October 3, 2012 10:24:37 AM
Jan Swoope - firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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 amazon.com.
Chef Baggett shares several recipes from her cookbook in today's Dispatch food section.
CHICKEN DUMPLINGS (GYOZA)
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
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
LEMON MANGO BARS CRUST>
2 cups Japanese bread crumbs (panko)
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter, plus more for pan
4 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
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
(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.)
PLUM WINE SANGRIA
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
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.