Countdown is on for release of Starkville native's "Sushi Secrets" cookbook

October 3, 2012 10:24:37 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


That Marisa Baggett ever ended up as a sushi chef is, she conceded, somewhat of a happy accident. 


She was in her 20s, catering in her hometown of Starkville, and "someone asked me to cater a party for them and serve sushi. I really didn't know what it was," she laughed. But the Starkville High School alumna poured herself into research and preparation and was hooked. 


"Sushi just seemed so beautiful, so wonderful that I really became intrigued with it," said the chef, who now makes her home in Memphis, Tenn.  


Baggett was about 23 when she first packed her bags for Memphis and a position with Tsunami Restaurant there. Before long, her desire to excel at sushi led her to enroll at the California Sushi Academy.  


After returning to Memphis, her passion for sushi, her Southern background and determination to use locally-available, sustainable ingredients led to development of unconventional, delicious dishes. And for about 18 months, she focused on making the recipes home-friendly, with step-by-step instructions and numerous photographs. 


Now Baggett is just days away from the mid-October public release of her resulting cookbook, "Sushi Secrets: Easy Recipes for the Home Cook." The hard cover collection of more than 80 recipes and about 180 color images is designed to de-mystify sushi, tailoring recipes for home preparation. 


While planning the book, she kept in mind her own early experiences. 


"When I first started learning about sushi, I didn't feel there was enough useful information all in one place," said Baggett, who remembers doing research at the Starkville library. "There weren't a whole lot of recipes or help on the Internet at that time."  


Since then, of course, many more books and resources have appeared, "but I still feel like many of them focus on things that aren't suited for the home," said the chef. 




Sushi and sashimi 


First of all, one not-so-uncommon misconception to debunk is that sushi means raw fish. Not so. Think rice. Sushi is actually a Japanese dish consisting of small balls or rolls of vinegar-flavored rice, served with vegetables, eggs, meat or raw fish. 


One of Baggett's favorite sushi recipes, in fact, is for smoked duck.  


"It's one of the first things I experimented with when I was in Starkville; it tastes wonderful," said the chef of a dish that has become one of her signature items. 


Rice for sushi has to be short- or medium- grain California rice.  


"It cooks up nice and tender," she said. "Any other kind of rice is really not appropriate; when you steam it, it won't perform in the same way."  


Sashimi is more specifically a dish of bite-sized raw fish. 






While working on the book, Baggett recalled her early catering job. "I couldn't just run out to the Asian market and buy something." 


She wrote the cookbook with ingredient accessibility in mind, especially for Southern states, as well as any land-locked locale. 


"Lots of the ingredients you can find in local stores; we're lucky that a lot of major chains like WalMart and Kroger now carry a pretty decently stocked Asian section," she commented. 


There are plenty of recipes in the book that use cooked seafood, and several recipes that are vegetarian. 


"For the things that are a little more exotic, we're lucky to be living in a time that you can pretty much order things and have them shipped right to your house," the chef pointed out. 




To keep in mind 


When asked about food safety when preparing sushi at home, the cookbook author first stressed that sushi rice must be used within four hours of cooking.  


"For the seafood, I address in the beginning of the book how to make sure you find what's fresh, how to store it, how to handle it," she explained. "Some fish have to be frozen before they can be eaten raw safely." 


At the California Sushi Academy, learning Japanese knife skills was paramount. The techniques are considerably different than students in traditional culinary school use.  


Focusing on the home cook, however, Baggett stayed away from too many dishes that are "extremely knife-heavy." 


"When I was putting the book together and started to do photographs and food styling, I used only kitchen knifes, no professional sushi knives," she said, demonstrating to home cooks that they can do it, too. 


Other recipes 


In addition to sushi recipes, Baggett includes some Japanese-inspired appetizers, as well as desserts and cocktails in the cookbook. 


Completing the project has been a milestone in her career. 


"I'm not sure I've quite processed it yet; I think it will be real once I walk in a bookstore and see it on shelves," said the Mississippian who returns often to Starkville to visit her parents, Hal and Doris Baggett. 


"I hope people will give it a try, and realize they really can make sushi, and they can make it at home." 






The cookbook is expected to be in bookstores, including The Book Mart in Starkville, by Oct. 15. Retail price is $18.95. "Sushi Secrets" can also be pre-ordered at 


Chef Baggett shares several recipes from her cookbook in today's Dispatch food section. 










1 pound chicken thighs, boned, skinned, and cubed  


2 ounces shredded cabbage  


1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger root  


1 teaspoon chopped garlic 


3 green onions (scallions), green and white parts, sliced 


2 teaspoons soy sauce  


2 sprigs fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves 


1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted  


1/2 teaspoon dark sesame oil  


About 30 dumpling (gyoza) wrappers  


1 tablespoon potato starch or cornstarch (corn flour), dissolved in 2 tablespoons water  


oil for frying 




  • Place the chicken thighs, cabbage, fresh ginger root, garlic, green onions, soy sauce, fresh coriander leaves, sesame seeds, and sesame oil in a food processor. Pulse several times, then process until the mixture resembles smooth peanut butter. (Note: After mixture is removed, be sure to wash thoroughly and sanitize your food processor before its next use.) 


  • Lay 6 dumpling (gyoza) wrappers on a work surface covered with waxed paper. (Keep the remaining wrappers covered under a damp towel until ready to use.) Place 1 teaspoon of chicken mixture in the center of each wrapper. Dip a finger in the potato starch mix and wet the outer rims of wrappers.  


  • Fold the edges over to form half moon shapes and press tightly to seal. Set aside and cover with a damp towel. Repeat in batches of 6 with the remaining mixture.  


  • Heat just enough oil to coat the bottom of a skillet with a fitted lid. Place 6 dumplings in the pan and allow to sear until the bottom begins to turn brown, about 11/2 minutes. Use the lid as a shield and pour 1/4 cup water into the skillet. Cover quickly with the lid. Fry the dumplings at least 3 minutes or until the water is almost gone.  


  • Remove the dumplings from the skillet with a spatula. Dry out the skillet and repeat the steps for cooking with the remaining dumplings.  


  • Serve warm with gyoza dipping sauce. 










    1/2 cup soy sauce  


    4 tablespoons rice vinegar  


    1 teaspoon sesame oil 


    1 tablespoon finely minced green onions (scallions)  


    1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted 




  • Stir all the ingredients together in a medium bowl. Keep covered at room temperature until ready to use. 










    2 cups Japanese bread crumbs (panko)  


    1/2 cup melted unsalted butter, plus more for pan  


    4 tablespoons sugar  


    Pinch of salt 




    3 eggs 


    11/4 cup sugar 


    1/2 cup fresh lemon juice  


    2 teaspoons lemon zest  


    1/2 cup all-purpose flour 


    1 large mango, peeled, deseeded and cut into small cubes  


    Confectioner's sugar for dusting, optional 




  • Heat an oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of an 8-by-8 -by-2-inch baking pan. Mix the Japanese breadcrumbs, butter, sugar, and pinch of salt. Press the mixture into the bottom of the baking pan and bake for 10 minutes or until golden. Remove from the oven and allow the crust to cool. 


  • Beat the eggs and sugar together in a medium bowl until light and fluffy. Stir in the lemon juice, lemon zest, and the flour.  


  • Arrange the mango cubes evenly over the prepared crust. Pour the egg and lemon batter over the mango pieces, being careful not to upset the mango arrangement. Bake until the filling is set, about 25-30 minutes. 


    (During baking, the filling may brown some on top. This is OK, but if you prefer a perfectly unbrowned top, lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees.)  


  • Set the baking pan on a wire rack and allow the bars to cool completely before cutting. To serve, cut into 24 triangles. Dust with confectioner's sugar, if using. Store any leftovers in the refrigerator. 










    2 cups or 16 ounces Japanese plum wine 


    2 cups or 16 ounces white wine 


    1 cup or 8 ounces pear nectar 


    4 tablespoons brown sugar 1/2 cup or 4 ounces honey-flavored brandy  


    2 plums, cut into thin wedges  


    1 seedless orange, cut into thin wedges plus more for garnish  


    1 quart or 4 cups club soda 




  • In a large pitcher, combine the Japanese plum wine, white wine, pear nectar, brown sugar, and honey flavored brandy. Stir well. Add the plum and orange wedges. Cover pitcher and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or up to overnight.  


  • To finish and serve the sangria, add the club soda to the plum wine mixture. Spoon a few of the macerated fruit pieces into each serving glass and add the sangria. If desired, garnish the rims of each glass with fresh orange wedges.

    Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.