published Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Courters' Kitchen: Unexpected Japanese guest inspires meal

By Barry and Kelley Courter
Kelley Courter’s deconstructed sushi uses cabbage leaves as the base instead of wrapping the ingredients in nori.
Kelley Courter’s deconstructed sushi uses cabbage leaves as the base instead of wrapping the ingredients in nori.
Photo by Barry Courter /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
COURTERS' KITCHEN

This monthly cooking series features husband and wife team Barry and Kelley Courter.

BARRY: Sometimes, just for fun, the rest of us in the house like to challenge Kelley by asking her to make a dish that she is not accustomed to making. It could be a specific meal or dish or it could be as abstract as anything from a particular foreign country or ethnic group.

So it was not totally out of the ordinary for our son to suggest she make Japanese a couple of weeks ago. What was different was that he texted us at midnight to say he had met a young executive from Japan who was here training with a company and that he had invited him and a very Southern young couple to our house for a full-blown "traditional" Japanese meal. Because, you know, we have a lot of traditional Japanese meals.

KELLEY: Yeah, that was a surprise and I initially said "No," but then I thought it might be fun, though I would need more than three days to pull it off. I poured over a few cookbooks and visited lots of Japanese food websites and blogs, then went to the used bookstore for more research.

I also asked if any of the guests coming to our house had food allergies and preferences and found out that Kenji, the young man from Japan, liked fish and Ramen noodles and that he did not like nori, the seaweed wrap used in sushi in America.

I wanted to make something as authentic as I could, but with a little bit of my own Southern twist.

Right out of the box you think of Ramen noodle cabbage salad. What Southern women doesn't have that recipe? With this meal, I wanted to do courses, and the menu changed five times in a week. I knew we would have fish as the main course, and I also wanted an appetizer and something else.

I made the cabbage salad the day before. While I was cutting my cabbage, I ended up with these chunks of the base of the head and didn't want to throw them away, so I put them aside. The next day I passed the sushi counter at the market, and it occurred to me to use the cabbage pieces as a base in what became my deconstructed sushi.

BARRY: I have to admit, when she told what she was going to do, my first thought was that the sushi would be a somewhat weaker version of the original, but it was wonderful and full of flavors. In fact, it was better than a lot of traditional sushi pieces I've had.

KELLEY: I have collected a few Japanese items over the years such as bowls, plates, spoons and chopsticks, but thought it would be fun to have some wooden sushi plates like you find in some restaurants. I asked Barry to make one, and he made three.

BARRY: It was the least I could do. Seriously, the least.

KELLEY: In addition to the Ramen noodle cabbage and sushi, we had fresh fruit, shrimp grilled on a stove-top grill, and miso-glazed cod served over sautéed kale and yellow beans.

BARRY: It was delicious and a lot of fun sharing the experience with everyone. When all was said and done, Kenji was very complimentary. He said that the food was "very delicate" and he was "very surprised" at what Kelley had pulled off. The real compliment, though, was that he had three helpings and was still eating well after everyone else. That was pretty special.

KELLEY: This was fun to do. The food was delicious, and I couldn't help but appreciate how flavorful and healthy everything was.

Side note: Kenji forwarded to us a story on NPR.org about how Japanese kids are taught to "eat with their eyes," which has led to food becoming overly cute. Tofu is shaped into a superhero, for instance. You can find it online if you are interested.

Deconstructed Sushi

2 cups sushi rice from the market, though you can certainly make your own

2 dozen cabbage pieces, about two inches. I used the remnants of a large Nappa head of cabbage

8 snow peas, blanched for one minute, then cut diagonally

3 green onions, sliced thinly on the diagonal.

2 mini cucumbers, sliced on the diagonal

1 cup daikon radish, grated

Pickled ginger pieces

Wasabi (You can buy pre-made, but I made this from wasabi powder and water, mixing to a consistency I liked)

Smoked trout (I bought a package with two pieces from the market; I used one for the sushi pieces and the other for display on the plate)

Rice seasoning

Place about a teaspoon's worth of rice onto a piece of the cabbage, then layer the remaining ingredients and complete by sprinkling a little of the rice seasoning on top.

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