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Wednesday, March 21, 2007 02:32 pm

If you knew sushi

Here’s how to whip up chirashi-zushi

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Untitled Document It seems as if sushi is everywhere these days — in eclectic restaurants that offer a bewildering (and, unfortunately, sometimes badly executed) mix of cuisines, in Chinese megabuffets, and even in plastic tubs in grocery stores. Even so, many people still have mistaken ideas about sushi, and some think there’s a gross-out factor: “Yuck! Raw fish!”
Well, not necessarily. The term “sushi” refers to a method of rice preparation, one that oftentimes, but by no means always, is garnished with thinly sliced uncooked fish. Other garnishes include strips of savory omelette, cooked crab or shrimp, fried soft-shell crab, and barbecued eel (the slightly sweet teriyaki-style sauced eel is one of my favorites). Since sushi entered mainstream American dining, options have expanded. Now there’s a California roll (crab or shrimp and avocado, cucumber, and Japanese pickles), Philadelphia roll (with cream cheese) and a host of other American innovations, many delicious though untraditional. There are several types of sushi. Nigiri-zushi translates as “hand-formed.” Sushi rice is formed into an ovoid and then garnished. Another type is maki-zushi, or rolls. Most commonly, sheets of nori (pressed and dried laver, a type of seaweed) are laid on a bamboo mat, layered with sushi rice and other ingredients, and then rolled into a cylinder. Sometimes the rice is on the outside. A subset is temaki-zushi, hand rolls, for which the filled nori is rolled into a cone. Surprisingly, basic maki rolls are easier for amateur sushi makers than nigiri-zushi, though preparing any kind of sushi takes practice. An occasional maki maker, such as myself, can always count on their first of couple rolls to look a little ragged. Master sushi chefs in Japan, who spend years perfecting their craft, are highly respected. Their creations can range from the elegantly simple to the elaborately precise. Korea also has a tradition of sushi, known as kimbap; in fact, some of the best sushi restaurants in Chicago are owned by Koreans.
About that raw fish: It must be pristinely fresh, with a silky texture and no fishy odor. When I go out for sushi, I’m looking for a place that’s busy (ensuring that ingredients are used quickly) and makes the sushi to order. Sushi that’s been hanging out on the buffet, looking a little dried out around the edges? No, thanks! I’m also suspicious of discount sushi. Sushi is about quality ingredients, cooked or not. Those don’t come cheap, especially not that pristinely fresh fish. I don’t mean to imply that a good sushi meal must be outrageously expensive, just that it can’t be fast-food cheap. There aren’t any traditional sushi restaurants in Springfield. Indigo and Bentoh’s have a small selection of decent American-style maki rolls. Last year, when Curtis Hudson transformed Soirée Bistro into the “Pacific Coast cuisine” Pao (2824 Plaza Dr., 217-546-4660), creating a sushi bar was a major part of the plan. He brought in John Lawyer, who’d had some training but was largely self-taught, to create the sushi menu. Lawyer wisely chose to offer only two uncooked fish (yellowfin tuna and salmon) and a market selection to guarantee freshness. Though there are a few traditional sushi preparations, most of the 22 items (plus specials) fall into the Americanized category. I haven’t tried them all, but those that I’ve had were good. I thought that I was innovative when I created a sushi-rice salad years ago. It was healthy, lots easier (though not quite as much fun) as making maki-zushi, and my family loved it. Only recently did I discover that the Japanese have been making it for years. Now my sushi salad has a Japanese name: chirashi-zushi.
Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
Chirashi-Zushi Sushi Salad with Seared Tuna
For the rice 2 cups Japanese short-grained (sushi) rice 2 1/2 cups water 1/3 cup seasoned rice-wine vinegar
Wash the rice in a colander under cold running water until the water runs clear. Combine the rice and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer the rice until all of the water has been absorbed, about 20 minutes. Alternatively, use a rice cooker according to instructions.  When the rice is cooked completely but before it becomes mushy, turn it out onto a large shallow bowl or platter, tray, or sheet pan. Immediately  drizzle the vinegar over the rice. Toss gently but thoroughly with a wooden spoon or spatula, being careful not to mash or break the rice grains. Cool to room temperature.
For the omelette Four eggs 2 teaspoon soy sauce, preferably Kikkoman 2 teaspoon sugar
Whisk the eggs together with the soy sauce and sugar. Spray a nonstick pan with cooking spray and heat over high heat. Add the egg mixture and reduce heat to low. Cook until the eggs have set. Cool to room temperature, then cut the eggs into cubes.
To finish the salad 1 to 1 1/2 pounds tuna, at least 1 inch thick 1/4 to 1/2 cup pickled ginger, cut into thin matchsticks 2 to 4 cups of a variety of vegetables, according to your preference and freshness (suggestions: blanched snow peas, daikon radish, scallions, radishes, bean sprouts, crisp cooked green beans or asparagus, cucumber, avocado, julienned carrot, chives or garlic chives, zucchini)
For garnishes and condiments: One or two sheets of nori, cut into thin strips about 1 inch long, Toasted sesame seeds Ponzu sauce: 1/3 cup each of soy sauce (preferably Kikkoman) and lemon juice, mixed Wasabi paste
Sprinkle both sides of the tuna lightly with salt. Spray a heavy skillet (preferably nonstick) with cooking spray and place over high heat. When the skillet is very hot, sear the tuna for 30 seconds to 1 minute on each side, depending on the thickness of the tuna. It should just be seared on the outside and still rare in the middle. Set aside to cool to room temperature Cut vegetables into bite-size pieces or thin slices as appropriate. Seed but do not peel cucumbers and zucchini. Mix pickled ginger, vegetables, and omelette cubes gently into the rice. Check for      seasoning. You may wish to add more vinegar. Mound the rice on a large platter. Cut the tuna into thin slices and fan them around the rice      mixture. Sprinkle with a handful of the thinly sliced nori and the sesame seeds. Serve the wasabi and ponzu sauce on the side. Serves four to eight.
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