Kale sprout, split in half, in my new favorite set-up: a gray ceramic bowl shows off the food so well, positioned on the edge of a windowsill on an overcast late afternoon.
Months and months ago, I showed you photos of a tiny shack in Kauai and promised you my own rendition of their signature ahi nori wraps: thick, squared-off cylinders of seared ahi and spears of cucumber, surrounded by brown rice, doused with a mysterious wasabi sauce and wrapped up in a spinach flour tortilla lined with a sheet of nori. A delightful cross between a burrito and sushi, they were one of our favorite meals while on the island. But then, you know, life, with all those pesky obligations, insisted on happening, and now we are a full school year later and I’m finally getting around to it. It’s a cringe-worthy cliche to declare that these are worth the wait, but since we are now on our second version of them in two weeks, I’m going to take the chance.
Since it has been so long, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what make these funny little sushi / burrito mash-ups so good. Well-spiced, lightly seared tuna, still rare or even raw in the middle, is of course the main reason. But only slightly secondary are the issues of texture and temperature. As you’ll know if you like sushi, there’s something amazing about a perfect piece of ahi – it’s meltingly soft but, when seared around the edges, it becomes softness with a bouncy chew. It is hot on the outsides, but still cool in the interior. Flanked by cucumbers, you get a fresh, bright, cold crispness, and the chewy strangeness of the nori seaweed layer is somehow perfect.
These also offer perfectly contrasting tastes. Of course there’s the glorious fresh fish flavor, but there’s also nostril-piercing heat from the wasabi, and saltiness from the seaweed, and the welcome nutty blandness of the rice. Because I can’t leave well enough alone, I thought the addition of rich, creamy avocado blitzed into a velvet puree with a touch of mayonnaise would be the right vehicle for the wasabi, and insisted on crusting the tuna itself with sesame seeds, lime zest, and some red pepper flakes as well as the customary salt and pepper sprinkle before searing it off.
We ate these in big gulps, then went back for more. One wrap is plenty for a dinner, especially if you wisely offer yourself a side of mango-spiked salad or lightly sautéed vegetables, but we are not always wise, and opted instead to make a third wrap and split it. Still, even the resulting food coma couldn’t deter our enthusiasm about the meal.
If you aren’t comfortable with raw fish, you can of course cook yours all the way through, though if you’re going to do that I wouldn’t bother with the pricey ahi. Cut a nice filet of salmon into long strips and crust and sauté or broil until just cooked through. Or, if you want to go an even easier route, sprinkle some lime juice over a few layers of smoked salmon and wrap that up inside instead.
Ahi Nori Wraps
For rice and sauce:
1 avocado, pitted and peeled
juice from ½ a lime
¼ cup mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons wasabi paste or sauce
(alternatively, you could use about ¼ cup of wasabi mayonnaise)
2 cups cooked brown rice, warm or at room temperature
For the tuna:
½ tablespoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
pinch of red pepper flakes
zest of 1 lime
2 tablespoons untoasted sesame seeds
½ pound ahi or other sushi grade tuna, cut into long rectangles that are about 1×1 inch at the ends
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 seedless cucumber, halved lengthwise and cut into long, thin planks (thinner is better – too thick and they won’t roll up well. Go for translucent, but be careful!)
4 spinach tortillas
4 sheets nori
- In a small bowl or blender, combine the avocado, the lime juice, the mayonnaise, and the wasabi paste. If you have wasabi mayonnaise you like the flavor and heat level of, you could use that instead. I wanted my mixture a little spicier than my wasabi mayo, so I opted to make my own mix. Whiz together with a standard or immersion blender until a completely smooth, pale green puree forms; it will be too thick to pour.
- Combine the puree with the cooked brown rice and taste for seasoning. Adjust as needed, then set aside.
- For the tuna, combine the salt, black and red pepper, lime zest, and sesame seeds on a small plate. Carefully dredge each log of tuna in the mixture by rolling it through the seasoning. When all are well coated, heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the crusted tuna carefully, watching out for oil spatters, and sear about 1 minute on each side (for raw in the center), or until done to your liking. I overcooked mine, as you can see from my photos; I would have preferred red, not pink, in the center.
- When tuna is done to your liking, remove from pan immediately and set aside.
- To assemble, lay out your tortillas and place a sheet of nori in the center of each one. Lay 4-5 planks of cucumber atop the nori, all facing in the same direction. Add about ½ cup of the rice and sauce mixture per wrap, and spread this out to the edges of the cucumber planks. Lay one log of ahi in the center of each one in the same direction as the cucumber planks, then wrap up like a burrito, carefully folding in the edges.
- To serve, cut on a bias and, if you’re feeling fancy, stand one half up like I’ve done above to show off the interior.
- Eat immediately, and lick your fingers with no shame.
As buried in pages as I am, it’s difficult to believe that I’m only one week away from “summer.” Well, four days of class and about 120 mixed papers and exams. This is difficult to bear – something about this semester has been more burdensome than usual. It’s hard to know how to feel when there is so little time but so much work between me and those glorious two and a half months of no work but also no paycheck.
As if matching my own cloudy-with-a-chance-of-vacation feeling, our weather lately has taken turns back and forth between what looks like summer and what, for here, passes as wintry. Typically June mornings in Southern California are overcast such that they even have their own nickname: June gloom. We’ve hit this a trifle early, it would seem, with the last week sporting what my officemate helpfully titled “May gray,” and temperatures barely grazing 70F. This is, it would seem, an uncertain entree to summer.
Speaking of entrees, let’s talk food. Specifically, let’s talk potato salad. It’s not summer just yet, so it’s a little soon to dive into a platter of mayonnaise-robed spuds shot through with crisp cubes of onion and pickle. But because I surely am not the only one longing for everything a good potato salad represents, this adaptation from The Bon Appétit Cookbook is a perfect compromise. Here, roasted potatoes provide warmth and comfort, all caramelized edges and creamy softness, but a sharp, tangy mustard vinaigrette and crisp-tender green beans push the dish salad-ward.
To fill my yen for green vegetables, I’ve doubled the amount of green beans and reduced the quantity of oil from the original. I’ve also eliminated walnuts and changed up the herbs to suit my fancy, and gone with whole grain rather than dijon mustard, because I like the tart pop of the little seeds. This can be eaten at room temperature as well as slightly warm, but because a generous scattering of blue cheese adds a creaminess and funk to the party, you don’t want things too heated, lest melting commence.
This is the kind of dish that contents me as an entree. I suspect it would happily welcome a handful of crisp crumbled prosciutto or diced hard salami, if you want a little meaty component. If you’re treating it as a side dish, I highly recommend sausages of any variety to round out the plate, or a nicely roasted or grilled pork tenderloin.
As most things are, this was just as good on day two heated up just enough to take the chill off, and topped with a fried egg still runny enough in the yolk to offer a velvet golden cascade that turned the salad into something more like a hash, my own ideal of comfort food. It’s the very thing you need, when you know summer is coming but you can’t quite see the light yet.
Green Bean and Roasted Red Potato Salad with Blue Cheese
Adapted from The Bon Appétit Cookbook
Serves 6 as a side dish
¼ cup whole grain mustard
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons finely minced chives
2 teaspoons finely minced sage
2 pounds red skinned potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
16 ounces green beans, trimmed of stem ends and halved on an angle
⅔ cup crumbled blue cheese
- For the dressing, combine the mustard and vinegar in a 2-cup measuring cup or a small bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil until well emulsified. Add the herbs and season to taste with salt and pepper, keeping in mind the flavor will be much sharper alone than when it’s coating the salad.
- Preheat oven to 450F. Toss the potato chunks with ¼ cup of the dressing in a 9×13 inch baking dish. Roast for 20 minutes at 450F.
- After 20 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 375F. Shuffle the potatoes around for even browning, then roast 30-45 minutes more, until tender. Stir and shake once or twice during the cooking process to minimize sticking and ensure even cooking. When potatoes are tender, remove from oven and set aside to cool slightly.
- While potatoes cook, bring a large skillet of salted water to a boil and drop in the green beans. Cook until crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes, then drain and cool.
- When the beans and potatoes are still warm but not piping hot, combine in a large bowl (or just keep them in the original baking dish, as I did), add cheese and ¼ cup of the dressing (you may need to re-whisk the dressing first, as it will separate as it sits), and toss gently. Taste for dressing and seasoning, and adjust to your preferences (I added about 2 tablespoons additional dressing and a bit of black pepper).
- Serve warm or at room temperature.
When it comes to creating music, it seems to me there are two basic schools. One begins with the melody, considering sound, instrumentation, rhythm, process. Words and story – if there is one – get added to fit the beat and the harmonics and the feel. The other starts with the words: weaving a story, shouting a chorus, infusing rhyme and connotation and syllabic play. Filtering in notes and melodies that fit the narrative.
Guess which one I favor.
I have the same issue with food. Seriously, when it comes to creating a recipe, I should probably start with the fundamentals: ingredients. Taste. Familiarity. Procedure and execution and fitting flavors together.
More often than not, though, the singer-songwriter I’ve never been pops to the forefront and I’m instead thinking of names and paragraphs and ways of representing the food I haven’t even made yet.
That’s what happened with this experiment. In fact, this is in many ways the inspiration for the whole meatball project. Not because I’ve had a dish just like it that needed to be recreated. Not because I’m obsessed with or particularly fond of meatballs. No. Because I thought the name “banh mi-tball” was too good to pass up.
As I noted previously, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the authenticity and exactness of such a sandwich. Ratios of meat to vegetable, the types of vegetables, the texture and flour types in the bread, form the bases of entries on numerous discussion forums that range from curious to intensely heated. Names are called. Gluten is flung.
Here’s the thing, though. Now that I’m invested, I just wanted to make a sandwich good enough to be called banh mi-tball. I mean, you can’t back up a heart-wrenching narrative woven in clever rhyme with a tinny little toy guitar and an out-of-tune keyboard. But by the same token, I don’t think you have to be Jimi Hendricks or Eric Clapton to support the story in a satisfying way.
What I’m trying to say here, is that I’m not all that interested in authenticity. I didn’t seek out every banh mi shop in Los Angeles and sample and compare and pester their chefs for trade secrets. Even when I’m not losing my mind grading papers during the semester, I don’t have that kind of time or motivation. The point was, I decided, to strive not for exactness or tradition, but to craft a damn good sandwich. So that’s what I’m going for.
Bread, vegetables (pickled and non), meat, spread. These are the necessary components. There should be a crisp crust, there should be a representation of sourness, spiciness, and umami, there should be a vegetal crunch. For this incarnation, I added strips of fresh Persian cucumbers to my pickles, along with sprigs of cilantro and wedges of lime. I spread my slightly-less-than-crisp “baguettes” with a curiously beautiful coral-hued spread of mayonnaise, sriracha, fish sauce, and lime juice, and I stood back and let my fellow sandwich-diners have their way with the pan full of meatballs on the stove.
Since banh mi sandwiches so often feature pork, a pork meatball was the way to go. It would need to echo some of the flavors found in the sandwich itself, which means this is one of those recipes with a tablespoon of this and a teaspoon of that and an ingredient list long enough that you might at first be put off. You shouldn’t be, though. Like so many good Asian recipes, especially sauces, every single individual component has a part to play, and none are particularly exotic. Ginger and garlic for their aromatic spice. Jalapeños and cilantro for freshness and heat. A few tendrils of pickled onion and a squeeze of lime for sourness. Soy sauce and brown sugar to balance that sourness. Fish sauce and red miso paste for that earthy umami funk. Capitalizing on my previous meatball experiments, a pinch of baking powder for lightness and an egg to bind everything together.
Despite the lengthy ingredient list, the actual production of the meatballs is easy. Remembering my satisfying results with Swedish meatballs, I dumped everything in the food processor and let it whir. Pâté is a frequent protein option for banh mi sandwiches, so the smooth, bouncy texture I knew I could achieve with mechanized mixing seemed to fit the bill. After a mix, a quick roll with moistened hands, and a shallow fry in vegetable and sesame oil, all that remains is a twenty minute simmer in flavorful liquid. I opted for chicken broth with a bit of miso paste and a bit of brown sugar swirled in, which resulted in a poaching liquid so tasty I debated serving small bowls of it on the side.
Once you have all the components, sandwich construction is easy. Because people tend to like crafting their own, this actually makes remarkably good party food. Just lay out your pickles, your vegetables, your bread, set down a jar of spread and a bowl of meatballs and watch your guests go to town. Load up your own baguette with enough fillings to stretch the corners of your mouth as you attempt that first bite. Then hide the leftovers. Because you’re going to want this again, and you might not want to share it.
Makes 22-24 tablespoon-sized meatballs
For the meatballs:
2 cloves garlic, skins removed
2 teaspoons grated ginger
1-2 tablespoons jalapeño slices
¼ cup cilantro
1 pound ground pork
1 tablespoon red miso paste
½ tablespoon soy sauce
½ tablespoon fish sauce
½ tablespoon brown sugar
½ tablespoon lime juice
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped pickled onions
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
For the sauce:
1-2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon red miso paste
1 teaspoon brown sugar
- Add the garlic, ginger, jalapeños, and cilantro to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until almost paste-like. This will ensure easier integration and no large chunks of garlic.
- Add the pork and all other meatball ingredients through the 1 egg (that is, everything except the vegetable and sesame oil), then clamp on the lid and pulse to combine until the vegetable bits are well integrated and the pork itself is smooth and slightly gluey in texture.
- Working with moistened hands to avoid too much stickiness, roll the mixture into tablespoon sized balls. When all are rolled, heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the oil shimmers, then carefully add the meatballs in a single layer.
- Fry over medium heat until browned on all sides; 5-8 minutes. Remove to a clean plate.
- In the skillet, whisk together the chicken broth, the 1 tablespoon of red miso, and the 1 teaspoon of brown sugar, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Carefully place the meatballs into the simmering broth, again in a single layer, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low.
- Simmer meatballs for ten minutes, then flip each one over and simmer for 10 minutes more. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature on a sandwich with pickles, vegetables, and spread (recipe follows).
Sriracha and lime mayonnaise
makes a generous ⅓ cup; enough for about 4 sandwiches
⅓ cup mayonnaise
zest of one lime
1 teaspoon lime juice
½ tablespoon sriracha or to taste
1 teaspoon fish sauce (go easy; it’s strong)
- Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well to combine.
- To assemble the sandwiches, split baguettes lengthwise, spread generously with sriracha and lime mayonnaise, then layer on meatballs, pickled vegetables of your choice, cucumber, sliced jalapeños, cilantro sprigs, and if desired, a squeeze of lime juice.
Friends, a funny thing happens when you come down with a nasty stomach bug during Week 14 of your 16 week school semester.
Actually, a couple of funny things happen.
One, you freak out. Understandable. How will you POSSIBLY catch back up with all the grading and the lesson planning and the lecture writing and the reading and the conferencing you were supposed to be doing?
Two, you think about the food you planned to gush over and you… well, you don’t want to gush. At least not for a few days. Because ew.
So I’m begging a week’s delay. That means no official April meatball post, but I’ve got’em, and they were delicious, and I’ll have them for you a short week from now.
Hope all is well in your world.