By MARK BITTMAN
Published: September 18, 2012
IF you’re a chef — a great one — you will go to almost any length to gain marginal improvement in a recipe. You’ll find the best provider for every given ingredient, and if you can gain an edge by fussing with those ingredients, you will. (Chances are you’re not the one doing the work anyway.) These kinds of differences define the food of the most talented chefs, at least those successful enough to indulge their talents.
It’s also why their recipes are often as annoying as running out of garlic.
I’ve spent some time trying to make those kinds of recipes more accessible, as often as not with Jean-Georges Vongerichten; we’ve been friends since he moved to New York in the mid-1980s, and have written two books together.
It’s been a while since we worked together, but his recipe here, for fried cakes of sushi-style rice topped with chipotle mayonnaise and raw scallop, then painted with a thin glaze of a soy-honey mixture, was just irresistible. (If I were an award committee, I’d give it “best of the year.”)
As irresistible, for me, was the opportunity to ask J. G. how to make the thing simpler; he knows full well that the subtle differences he’s employed to make this dish near-perfect can be compromised with still-terrific results.
One thing you can’t mess with is the rice itself: perfectly seasoned sushi rice, made simpler by adding the fairly standard seasonings of konbu (kelp), mirin, salt and vinegar before the cooking instead of after. It’s then fried, and this is the genius of the dish; it becomes a sweet rectangle of sticky crunch surrounding a sweet, tender interior. (You could probably sell it at a fast-food place with ketchup and get rich.)
But everything else (and this is per Jean-Georges, not me) is pretty much fair game. The chipotle mayonnaise is spectacular, and making mayonnaise from scratch is simple. (So simple that an essentially noncooking friend of mine, after attending one of the mayonnaise-based picnics I wrote about this summer, is now a homemade-mayonnaise fiend.)
This mayonnaise, seeking that marginal improvement, contains two kinds of oil and three sources of acidity. But there is an alternative: Jean-Georges said that when he made this dish at home, he laced bottled mayonnaise with sriracha and was happy. (I spiked my Hellmann’s with pimentón, or smoked paprika, and a pinch of cayenne, and thought that wasn’t bad.)
Similarly, I noted that the role of the soy-honey-vinegar mixture was so subtle, and played such a small part in the overall picture, that it might be played by plain, high-quality soy sauce; the chef agreed.
But the scallops are the big thing; one of the reasons this dish is so terrific is that the scallops Jean-Georges uses are live and in the shell just before they’re sliced and layered on the fried rice cakes. Few people, myself included, are going to do this at home, or even have the option of doing this at home. What else works, I asked him?
Well, basically, anything you’d use for sushi: avocado, which is incredible. Good salmon (if you can find it) or tuna — or almost any other fish for that matter. Cucumber, whose cool crunch adds a different dimension. And so on.
These are not “lesser” versions. They’re just the kinds of things nonchefs or chefs cooking at home do when they don’t have every possible advantage.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Fried Sushi Cakes With Scallops, Honey Soy Sauce and Chipotle Mayonnaise
- TOTAL TIME
- About an hour, plus resting time
FOR THE RICE CAKES
- 1 and 1/2 cups short-grain sushi rice
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 1 and 1/2 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar
- 2-inch piece konbu
- 1 tablespoon salt.
FOR THE CHIPOTLE MAYONNAISE
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoons orange juice
- 2 teaspoons lime juice
- 1 tablespoon chipotle in adobo, including some of the liquid
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup grapeseed oil
- 1/4 cup olive oil.
FOR THE HONEY SOY SAUCE
- 1/2 cup light soy sauce
- 1/2 cup honey
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- 1 tablespoon rice-wine vinegar.
FOR FRYING AND ASSEMBLING
- Grapeseed oil
- Coarse salt
- Minced scallions
- 6 big scallops, each sliced into 4 pieces
- Minced cilantro.
- Combine sushi rice, mirin, rice-wine vinegar, konbu and 1 tablespoon salt in a medium saucepan with 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover with a lid wrapped in a damp cloth and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes or until done. (Alternatively, use a rice cooker.) Remove from the heat and let sit for 15 minutes.
- Line an 8-by-8-inch baking dish with plastic wrap. Firmly press the rice into the pan. Refrigerate until set, preferably overnight. Remove the rice from the pan and, using a chef’s knife dipped in hot water to prevent sticking, cut into 1-by-3-inch rectangles.
- Make the chipotle mayonnaise: Combine the egg yoke, red-wine vinegar, orange juice, lime juice, adobo and liquid and 1 teaspoon salt and purée in a food processor or blender. Add the 3/4 cup grapeseed oil and the olive oil in a drizzle and process until smooth, thick and creamy.
- Make the honey soy sauce: In a small saucepan, bring the soy sauce, honey, sherry vinegar and 1 tablespoon rice-wine vinegar to a boil and stir until smooth. Cool before using.
- Heat grapeseed oil in a pan, deep enough to just about cover the rectangles. A broad skillet will require more oil than a deep saucepan, but will allow you to cook more pieces at once. Allow oil temperature to reach 350 to 360 degrees. Cook the rice rectangles until golden and crispy, about 5 minutes total, turning once; transfer to paper towels and season with salt
- Combine chipotle mayonnaise and scallions. Top each rectangle with a bit of the mayonnaise, then drape with a piece of raw scallop. Brush or drizzle with honey soy, then garnish with a bit of cilantro and a tiny pinch of salt.
- 24 cakes, 6 to 12 servings.