Tuesday, June 21, 2011

MAKE JAPANESE RICE BALLS FOR YOUR SUMMER PICNICS

Japanese rice balls are picnic food
Maybe you’re looking for another filling recipe that’s easy to make and a bit different from regular picnic fare. Well, if you haven’t tried it, I bet you’d like some Japanese picnic food. (And, you thought that Grandma Susan was totally sold on old-fashioned U.S.-type meals. Well, yes, I am. But I also like to cook some international recipes to spice-up my regular meal plans.) And potluck dinners and picnics are times that it’s good to look beyond regular daily foods. These events let you think outside the regular recipe box and choose something that involves a little more thought – but, hopefully, not too much extra work. So, here I recommend you add Japanese rice balls (onigiri) for your summer picnic menus.

You ’ve probably eaten sushi at Japanese restaurants or international buffets. Well, traditional Japanese rice balls are sushi cousins, but unlike what you may have tried out (or heard about), this kind of food doesn't include raw fish ingredients. The truth is that many kinds of sushi don’t either. But that’s another story. First of all, what we’re talking about here is a totally portable rice dish. Onigiri are made from short grain rice (sticky rice); so it's easy to hand roll them into compact rice balls. These balls when refrigerated for a couple of hours can be eaten like a sandwich and, in my experience, won't fall apart in the process.

Most onigiri are round which is the easiest to hand roll but some are shaped into triangles like little half sandwiches. You can buy a press at the Asian store for the triangular ones. While they are often wrapped with a strip of seaweed (nori), they don’t need to be covered with anything and are great just as they are or rolled in sesame seeds. The black sesame seeds are delicious but the regular ones do just as well. You can put different kinds of fish, meat, egg or vegetable fillings inside onigiri. Among the more traditional choices for ingredients are: grilled salmon, pickled plums, cooked beef, pork, turkey, or tuna. And some vegetables also do just fine. So, begin right away to try out an onigiri recipe so that you’ll gain confidence before making them for your next picnic.

Where I found out about rice balls
I learned about onigiri about some ten or more years ago. I was working part-time at a university doing data entry in a research project. A Japanese music graduate student was doing the same work. We became friends and often went to lunch together. During those months, there were a number of university potluck dinners, and my friend always brought rice balls to these events. She made very simple ones that were filled with canned tuna and mayonnaise and didn’t have anything on the outside. I thought they were great tasting and was impressed by how easy they were to eat as finger foods.

My friend told me that onigiri are carried in lunch boxes all over Japan and that they’re favorite foods for picnics. You can even buy them there as snack foods at convenience stores. One night I invited her over to my house to show me how to make them. This is approximately the same recipe that she showed me. She never wrote it down and neither did I. It seemed so simple, at the time. So, the truth is I likely have varied it somewhat from her method back then. But more important than having a detailed recipe for onigiri is the need to practice rolling up the balls. Beyond that, almost any combination of savory ingredients will taste good when prepared as rice balls.

Rice ball recipe
Ingredients
4 cups of steamed Japanese rice or any short-grained rice, cooked with a small amount of salt and a teaspoon of rice, apple or wine vinegar. (A rice cooker is a kitchen blessing.) Cool the rice until only slightly warm so it’s easy to handle.
Sesame seeds or strips of nori (seaweed) to roll around the balls.

Choose any or combinations of these for fillings (cut into small chunks)
- Grilled or seasoned canned salmon
- Canned tuna or tuna salad
- Smoked or mustard sardines
- Baked turkey, turkey spam, or chicken salad
Vegetarian variations
- Green olives
- Pickled or dried plums, without stones
- Cooked edame or green lima beans, partially smashed
- Boiled egg slices or egg salad
- Eggplant sautéed in olive oil with low salt soy sauce and a sprinkling of chili or curry powder
 Optional: mayonnaise or any prepared salad dressing for flavor and to help the chunks stick together better.

Preparation
Have steamed rice ready. Wet your hands in a bowl of salted water so that the rice won't stick to them. Take about a half-cup of steamed rice in one hand and push the filling into the rice. Using both hands, press the rice into a round ball. Roll the rice ball around a few times. When formed, add the strip of nori or some sesame seeds to the outside. Place the balls on parchment paper and put them into an airtight food container to be refrigerated for at leat a couple of hours. Take them out of the refrigerator and serve them at room temperature. Makes 8-10 rice balls. They can also be frozen and let thawed for a few hours for an afternoon picnic. They won’t lose their shape.

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FOCUS ON MIRACLE FOODS.
YOU MIGHT LEARN TO LIKE SALT-RISING BREAD.
COOKING-UP GOOD FOOD FROM DOWN-HOME RECIPES
CAN YOU EAT A HEALTHIER, MORE ECO-FRIENDLY DIET ON A SNAP BUDGET?
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