well combined. If cheese does not melt smoothly, use an immersion blender to smooth is out. Whisk in the white wine until combined. If the fondue is too runny for your taste, then mix the cornstarch with a bit of additional wine (just enough to dissolve it) and then whisk it into the fondue, heating until it thickens. Serve with bread and/or vegetables.

I find that cultivating the true gorgonzola flavor is so important, not only because it is one of my favorite cheeses, but because one of my favorite flavor complements is gorgonzola cheese accompanied by a Black Russian. This discovery was a happy accident back from the days shortly after I turned 21 when I did crazy things like ordering Black Russians with dinner at restaurants (i.e. before I had a driver’s license or had to pay my own rent). Dinner was a gourmet pizza rife with melted gorgonzola, and I discovered that, just as a Cabernet enhances the flavor of a rare filet mignon, and a pinot grigio lends a welcome harmony to lemon-squeezed crab, so does a Black Russian play subtly on the flavors of gorgonzola cheese.

BLACK RUSSIAN: vodka, Kahlua, ice. Mix.

I won’t post a recipe for a Black Russian cocktail, per se, since it’s just two boozes over ice, but I will give some tips and advice. Traditionally a Black Russian is two thirds vodka and one third Kahlua (try Kamora as an excellent, inexpensive substitute), but I usually prefer half and half. A Black Russian is mixed, quite straightforwardly, over ice in a double old-fashioned glass. These are the short, squat cocktail glasses, sometimes also called rocks glasses. Before pouring in the booze, fill the glass with ice, and I mean that literally. The ice should reach the top rim of the glass. This is true of any mix-over-ice drink. People think it will water down your drink (with a Black Russian, such a result would not be the worse eventuality), but it’s actually to help you get the right proportions and to keep your drink chilled at roughly the rate you drink it. Provided you keep your drink within arm’s reach and nurse it at a moderate pace, you will still have ice at the end. If you put two cubes in the glass, they’re going to be gone before your drink is, leaving your cocktail to get lukewarm from the temperature of the room and the heat of your hand. As for mixing, if your ice cubes fill the entire glass, you can pour vodka halfway, then Kahlua halfway for an even mix. If you have ice cubes only halfway up you’re going to end up with a lot more of whatever you pour second.

Giant Eagle SushiFondue plus cocktail makes a great snack or appetizer but does not, unfortunately, a meal make. After not gorging myself nearly as much as I should have at Coriander’s India Buffet at lunch, I was in the mood for something light. My cravings turned, as they have rather often of late, to thoughts of sushi.

While there are several convenient options for take out sushi, I have developed a habit for relying on the easiest solution: Giant Eagle. There is a large GE grocery within short driving distance of my apartment, their sushi is less expensive than Whole Foods, but includes a full selection of nigri and maki rolls, raw, cooked and vegetarian, unlike Trader Joes which only offers a few varieties of fully cooked fish rolls in the deli section.

Am I proud of being a Giant Eagle sushi consumer? No. Is it top quality? No. But it’s cheap and it satisfies my cravings. Six or seven dollars will get you a good twelve or sixteen pieces of maki, if it’s not a specialty roll, often with a variety of tuna, salmon, eel and shellfish within one package. Last weekend, in a moment of weakness, and faced with a dwindling Saturday night selection, I sprung for two packages, a Chef’s selection nigri and roll plate, as well as a spicy mango tuna roll. The total came to about $17, but I justified it for myself by digging seven dollars worth of change out of the bottom of my purse.

And that’s when I got to thinking… why am I spending nearly twenty dollars a pop on mediocre sushi, when I could probably make it just as easily myself? Now, if I were deluding myself with pretensions of competing with Tamari, that would be one thing, but Giant Eagle? I think that’s within my wheelhouse. I imagine it might take a good bit of research on the handling of raw fish, but there are plenty of sushi rolls that do not use raw fish as an ingredient, I’m just never inclined to buy them at a deli section or restaurant when I can get salmon or tuna for a dollar or two more.

So, as a result of Giant Eagle sushi guilt, it’s off to the library for more culinary research!