Sweet Potato Sushi with Brown Rice
When I think about what it is that I like the most about sushi, specifically, it would be the fish. I have a serious crush on sashimi, and I find it hard to resist shaving off bits of my dinner before I sear a tuna steak or marinate a ceviche. When I go out for sushi, it is inevitable that I will order some sashimi on the side, along with my favorite sushi rolls such as spicy salmon, soft shell crab, rainbow roll, dragon roll, and BBQ eel roll. And I will eat them all. Fresh, sweet raw fish is to sushi as chocolate eggs are to Easter. Not essential, sure, but let’s be honest…they’re pretty darn close.
That said, right now my doctor has advised me to stay away from raw or undercooked fish (among other things), and, of course, that means no sushi. That also means that the only thing I want to eat in the world is sushi. I wake up in the morning thinking about spicy salmon rolls. I go to bed at night wishing that I could have just a taste of buttery white tuna. At least once or twice a week, I wistfully suggest, attempt to cajole, and/or outright whine to Mike about how it would be okay for us to go out to my favorite local sushi restaurant for dinner, and I could, you know, just get the cooked stuff or vegetarian sushi and that would totally be okay with me and maybe he should trust me and we should go right now, like, would right now be okay because that’s kind of all that I want in the world and WHY ISN’T HE IN THE CAR YET??!
Note: You would think that eventually I would wear him down, but apparently he cares about that whole “compromised immune system” thingy or whatnot, and the sushi just hasn’t happened for me yet. Emphasis on ‘yet’.
Because sushi is inexorably linked to raw fish for me, I sometimes find it hard to get excited about the idea of vegetarian sushi. It feels kind of like a cop out; the tofurkey of Japan. Why not just pass me some bacon flavored gum for all the flavor without the fun? No, actually, never mind. That’s a bad example. I actually think that I would quite enjoy some bacon flavored gum right about now. The previous point still stands, however.
The one concession that I will always willingly make toward vegetarian sushi, and the only concession at that, are sweet potato rolls. Tempura battered sweet potato batons are swaddled in seasoned rice, sometimes with the extra sweetness of red pepper or the crunch of pickled daikon nestled in as well, and rolled tightly in a supple nori shell. Also, I can totally eat that, which could have something to do with my sublimation of fishy cravings. My at-home sushi solution (or fake-out, if we are to be honest) is a homemade sweet potato roll, stuffed with crispy red pepper, nutty sesame seeds and tender baby spinach to bulk it up and round out the nutrients. I have also started making this sushi with brown rice, which forces me even farther away from being able to call myself a traditionalist, but I can practically feel my doctor giving me a virtual high-five right now. I console myself with that.
Sweet Potato Sushi with Brown Rice
Makes 5 logs to serve appx 4-6 people
- 2 cups short grain brown rice *
- 3.5 cups water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
- 4 tsp granulated sugar
- 1/2 medium sweet potato
- 1/2 medium red bell pepper
- 2 cups baby spinach leaves
- 1/4 cup sesame seeds, optional
- 5 sheets dried nori **
* Sushi rice is generally a short grain Japanese rice which swells widely and becomes slightly sticky when cooked. Long grain or less starchy white rices are not suitable for sushi, and the same goes for long grain brown rice. Short grain brown rice is soft and the grains cling together when it is cooked, which closely mimics sushi rice. Of course you can use regular sushi rice if you prefer, but I like the nutty taste of healthy brown rice for this application.
** Nori are thin, papery sheets of reconstituted dried seaweed that are used for the outside of the sushi wrap. Nori is quite essential in this case and there are no reasonable and easily accessible substitutions. However, it can generally be easily found at Asian food stores, some well stocked or specialty supermarkets, or online. While you’re at it, make sure that you also have a bamboo mat for rolling the sushi (makisu), because I would never try without it.
Rinse the rice and pour it, along with the water, into a medium sized pot set over high heat. Bring the rice to a rolling boil for a minute or two before adding in the salt. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and turn the heat down to minimum. Let the rice simmer and then steam for 45 minutes. DO NOT remove the lid during this time.
When the rice is cooked, remove it from the heat and set it aside in the pot while you ready the sweet potato and peppers. This will let the rice cool just slightly before it is “prepared”.
The sweet potato can be cooked by whatever method you prefer, and if you happen to have a leftover pre-baked sweet potato in your fridge, well, all the better. If not, peel the sweet potato and slice it into 1/3″ slabs. Put the slices in a microwave safe dish with a lid and sprinkle lightly with water. Microwave on high for 3-4 minutes until the sweet potato is fork tender but not mushy. Set the sweet potato aside to cool before cutting each slab into an evenly sized baton.
De-seed the red pepper slice it into much thinner (1/8 – 1/4″ thick) sticks.
In a small saucepan or pot, heat the rice vinegar and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Put the rice into a large, shallow dish with a flat bottom (I like to use my pasta serving bowl) and pour the vinegar mixture evenly over the rice.
Now comes the fun part! The two keys to what I consider “good” sushi are an adequate rolling technique and perfect rice. The rolling you will get the hang of after the first attempt, most likely, but the rice requires a bit of patience.
When you incorporate the sweetened vinegar into the rice, you don’t want to just stir it in because each grain should be shiny and perfectly seasoned. Use a flat spatula to slice the rice top to bottom and flip it over, going straight up and down the bowl. Pause and fan the rice vigorously for a few seconds, and then repeat the slicing and flipping in the other direction from side to side. Fan again, and repeat this process until the grains are room temperature and glossy. What you’re doing is bringing down the temperature and aerating the rice while ensuring that each grain is seasoned. What you are NOT doing is clumsily stirring and smooshing the rice into a gooey mass.
Lay down your bamboo sushi mat and lay a piece of nori on top with the rough side facing up. When you first lay down the nori, you want your hands to be dry. However, as soon as you start working with the sticky rice, you want them wet. It helps to have a finger bowl an towel handy.
Moisten your hands thoroughly and grab a large handful of the brown rice, between 3/4 – 1 cup. Gather it into a sticky ball and use your index finger to make a well in the center. Place the rice with the hollow side down on the nori and pat it out evenly. It sometimes helps to use the smooth side of a wet spoon to do this, but that’s up to you. Smooth the rice out until it is even on each edge with a 1/2″ border, with the exception of the top where you’ll leave a scant 1″ of plain nori.
If the rice-free strip of nori is considered ‘the top’, then start assembling about 3/4 of the way down to the bottom. Spread a strip of spinach leaves down first (about 1/2 cup) and in the center of that lay your sweet potato and red pepper. If you’re using sesame seeds, sprinkle a scant tablespoon in a strip just beyond the edge of the spinach so they are closer to the center.
Moisten the naked nori edge with a little bit of water which will help the edges to adhere when rolled.
Starting at the bottom end, use your fingers to hold the filling in and grab the bottom of the mat. Roll it almost all of the way over to form a roll until you have a tube with only the naked nori end exposed. Squeeze and pat the roll into a tight round shape. Use both hands to do this, even though you only see one of my chubby paws in the picture below…that’s only because the other hand is holding a camera, guys.
Loosen the mat and continue rolling the sushi so that the moist nori contacts the rest of the roll and ‘glues’ itself on.
Repeat the process until you have five rolls.
Slice the sushi crosswise into little maki units using a sharp, thin blade and wiping it down with a damp cloth as it becomes sticky.
Serve the sweet potato sushi with a saucer of soya sauce on the side and a dollop of wasabi if you like it hot.
My sushi cravings have temporarily abated somewhat, albeit not entirely, and if you happen to have a fish tank in your house it would be wise to keep an eye on me next time that I’m over. Your neon tetras might start to look just a bit too much like lunch, if you know what I mean. In the mean time, however, these virtuous, nutrient rich and nuttily delicious sushi rolls are more than good enough to tide me over!