When the temperature soars above 90 degrees, as it did last weekend here in Rhode Island, I don't want to cook, but I still want to eat. Welcome to Vegetable Sushi Week, Day Two: the nori.
If I'd titled this post "Red algae from the Porphyra genus", would you still be reading?
Didn't think so.
In fact, if you told me there was algae in The Perfect Pantry, I'd probably reach for a disinfectant!
Nori -- yes, it's red algae -- is the Japanese name for various edible seaweeds, as well as the food products created from these sea vegetables. Consumption of seaweed in Japan dates back many centuries, but the nori sheets we use today were invented in Tokyo more recently, in the 19th century.
Nori is a farmed product, grown at a depth of approximately 25 feet, maturing in 45 days from seeding. The harvested seaweed is shredded and dried on racks, in much the same way as paper is made. Nori is high in sodium, but also high in anti-oxidants, Vitamin C, calcium, zinc, iodine and fiber.
In the market -- my Asian grocery has a huge selection, but even my local supermarket stocks these -- you'll find nori sheets that are raw or toasted/roasted. Either way, you can bring out the flavor (which is not the strong taste of ocean brine; in fact, there's not much taste at all) by toasting briefly over a gas burner on your stovetop; hold the nori sheet with long tongs, and wave it back and forth over the flame for a minute or two until it is just warmed but still flexible. Toasting also helps the nori remain crisp after it comes into contact with something moist (rice or vegetables). Cut into thin strips, nori makes a lovely and nutritious garnish for soup or cold noodle salads, too.
Like aluminum foil, nori sheets have a shiny side and a matte side, and on both sides there are lines from the drying racks. Use these visual cues when you make sushi rolls (explained in the recipe below), whether you fill them with fish, eggs, twinkies, or the entire state of California.
Vegetable nori rolls
Here's a wonderful online video demonstration of how to make your own nori rolls, and as much as I will try to describe the process to you, I really suggest you watch one of these videos. (After you master the simple nori roll, you might try your hand at some amazing festival sushi, shaped like a flower, or a panda, or Mt. Fuji.) All four Ninecooks cooking groups -- including the Family Group, which even tried peanut butter and jelly sushi -- made nori rolls as part of a bento box menu last spring. If they can do it, you can, too. You will need a bamboo sushi mat (very inexpensive), or some heavy-weight plastic wrap. This recipe is more about method than quantity; make as many or as few rolls as you wish. Each roll makes six pieces of sushi.
1 package nori sheets (10 sheets per package), or more as needed
1 batch prepared sushi rice
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar, in a small bowl
Wasabi sauce, wasabi paste, or other condiment of your choice (hoisin, horseradish, hot mustard, etc.)
Assorted cold vegetables, cut into long, thin strips: red pepper, yellow pepper, carrots, cucumber, steamed asparagus, avocado, etc.
Place the sushi mat on your work surface. Hold one nori sheet with a pair of long tongs, and toast it briefly over the gas burner on your stove (you can skip this step if you're starting with roasted nori). Place the nori sheet shiny side down on the sushi mat, with the lines in the nori aligned with the bamboo slats of the mat.
Dip your fingertips in the bowl of rice vinegar, and take a blob (3-4 tablespoons) of sushi rice. Place the rice in the lower end of the nori (closest to you), and with your fingers, spread it evenly over the lower half of the nori, leaving a half-inch margin on the long side closest to you, and on each end. (This is just like making strudel or a buche de noel.)
Spread a small strip of wasabi sauce (or other condiment) down the middle of the rice. Then lay several strips of vegetables on top of the wasabi sauce.
Now it's time to roll! Starting with the end closest to you, lift the edge of the bamboo mat. Using your fingers to keep the rice and vegetables in place, roll the mat over until the nori meets itself. Lift the top edge of the mat, and press the roll to keep its shape. Using the mat to help you, slowly begin to roll the nori away from you, tucking the roll into shape and pulling the mat out and back towards you at the same time. The moisture in the rice will help the roll stick together. Roll and tuck until you get to the end; if necessary, dab the end with a bit of water to make sure it stays closed.
With the seam side down, take a very sharp, clean knife and slice the nori roll in half. (Wipe the knife clean between each cut.) Then, slice each half into 3 pieces, making six pieces in all. Serve with pickled ginger and your choice of dipping sauce.
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