Who are these people that can cook an entire four-course dinner and take photographs as they go so that they can blog about it later? Do they actually keep family and friends waiting for their food, or are there no friends and family and they just cooked the dinner for the purpose of blogging about it? What happens to the quality of the dishes while they’re waiting to the photographed? And what happens to the dishes that have been photographed: do they get eaten, or thrown away? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. I do know, however, that some people are supremely organised, and some have photographic setups - and even photographers - on standby. Personally, I just can’t do it. At least, not when I’m in charge of a multi-course dinner. I only cook to feed, and when there’s more than one course, even the most simple, fuss-free dinner acquires a sense of urgency and timing: not just timing in the cooking, but dishes have to be served at their peak, and staggering the service is a particular art. You have to catch diners not too early when they’re still savouring a previous dish, when they’re ready for the next course, but not desperate.
At any rate, even without all these considerations I wonder if I’d be able to manage it because at my house, as soon as a dish is ready, FOOM! It disappears.
As happened with my son’s birthday dinner which included mussels done two ways - with miso béchamel and lup cheung - a birthday sushi “cake”, Chinese-style roast duckling with rice and sesame-dressed greens, and an île flottante. Pictures? Not a chance. At least, except for one item, when my sister restrained my knife-wielding hand: “Wait! Get a picture of it first!”
The item in question was Runny’s chirashi-sushi birthday cake, which I’ve posted about before. Much as I loved the idea of the chirashi-sushi ("scattered sushi") cake, I was a little whelmed by my results, so was quite unprepared for the reception it got. Guests were totally entranced by it, and what’s more, absolutely devoured it - even the two sushi-hating diners sitting at the table. It’s certainly a fun, friendly way to serve sushi, and certainly right up the alley of someone like my son, who loves sushi, and isn’t particularly fussed about sweets and will consider a chocolate cake a waste of time.
I had to adapt the ingredients somewhat, but it was still a hit: one of those simple dishes that provide far more reward than effort - and expense - extended.
I’ve also provided the recipe for the mussels, because dammit, they were good. Each and every single one of four kilos of the things disappeared, and that tells you more than any picture ever could.
CHIRASHI-SUSHI BIRTHDAY CAKE
You may have made sushi rice before, but I’ve included the instructions nonetheless. You’ll need to have a fan on standby. A ladylike hand fan will do, but if you want to avoid the impulse to scream uncontrollably after a few minutes, an electric one is the thing. You can have all the toppings ready and make the sushi rice cake base up to a few hours ahead, but assemble cake just before serving. I promise - it’s quick!
For the sushi rice -
1 1/2 cups sushi or medium-grain rice
2 cups water
3 tbsp. (45ml) rice vinegar
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
To fill and top cake -
soy sauce, to taste
Top (ie. green) from 1 spring onion
1 tbsp. bonito flakes
beet juice, as needed (unless you’re Jenny Kee, I can’t imagine you needing more than 1 tsp)
95g. tin Japanese-style tuna, drained and broken up with a fork
50g. salmon roe
100g. smoked salmon
1/2 sheet roasted nori
What you do:
1. Wash rice in several changes of water until water runs clear. Add 2 cups water, and cook in rice cooker or covered saucepan on stovetop until rice is tender and water is absorbed. While rice is cooking, combine rice vinegar, sugar and salt, and stir until sugar and salt are dissolved. Turn rice out into a shallow bowl, and stir with a rice paddle while sprinkling with vinegar dressing. Keep stirring with rice paddle while simultaneously fanning rice. This quick cool-down and stirring gives you the essential texture and glossiness. Set aside.
2. Whisk eggs and season to taste with soy sauce. Scramble eggs in a greased pan over medium-high heat until dry and fluffy. Set aside. Cut spring onion green into eight long, very thin strips. Place in a bowl of ice water to curl and crisp.
3. Line a 15cm loose-bottomed cake tin with plastic wrap. Divide rice in two. Into the first half, mix 1 tbsp. bonito flakes and enough beet juice to tint rice a delicate pink. Spoon into cake tin, pressing down well with a spoon. Mix remaining rice with tuna, and spoon on top of pink rice, pressing down as before.
4. Now it’s time for the fun stuff: assembling the cake. Unmould sushi rice onto a serving dish. Cover surface with scrambled eggs. Spoon salmon roe onto scrambled egg. Spread out to form a circle, leaving a 2.5cm edge all around. Cut smoked salmon into eight strips and roll each one into a “rose”. Arrange on edge of cake. Decorate with spring onion curls as desired. Cut nori into two strips, then cut each strip into triangles. Press triangles onto side of cake. Serve immediately.
MUSSELS TWO WAYS
Mussels can be cooked and topped with filling up to a day ahead. By the way, I don't make béchamel sauce on the stovetop any more; the microwave method isn't quicker, but it is almost "hands free", leaving you free to do stuff other than standing and stirring. And stirring. And stirring. And stirring.
4 kg. mussels
Chinese cooking wine (opt.)
For miso béchamel:
3 tbsp. flour
2 heaped tbsp. brown miso
For lup cheung filling:
2 rashers middle bacon (200g. approx), very finely chopped
1 lup cheung sausage, very finely chopped
1/2 red pepper (capsicum), very finely chopped
1 spring onion, very finely chopped
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. minced ginger
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
What you do:
1. Put mussels in a large pot with enough water or Chinese cooking wine to cover base. Jam lid on and cook over high heat until mussels are open – about 5 minutes. (Contrary to popular belief, if your mussels were fresh and live to begin with, an unopened mussel isn’t dead, it just has a strong abductor muscle. Simply slip a knife in and gently prise it open.) Carefully lift out mussels one at a time. Detach shell half not holding the mussel and discard. Now for the hateful bit: with kitchen scissors, snip the beard off each mussel. Grah. But it has to be done. Set aside.
2. To make miso béchamel, place butter in microwave-proof bowl, and microwave until melted. Whisk in flour, and microwave on HIGH for 1 minute. Whisk in milk. Microwave on HIGH, whisking every two minutes, until sauce boils and thickens. Place miso in a small bowl. Add a few tablespoons of hot béchamel, and stir to dissolve miso. Add this mixture to béchamel, and whisk until smooth.
3. To make lup cheung filling, place all ingredients in a small, greased frying pan. Sauté until vegetables are crisp-tender. Remove from heat, and stir in vinegar.
4. Preheat oven to 250oC. Top half of mussels with teaspoonsful of miso béchamel, and half with teaspoonsful of lup cheung filling, and arrange on baking dishes. Bake until miso béchamel is bubbling, and sausage filling is sizzling and beginning to brown - 5-10 minutes. Serve immediately.