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How to make perfect Japanese-style rice balls

  • TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

    To shape onigiri, gently squeeze into a triangle shape with damp hands that have been sprinkled with salt to season the rice.

As chef of n/naka, her celebrated kaiseki restaurant in Los Angeles, Niki Nakayama painstakingly and famously tries to never repeat a menu for any diner.

Nakayama and her sous-chef and wife, Carole Iida-Nakayama, keep things simpler at home. One of their favorite things to cook? Onigiri, the traditional Japanese rice balls.

Onigiri are the PB&J of Japan. They’re packed in lunchboxes and signal homey warmth: lightly seasoned rice stuffed with a filling (pickled ume and cod roe are popular options), shaped by hand and wrapped in nori.

“My grandma used to make onigiri for us to sneak into Disneyland and eat instead of the burgers there,” Naka­yama recalls, “so I always associate onigiri with fun and family. During the summer, we’d bring them on picnics in the park, too. They’re super basic but they’re the most comforting way of eating.”

Onigiri don’t show off the chefs’ talent for intricate kaiseki-style dishes, but Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama say they take this recipe as seriously as any other.

They suggest investing in a Japanese donabe, or rice pot. The inexpensive stoneware, found at Japanese markets, cooks short-grain rice perfectly, and is their choice over using a rice cooker.

Nakayama uses a 50-50 blend of premium Japanese koshihikari rice and California short-grain rice. Both are pricier than supermarket rice, but she strongly suggests seeking out the very best rice — the dish, after all, is almost all rice.

The nori is key, too. “It has to be so crisp it crackles,” says Iida-Nakayama, “and it has to have flavor and fragrance.” They source their seaweed directly from Japan, but recommend looking for any nori labeled “ariake,” which is the highest grade.

As for the fillings, Nakayama’s favorite is umeboshi, fermented plums, and Iida- Nakayama’s is mentaiko, pollock roe. They also stuff their onigiri with flaked smoked salmon, konbu and tuna mixed with Kewpie mayonnaise.

ONIGIRI

By Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama

  • 1 cup Japanese koshihikari rice
  • 1 cup California short-grain rice
  • 1-1/2 cups cold filtered water
  • Fillings such as umeboshi, pitted and torn in bits; mentaiko; flaked smoked fish; or tuna mixed with mayonnaise
  • Coarse sea salt, preferably Japanese
  • Nori, preferably ariake grade, cut into 3-by-6-inch rectangles

Set a sieve or a colander (with holes smaller than rice grains) snugly in a bowl. Mix rice grains in the colander. Add enough cold tap water to cover by an inch; swirl rice using fingers, then quickly lift out the colander. Pour out water. Repeat until water is clear after swishing, four to seven times.

Shake rice in colander to remove excess water, then pour into a small donabe rice pot or medium saucepan. Add cold filtered water, stir once with your fingers; let soak 30 minutes.

Cover pot and place over high heat. Bring to a rolling boil, 10-12 minutes, then immediately reduce heat to medium-low and cook rice at a steady simmer for 2 minutes more. Remove pot from heat and let stand, covered, 20 minutes.

Uncover pot and let stand until rice is cool enough to handle. Use a rice paddle to gently mix rice without crushing grains. You just want to disperse the moisture from the center of the pot.

Spoon about a third-cup rice into small rice bowl. Drop a teaspoon of filling in center, then top with just enough rice to cover filling.

Rinse hands with cold water and shake off excess. Sprinkle pinch sea salt on one palm, leaving the salt on fingertips of other hand. Turn rice out of bowl into the salted palm. Use heel of other palm and salty fingertips to gently squeeze and press rice into a 1-inch-thick triangle shape, rotating rice as you press. (Or, rice may be turned from the bowl onto a sheet of plastic wrap, salted, then wrapped tightly and shaped within the plastic.)

Wrap nori around rice and eat as soon as possible. (Nori may be toasted over a gas stovetop burner set to medium heat. Holding nori by a corner, flap it 3 to 4 inches over the flame until fragrant and crisp, 15 to 20 seconds.)

PRO TIPS

>> Soak the rice. It helps loosen and soften the kernels. If you don’t, the grains can be too firm in the center after cooking.

>> Use your strongest burner. You want to hit the rice with high heat as quickly as possible to help the grains expand fast through quick absorption of the boiling water.

>> Cook rice on the stove, not in a rice cooker. The timing requires a little trial and error, playing with your stove’s heat, your pot and the freshness of your rice. The timings in this recipe work consistently for Nakayama (and in our test kitchen), but check on the rice as it cooks. There should be no water left in the pot and the rice grains should be shiny and evenly chewy.

>> Mix the rice gently before shaping. Let it breathe off a little steam and become fluffy.

>> Don’t pack onigiri too tightly. Most people over-squish them, Nakayama says. The rice should hold together but still feel a touch loose when pressed.

>> To make now and eat later, the rice can be shaped up to 4 hours ahead, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and kept at room temperature. If rice gets cold, microwave in the plastic wrap 30 seconds. Wrap in the nori just before eating. If you’re transporing your onigiri, pack nori separately, to maintain its crunch.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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