For the longest time, the very concept of sushi was revolting and baffling to me. Anything from the sea generally horrified me - the only seafood I was ever very partial to as a kid were fish-sticks. And yet here was a type of food not only containing fish - raw fish - but it was wrapped in seaweed, something I had only encountered at the beach, the slimy weeds near the duck itch end of the beach, the stuff that made girls scream if it touched them.
But in addition to my young self's bigoted notions, I had an unfortunate experience that had the effect of turning me off from sushi for what I thought was forever. Some family friends were visiting, and thought they would broaden our culinary horizons and introduce us to sushi.
I can't speak for the sushi itself, mostly because I wasn't able to go near it without gagging. I remember little about the entire episode, save the overwhelming fishy smell emanating from that bowl of sushi rice - good god it was...pungent does not even begin to describe the sheer potency of the odor. It was like nothing so much as being repeatedly beaten in the face with a salmon.
Suffice to say, our friends never did manage to introduce me to sushi, since I maintained a firm five metre distance between myself and it, perched on the couch in a self-imposed exile from lunch.
The horror of that day remained with me for years. Even as an adult, after having reached the legal drinking age and casting my vote in two federal elections, I couldn't look at sushi without a small inward grimace. Nothing would induce me to try it. But as I grew a bit older, my early food assumptions began to soften, and I began to want to test out my palate more. I even started drinking wine (and found if I mixed it with enough juice, I could drink a whole litre...and then spend 36 hours in complete misery).
And then I moved to Toronto, after spending 22 years of my life in towns with little more than 5000 people living in them. The big city, where you can try just about any food you can think of. And I knew I had to give sushi another try. Which I did. After which I discovered I had an immense love of yam tempura and sushi is, in point of fact, delicious. Suddenly I could understand why people went into raptures just talking about the stuff. Suddenly, I was going into raptures about it. Suddenly, I even had to make my parents try it - with varying degrees of success.
Then one day I was struck with a thought: what if I tried to make my own sushi - with quinoa?! Replace the empty rice calories with the nutritionally packed calories of quinoa. And not only that, but quinoa famously contains all the essential amino acids that make up a complete protein. And combine that with nori, which is exceptionally healthy itself, how was this not a spectacular combination? I texted my friend about the idea immediately (I sound like such a high school student - nearly all social interaction seems to happen via texts these days) demanding she endorse my notion. Her response? "I'm a sushi purist."
Well. I was determined to prove her wrong. For her sake, clearly. Not because I have a giant ego I attempt to keep hidden from everybody. Nope. Definitely not because of that.
And so I set out to make sushi. Something I knew absolutely nothing about and had only eaten 3 times in my life. So much googling, and many youtube videos later, and here we are.
A riff on makizushi ("rolled sushi"), these are an even healthier alternative to traditional sushi, made with sticky white rice. The beauty of this recipe is its infinite adaptability - you can fill your sushi rolls with just about anything: cucumber, avocado, sweet potato, tofu, mango, mushrooms, zucchini, carrots...whatever your heart desires!
Scant 1/2 cup Uncooked Quinoa
2 - 4 tbsp Rice Vinegar
2 Sheets Toasted Nori (available in most health food, bulk & well-stocked grocery stores)
1/2 an Avocado
4 Shiitake Mushrooms
(or other fillings of your choice)
Bamboo Sushi Rolling Mat ("makisu" - these are inexpensive, around $2 each, and you can easily find them in Chinatown, but you could also buy them online if necessary)
Very Sharp Knife
Makes approximately 16 rolls. 1 large or 2 small servings.
1. Rinse quinoa well in a strainer, then transfer to a pot and mix with 1 cup of water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until the water has been fully absorbed, about fifteen minutes.
2. While quinoa is cooking, prepare your fillings. For the sushi pictured, I used avocado and shiitake mushrooms. Whatever fillings you choose, you'll want to slice them thinly. Fillings such as cucumbers, carrots, sweet potato and tofu should be cut into about 3-inch strips. If using sweet potato as a filling, slice into thin, fry-size strips and bake at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes, then set aside to cool.
3. Once quinoa is cooked, transfer to a bowl and drizzle with rice vinegar. Using a large flat spoon, work in the vinegar, using a stirring/folding motion, mushing the quinoa together. NOTE: Do not let the quinoa cool completely! Let it sit for about 5 - 10 minutes so that it's no longer hot (which will melt the nori) but the trick to making the quinoa stick is using it while it's still warm. Trust me on this one, I know. (I tried to make sushi with cold quinoa once...and it resulted in deconstructed sushi. Not in the fun, whimsical, modern sense of "deconstructed" dishes which you see everywhere today, but deconstructed in the way bombs deconstruct cities. Suffice to say, it was not pretty.)
4. Lay a nori sheet on your rolling mat, leaving 5mm of space between the nori and the end of the mat closest to you. Spread about 3/4 - 1 scant cup of the quinoa over the nori (still warm!) using a flat spoon, pressing it as close to the edges as you can. Make sure to leave a clear strip, one centimetre thick, at the end of the nori sheet farthest from you (this is crucial in ensuring the roll will hold together).
5. Place the fillings in the middle of the nori sheet, laying them out evenly and making sure not to pile them too high.
6. Pour a small amount of rice vinegar (or water) into a shallow bowl and, using the tip of your finger, dip it into the vinegar and wet the centimetre of space you left at the edge of the nori (this will make sure the roll stick together).
7. Take hold of the bottom of the sushi mat and quickly fold it over the fillings, then squeeze it together and press down with your hands to seal in the fillings. Then take hold of the edge of the sushi mat and pull it forward to finish rolling the sushi, keeping the mat taut and pressing down on the roll with your other hand.
8. Transfer the roll to a cutting board and gently slice into 8 pieces. The ends will likely not hold together well, so if they fall apart, or are rather loose, don't be sad or upset. Making sushi well takes time and technique - I'm still working on it myself. So keep at it! I guarantee it's worth the effort.
10. Serve immediately, with soy sauce for dipping (I like to dip my sushi in soy sauce cut with a bit of rice vinegar), or store in the fridge for up to three days.
I know sushi can seem a bit intimidating at first, so here's a little demo video I put together to give you a better idea of how to roll your sushi. (I watched about five sushi demonstration videos before I even so much as attempted to make it on my own.)