Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The delicate art of getting your hands dirty

I love kitchen projects. Nothing is quite as exciting to me as the prospect of spending hours in the kitchen, chopping and dicing and rolling and kneading and measuring and mixing and tasting, oh the tasting. I adore recipes with numerous steps, especially those that require you to get your hands and your tabletop messy, like apple pie and gnocchi. So a few days ago, when Bennett came home and suggested we make sushi, with all sorts of special props (for example, a sushi mat) and new ingredients (for example, dried seaweed), I was tickled all sorts of pink. Which sounds weird and dirty, but in fact was quite innocent.

We picked up all the basics in the beloved barrio chino, a grocery basket filled with: sushi rice (short and sticky stuff), nori (dried seaweed paper), wasabi powder, sesame oil, and a sushi mat. We neglected to buy rice vinegar, but we substituted inexpensive white vinegar, and it worked out well. Our sushi last night was filled with familiar staples: cream cheese, avocado, cucumber, and pink salmon. We made a few different sauces, as well, the ingredients for which are listed further down.

I thought for a while about explaining the How Tos of making sushi, but I realized, as I was typing that 1) I am still very much a beginner, and 2) I was boring even myself.* So! I've decided, instead, to try and convince you to make your own sushi by describing how much fun it is to get your hands dirty.

I think one of the real joys of cooking is using your hands. I'll almost always opt for mixing and kneading by hand, as opposed to using a machine. I like feeling the change of the dough, from wet to dry, from crumbly to smooth. There is something incomparably, simply sensual about the connection with flesh and food. Think about children: they play, with great pleasure, with mudpies and Play Doh. It's not so different, really, making a dough for, say, a pie crust. Sure, I understand not everyone likes to spend hours in the kitchen, but say you just had to spend five or ten minutes, squishing butter into flour or pushing the palm of your hand into a soft pile of dough -- really, would you want to keep your hands clean, and carefully tucked away?

And who doesn't like to crack eggs into a big bowl?

Sushi, then, follows along the same lines. You need to spread rice along the dried sheets of seaweed, add the various fillings, and roll each sheet up by hand. You need to slice the vegetables, to smear the cream cheese, to pull pieces of raw salmon off the whole filet. Of course, you can use more utensils than we did: for instance, you can use a spatula to spread the rice against the nori. We opted to use our fingers, with a simple mixture (one part vinegar, one part water) to rinse our hands while we worked. I found using my hands very helpful, actually, in making my sushi rolls -- the rice is very sticky, and to properly put it in its place, I could easily adjust a few grains here and there with my fingers. It's a delicate art, really, making sushi, and I have to admit: my rolls were ugly as fuck.** But their ugliness was directly proportionate to their fun-in-making-ness, so I say: bring on the rice.

We made three dipping sauces, each easier than the next: a wasabi, a soy syrup, and a mayonnaise/hot sauce blend (just Hellman's and Texas Pete, until the mixture is medium-pink; Tallahassee, what!). Ojo with the wasabi: many "wasabis" are actually horseradish-based, with green food coloring. We bought wasabi powder, which is not cheap, but a little goes a long way . . . and makes all the difference in flavor.

1/2 cup wasabi powder
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup vegetable, or other neutral, oil
a few drops sesame oil

Mix all the ingredients together. Add water, whisking continuously, until you've got a smooth puree. (This is quite spicy -- increase the proportion of oil to wasabi powder if you'd prefer your wasabi less intense.)

Soy Syrup
1 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
juice of 1/2 lime
very small knob of ginger, peeled and sliced

Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce, at a simmer, until the mixture is not quite one half of its original amount. Discard the ginger before serving.

*If you are interested in rolling up your own fish-rice-seaweed rolls, we found this site very helpful. Its directions and pictures are as straightforward as its name.

**A note on cursing: I understand that my audience, while not wide, is still varied. I use a very conversational tone in writing, but am hesitant to include the bad words I use, too often, in speech. My Gifted teacher in high school once told me that curse words, which have no intrinsic value, are only a last resort for those who cannot think of anything better to say. In other words, cursing is for idiots. But my mother, who is one of the most intelligent and gracious women I know, and also the first follower of this little blog, swears like (says my father) a trucker. So I figure: fuck it.


  1. Honestly, if you're going to reference the Tallahassee Style (not the popular oxymoron), it's got to be Hellmann's LIGHT Mayonnaise. The difference is incredible. Go Noles!!

  2. When I saw the first photo, and after reading your bread pudding, I thought: she is making “pasteles”, but then I began reading and said: “pasteles is not a delicate way of getting our hands dirty”is a messy way to get our hand sticky. I will send the recipe.

  3. Nilda you wonderful woman for sharing the messy and yummiest way to get hands dirty, your mother's pasteles were always the best!

  4. Nilda, I love your line about pasteles being "a messy way to get our hands sticky". I would love to have the recipe, too! One Christmas Eve, the first after Tía Irma died, my cousin Athena and I made our first Puerto Rican dinner, all by ourselves. Her meat pies turned out beautifully, just as tasty as our grandmother's, and better than anyone else in the family who tried to make them. I made pasteles, using chickpeas and raisins, and they turned out terribly. The only person who ate them was my father, not because they tasted good, but because he loves me very much.