Baby Panda Onigiri

This morning we found Candy Cane rappelling over the fireplace grate!

Last night for dinner I really wanted to try out a baby panda onigiri set I bought at a Goodwill in New Jersey in the fall. To be clear, that’s rice balls in the shape of baby pandas, not containing baby pandas.

I’d been wanting to try the fancier rice balls for a while now, but it’s hard to find the molds around here unless you want to import them, which can be prohibitively expensive. But this set was only $1.99, and it was still new in the package, which was a perfect combination for me.

Basically, you cook up your sticky rice, scoop it into the mold (the front and the back are both shaped), and then press it really firmly together. Then you place a sheet of nori between the white cutter and the flexible red board, and press down really firmly to punch out the shapes. You can then apply the nori shapes to the formed rice, sometimes using a dab of water to make the seaweed stick properly. This kit even makes little nori tails for their tiny rice butts! Now, there were a whole lot more instructions written on the back in Japanese, and I have at best a kindergartner’s grasp of written Japanese (probably worse, actually), so I mostly went with the little pictures on the front.

Despite not having a lot to go on, I think my baby panda onigiri turned out pretty cute, especially for a first try! I served them alongside onigiri made in my triangular mold, which I stuffed with teriyaki chicken. (The chicken is the brown stuff sticking out of the rice in the above photo; it looks a little weird but it hasn’t gone off, I swear.) I think I added a little too much sauce to the chicken, as it was a bit salty. I also learned for future reference that I’ll need to shred the chicken more finely if I want the rice balls to stay intact. It’s a learning process, but it’s one I’m greatly enjoying!

Family Sushi Night

One thing we share as a family is that every single one of us loves sushi. However, we do differ as to which one is our favourite — the best bribe ever to use on Thing 1 is salmon nigiri, while Thing 2 is a big fan of a California roll or any maki with shrimp tempura in it, my husband prefers hand rolls (temaki), while I actually like sashimi (just the fish/seafood), possibly with a bowl of rice on the side to fill me up.

That being said, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before now to make sushi at home. I used to do it all the time in high school and as a young adult; I actually hosted a few dinner parties where we all rolled our own sushi. However, it is very time consuming for one person to make a family’s worth, and I guess I just set it aside until I thought the kids were old enough to help me out. But the kids are both old enough now to assemble their own soft tacos or burritos, and sushi uses many of roughly the same techniques, so I thought it was time to give it a go.

Last night I made up a big pot of sushi rice and cut up all kinds of toppings: smoked salmon, cooked shrimp, scrambled egg with a bit of mirin mixed in, cucumber, carrots, and avocado. Then I dug out one rolling mat per person and let everyone assemble their own sushi.

The nice thing about making sushi this way is that everyone can have it just how they like it, although probably not as pretty as they’d like it, that comes with a heck of a lot of practice. I find it surprising that a lot of people around here still assume that sushi automatically equals raw fish, when it’s really all about the vinegared rice. You can top it or roll it with just about anything you’d like. You can even avoid fish or even all animal products altogether, although the purists may take objection to that. But let’s be honest, purists aren’t going to be rolling sushi at home with their six-year-old, they’re going to be paying a very skilled professional chef to create the perfect mouthfuls.

I really liked the combination of the saltiness of the smoked salmon with the sweet egg and the crunch of cucumber.

The egg-and-shrimp roll I made could have used a little more punch; perhaps I should pick up some spicy Japanese mayo for next time?

My husband’s rolls generally turned out nicer-looking than mine, except, of course, when I went to take a picture. His egg, cucumber, and shrimp roll tasted pretty good, though.

After a couple of messy (if tasty) attempts at maki sushi rolls, the girls tried their hands at hand rolls, which are the closest in assembly to a taco, which is where there experience lies.

We had a really good time making and eating this dinner, and I’m starting to think I should have introduced homemade sushi long before now. I loved watching the kids’ faces light up when I told them that we could actually make sushi at home. Not only that, but it’s a pretty healthy meal that’s infinitely customizable. We are definitely going to do this again, and soon. It needs to become a regular thing in my house again.

Cool Dinner

Last night I figured that we needed a cool, refreshing dinner to help combat the heat. To this end, I boiled up what was frankly way too much sushi rice and made some onigiri like I had eaten so regularly in Japan. I wrote a bit about this dish when I tried making pork belly onigiri, and doing so really made me crave the simple version. It’s fresh and clean-tasting, and it’s served cold, so you can whip it up during the cooler part of the day (or the night before), refrigerate, and serve it when it gets warmer.

I used a onigiri press like this one (which I bought at T&T for less than ten dollars, so don’t let the online price tag fool you). Of course, you can totally form rice balls by hand, a press just makes it less messy and keeps each one looking more or less identical. A press also makes it so much easier to put a filling inside the rice ball. I used canned salmon with a dash of mayonnaise (Japanese Kewpie mayo would have been best, but I didn’t have any on hand and substituted regular old Hellmann’s). For a bit more of a pop of flavour, I also added a few drops of liquid hickory smoke. We always have some of that stuff in the pantry because it makes a canned salmon sandwich absolutely divine, so I figured it would do the same to the onigiri.

I served the onigiri with halved hard-boiled eggs (also cold and prepared in advance) and some local summer sausage from the farmers’ market. I know that’s not how it would traditionally be served, but I wasn’t trying for accuracy here, I just wanted a nice, cool dinner that we could eat comfortably with our hands while we sat out on the porch. This would also have made a great picnic.

Sun Noodle Brand Instant Shoyu Ramen

My trip to T&T last week resulted in me bringing home a whole load of new things I wanted to try, of course. The first one that I broke out was Sun Noodle Brand Instant Shoyu Ramen. It’s about $6.50 per frozen package, but each one serves two, so even though it’s not as cheap as the dried, instant stuff, it’s still a pretty darned affordable meal.

I’ve had shoyu broth, which is predominantly chicken and soy sauce flavoured, in Japan, and at Ichiko Ramen (formerly Ginza Ramen), and I’ve made it at home as well. (The fantastic — and easy! — homemade soup base recipe can be found on page 8 of Simply Ramen by Amy Kimoto-Kahn (2016) or at easypeasyjapanesey.com.) Although I’m by no means an expert, I think that I can at least tell what shoyu ramen is supposed to taste like, for the most part.

The package only contains the noodles and the broth, though; the instructions on the back of the package recommend adding your favourite toppings. I needed to make a quick meal, so I went with what we had in the fridge/freezer/pantry: soft-boiled eggs, narutomaki, enoki mushrooms, dried shrimp, and nori.

The verdict on this quick dinner was pretty positive. Sure, it’s not as good as homemade, and definitely not as good as restaurant fare. But it’s miles better than the dried instant kind. The noodles have a better consistency, which in the case of ramen means that they’re chewier (dried ones have a tendency to be soggy when cooked). The broth had more depth of flavour, although the one complaint I did get is that it was a little bit too salty. That might have been because of the dried shrimp, which are quite salty in and of themselves. Usually I add them to my homemade broths, which are very low in salt, and that works well, but they may not be a great combination with packaged stuff. It also could have been because I didn’t water down the broth enough. The instructions gave a range of the amount of water you could use, and then said “to taste”, so I guess our “to taste” is a little more watery than the official directions.

That being said, they were definitely good enough to try again! Maybe I’ll switch up the toppings next time; we could definitely have used more vegetables that night.