Onigiri (rice balls)

Sometimes a favor flips itself over. You start off thinking you are doing someone else a favor and end up so grateful for what they have done for you.

About a week ago the lovely Tara Austen Weaver, author of The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis, sent out a request. She asked that people check out her new e-book, Tales from High Mountain, part 1, about the months she lived in a very traditional house in a very traditional town high the mountains of Japan. It costs only $3.99, as a PDF or a Kindle download, with all proceeds going to on-going relief efforts in Japan. She set the price low to encourage buyers, but you can enter any amount you want in the final purchase price to give more, if you’re so inclined.

So I bought it and stayed up late reading it – remembering so well the unbelievable fatigue that can come when living in a foreign country, in a foreign language, in other people’s houses – and tweeted about it, trying to get the word out about her great writing and inspiring goal of raising money to help a country she deeply loves.

But I kept thinking. Her descriptions of the food were, of course, so tempting. I do not cook a lot of Japanese food. Hardly any, really. But that night of reading about Japanese food made me turn the next morning to Everyday Harumi: Simple Japanese Food for Family & Friends by Harumi Kurihara who, according to the press release sent with the book from the publisher, is the Martha Stewart of Japan. I have absolutely no idea how accurate that comparison is, but I do know that the recipes in this book are super simple and beautiful and there are at leasta  dozen post-its sticking out from its pages marking the recipes I meant to cook when I first looked through it. Then recipes for work needed to be cooked and other books showed up and piled on top and I simply lost track of those intentions.

Until, of course, I read Tales from High Mountain. So I cooked up the onigiri, rice balls with chopped chicken (although the book has you use ground, which I didn’t note until I’d chopped the chicken – I’m a good recipe writer and not really the best recipe follower). We loved them. Origiri are, according to this book, what Japanese people might eat when we would turn to a sandwich. Lightbulb. My son, age 8, does not like sandwiches. This makes packing his punch everyday sort of a pain. Not so this week. We made another batch of origiri together and have popped them in his lunch bag two days in a row now.

I thought I was doing Tara a favor and in the process giving some more money to natural disaster survivors (something no San Franciscan every sneezes at). In the process I had a stupid, quotidian, boring, and unremarkable problem that has vexed me regularly for years – what to put in that lunch bag – solved.

How is that for a lead-in to asking you for a favor or two? First, check out Tara’s post and consider ordering her book. Second, cook something totally new this week. Who knows what other problems – big or small – we might solve?

Origiri – chicken rice balls

This is my version – a bit less sweet and with a bit more chicken in the chicken-to-rice ratio.

Rinse 1 cup sushi rice (long grain really won’t work) in cool water until the water runs clear. Put in a rice cooker or pot with 1 1/2 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer 15 minutes. Take off the heat and let sit 5 minutes. Uncover and let cool.

Meanwhile, put 1/2 pound finely chopped chicken thigh meat (or ground chicken if it doesn’t freak you out the way it freaks me out), 3 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sake, and 2 tablespoons mirin in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the chicken is cooked through and the liquid is pretty much absorbed, about 5 minutes. Let cool.

Combine the rice and chicken mixture thoroughly. With damp hands grad a small handful of the mixture and press – press really hard – into a ball or patty. Set on a plate and repeat – being sure to rinse and re-wet your hands between each one (you’ll be tempted to try to do a second without rinsing your hands first, don’t give in to this temptation, it will only lead to super-sticky rice-covered hands). Cover let sit a bit before eating or chill and eat later.

If the mixture is still a bit warm, the balls will not hold together as well, so don’t fret if they start plopping apart a bit if you’ve jumped the gun and made them before things are cooled off.