day twenty-one - sushi

Note: For six weeks, July 5 - August 11, I will be enrolled in the culinary arts cooking and pastry/baking certificate programs at Boston University. Cooking is Monday and Tuesday, baking is Wednesday and Thursday. We have to keep a daily journal of the experience, so I'll be blogging about the class every day.

A lot of times people are like, "Ewww, sushi." But then a lot of times other people are like, "I'm so fancy because I love sushi." Which one are you? Add up your answers and find out at the end of this quiz.

I'm the latter! It's delicious! I'm not sure what people don't like about sushi. Actually, yes I do. It's the raw fish. I don't know why I said I didn't. And then people are like, "Do you even like the sushi with the big piece of raw fish on top?" And you are like, "Yup," in a way that is like, "Yup, I'm a badass," and they are like, "Disgusting!!!"

So, OK, fine. People like what they like and don't like what they don't like and that's fine. You shouldn't apologize for not liking something! But, sushi is basically rice (well, sushi rolls, at least). It would make more sense to me if you said you don't like sushi because you don't like rice. "Oh, sure, that makes sense." Although I've never heard of anyone who didn't like rice.

But how much fish is in a sushi roll? Like 10 microns of fish? That's how you measure it I think. It's a tiny slice of raw fish. If it's even raw fish. For some reason that weird pollock pretending to be crab thing has become traditional.

So, last Monday was our final day of cooking instruction. I was afraid it would be difficult to pay attention because we were finding out our secret ingredients for the next day's final cooking challenge at the end of class, but our instructor, Chef Sam Huang, had so much energy and told us about his life and starting his restaurants (Super Fusion Cuisine with four locations around Boston) and how expensive his knife was and his design theory for plating and basically anything you could think of that it was easy to forget about the secret ingredients. Mostly.

So right off the bat he made a few things as examples, like this nice spicy mayo cucumber salad that he put under the broiler and I was supposed to watch it to see when it was done but it's very nerve-wracking because I don't know how done he wants it and it doesn't seem to be cooking and luckily it was fine. See all of the kitchen confidence we learned?

And he also made a fried roll that he plated by cutting it so that there were tall towers and also shorter ones because he said there should always be different heights on a plate. It was very nice! And then he cut the cucumber. Basically, he took the cucumber, cut it in half, and then held it in front of him and started slicing, while rolling the cucumber, so that he cut it into a flat sheet of cucumber. Then he took the avocado, held it in front of him, made some slicing motions, and he had a perfect fan of avocado. In my head I was like, "I hope we don't have to do that."

And then we had to do that. But I shouldn't have been so worried. I mean, mine didn't look anything like his, but for doing it never in my life, it looked pretty good, if I say so myself. Have confidence! Give it a whirl! It took a few tries and Chef Sam coming around and saying, "Not like that, like this," but we kind of got it.

Then we made sushi. I tried to make sushi once before and it looked like I made it at Chernobyl. There was way too much rice and they were deformed and it was all over my hands. With just one lesson from Chef Sam my first roll looked a million times better. And this was the roll with the sushi on the outside! Seems more difficult! (Did you know the inside-out roll, as it is called, was created to hide the nori from squeamish Americans when sushi was first introduced in the U.S., but now it has gained some popularity in Japan? The more you know!) You have to have wet hands to keep it from sticking, but not so wet that your rice is all soggy, and you kind of push out some rice with one hand while pressing down with the other. Then, after sesame seeding it and filling it, you roll it, which means you grab one corner, fold it over so the rice touches the nori, then do two more roll-overs, press it with the bamboo mat and you have sushi!

It was fun! Next we made nigiri. Which, if anything, was more difficult. There seemed to be more particular rules about shaping it and so forth that I wasn't sure I was getting. Chef Sam would pick up a rice ball, form it, press it, form it again, with these insanely fast movements, so it was difficult to even see what was going on. There is an art to it, from how one slices the fish to how firm the rice should be. For the fish, we used these beautiful pieces of tuna and salmon.

So Chef Sam had us bring our two best rolls and two best nigiri over and he made a presentation of a sushi boat out of them, making tuna roses and lemon decorations and the like. Then he made a ridiculous number of sushi variations from the ingredients he had on hand. He said it never takes him more than 30 seconds to decide what he his next roll will be. He rolled things, roed things, fried things, torched things, sliced things, diced things, in a box and with a fox, and so on and so forth until we had a beautiful platter of many sushi varieties. I think it took him maybe 7 minutes to make them all. 

So we sat down to dinner, with some beer, sake and a sushi feast. And it was a feast! That's why I said it! I think this meal was worth our lab fees alone. I had two filled plates of sushi. It was so delicious. And for once, savory but light. And then it was time to reveal the secret ingredients for the next night's challenge. The three ingredients we would have to turn into an appetizer, entree and dessert. We'd been obsessing about them since the semester began. It was hard to believe the end was near (or maybe it was nigh, because it seems like the end is nigh very often).

Chef Madden passed out the sheets with the rules and instructions. We looked at the first paragraph and finally saw it: shrimp, chicken and raspberries. Basically the most malleable, inoffensive ingredients one could ever choose. Which also made it harder, in a way. How were we going to make chicken interesting? We went into the pantry, writing down the things that were already in there that were ours to use. Our minds were going a mile a minute and we all ran ideas off of each other: "Did you see mango pulp?" "Do you think I have time to make pasta dough?" 

I filled up my notebook with everything we would have available to us, got home, took out all of my cookbooks and started brainstorming. 

Next up: the final challenge.