Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Do-It-Yourself Sushi Rolls a la Cafe Japengo

Last night I helped my friend Julie Darling of Just Call Us Volunteers teach the last of a free, four-part healthy cooking class series for residents at the Escondido community built and run by Affirmed Housing Group, a wonderful, progressive company that creates green, low-income, multi-family housing. What did we make with the students? Sushi rolls and spring rolls. They were a huge hit!


Coincidentally, the day before I spent a couple of hours with Jerry Warner, Cafe Japengo's executive sushi chef of 14 years, getting a private sushi-making lesson. It came in handy for the class.

Cafe Japengo's been offering hands-on sushi-making classes for years and they have a line up of classes this spring, including a sold-out class on April 21 (Check the website for the ones being offered in May and beyond.). The two-hour classes are held in the restaurant's dining room. In that time Chef Warner teaches participants how to make and handle the sticky rice and seasoned rice vinegar mixture that goes into California rolls and hand rolls, and how to form them. He goes into a brief history of sushi and of the restaurant, which is a part of the Hyatt Hotel group. You get to feast on your creations--primarily California rolls and hand rolls--and two sake tastings. And you'll leave with your own sushi-rolling mat as well as a comprehensive guide to ingredients, local Asian markets, and a sushi-making tutorial.

Like many cuisines that evolved before refrigeration, sushi began as a method of preserving proteins. In Southeast Asia keeping salted fish between layers of naturally fermenting rice to preserve the fish was the start--and only the fish was eaten, while the rice was discarded. The practice migrated to China and then Japan, whose people preferred eating the partly preserved fish with rice. In the Edo era, vinegar was added to the rice and combined with vegetables and other preserved foods, and, well, a cuisine was born.

Today, of course, Americans have taken the basic concept to a place that many Japanese wouldn't recognize. But rolls are a staple in American sushi restaurants--and you'd be surprised at how accessible they are to the home cook if you haven't tried making them already.

Warner's mise en place for our California roll session included a bowl of water for dipping that keeps the fingers moist, a bowl of prepared wasabi (the green spicy horseradish), an English cucumber, and an avocado.


Warner was using English cucumbers, but of course you can use conventional cukes or Japanese ones, which you can find at Asian markets like Nijiya and Mitsuwa.

You'll want to cut the cukes into thin strips. To get the length right, Warner suggests measuring it again the nori--the thin seaweed paper that holds the roll.


Prep the rest of your ingredients, including the avocado (slice in half lengthwise, then use a large serving spoon to scoop the meat and then slice like a fan).


The rice is key. It's your basic plump, medium grain, washed and then added to a rice cooker--something Warner says is essential for the kitchen. When the cooked rice is just slightly warm, you add seasoned rice vinegar and mix well.

Warner had already prepped the crab mixture, so we were ready to build a roll. The steps are pretty straightforward, but it's clear that there's an art to it. There's a reason there are sushi masters. But you can't go too wrong even as a novice. So, here we go:

Place a sheet of nori on a clean, dry surface with the shiny side down.

Grab a mound of rice about the size of a baseball with wet hands. Using your fingertips, lightly spread the rice on the sheet.



Sprinkle roasted sesame seeds on the rice. For an inside-out roll, flip the rice-covered nori over. Then add your ingredients (cucumber, avocado, and crab mixture), leaving about an inch of the nori exposed along the bottom. Don't be tempted to add too much or it'll bulge.


Gently pull up the edges of the roll on one side and roll, winding up with the seam on the bottom. Then place the sushi mat (wrapped in plastic wrap) over the roll and gently squeeze evenly.


See, even a child can do it!
 Remove the mat and cut the roll in half with a sharp, moistened knife. Then move one half to be in tandem with the other and cut again until you have eight equal-size pieces.


When plating, Warner said, consider color, shape, and height to create interest.

Warner also taught me how to make a hand roll, which requires some dexterity but isn't impossible. These below are what I made.


This is great fun; I imagine the class is a blast. The cost is $60 a person. You can make reservations at 858-450-3355.

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