The first time I had raw fish was in Japan. I was served family style strips of raw fatty tuna along with piles nori sheets and bowls of seasoned rice to make hand rolls at a private meal. There was probably soy sauce available but I don't remember seeing wasabi or pickled ginger. It was extremely simple.
My friend and I did ok with our first experience of sashimi, but didn't go in for seconds. After waiting for the polite amount of time, one of the two older ladies sharing our platter turned to her friend and said something in Japanese that approximately meant, "I insist that you take the last of the tuna, since these American kids have such undeveloped palates." And then they ate it all. Fair enough.
Nat and I went through a bit of sushi phase, and it was really fun to practice by ourselves and with big groups of friends. We used mats and presses and and saran wrap. We put together crazy combinations and spicy sauces, glued together the insides of the rolls with mayo, and even deep fried rolls. We made enormous, satisfying piles of rolls and impressive messes in the kitchen. But I'm coming to appreciate the simpler approach of my first experience. Sushi at home is going to be different, and I think in a way it can be better than sushi at a restaurant.
The main difference is that you can make up for the lack of variety, expertise and time by being really generous with the fish. Our move closer to the ocean has opened up some options for us. If you can, get fresh sushi grade raw fish. Then don't go wild with combinations and sauces. Sometimes the reason that restaurant sushi is fried and sauced so heavily is that the fish isn't fresh. With great fish, even soy sauce should be used with restraint - just brush a small quantity across the fish, don't make a puddle that soaks through your rice. Look for the milder version of soy sauce made specifically for sushi. Uchi: The Cookbook is a great resource if you want to learn more.
Sushi rice can be hard to get right, especially if you don't have a rice cooker. When I was constantly monitoring my rice in a pot over a gas burner, I found that the Han Kuk Mi brand of korean sushi rice worked better than the few other brands I tried. Now that we have a rice cooker I feel like there's a little more flexibility. Spreading the seasoned rice out on a baking sheet and fanning it helps it cool faster without getting smashed.
It takes chefs a long time to learn how to make delicious and presentable sushi rolls. If you're learning, start with sushi bowls, or have everyone make their own hand rolls. Make nigiri. These options will get the same good flavors to your mouth faster, and keep the nori from sitting around getting soggy from the rice. (Toasting the nori helps too.)
I'm not saying not to experiment, or not to try to recreate your favorite roll. We try something new every time - last time it was fresh shiso. And I love looking at the recipes from Uchi for inspiration. Just don't try to compete with a restaurant in variety and presentation, especially when you don't have the essentials under control. That is a contest you will always lose.
Do you have any sushi advice for us?
Photo by jetalone, used under creative commons license.
La Tartine Gourmande: Recipes for an Inspired Life is perfect. The recipes remind me of Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day but are a bit fussier for when you feel like a cooking project. I am often so visually overwhelmed by the parade of idyllic photos on Bea's blog that I click away instead of scrolling down to inspect the recipe. But in cookbook form, with one gorgeous full page photo per recipe, the photography is put to good use drawing your attention to the creative recipes. I love how her food is defined by unexpected flavor combinations instead of the absence of ingredients she avoids. Instead of a recipe for a gluten-free cake or muffins, she gives you strawberry, millet, almond cake with buttermilk or basil-zucchini muffins with comte cheese. So in spite of the fact that the format is what drew me in, this recommendation isn't just based on style preferences. Bea will expand your palette and maybe even inspire some kitchen experimentation. The recipes cover lunch and dinner as well as baking, but baking in particular with these recipes will require you to use some ingredients you probably haven't worked with before. It definitely won't duplicate the recipes in the cookbooks you already own.
Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard I estimate that Nigel Slater's tome on fruit has fifty pages devoted to just apple recipes (sweet and savory), but the basic recipes like apple crumble show you how to improve on traditional techniques to bring the flavor of those apples into focus. It's deep and wide.
P.S. Book links go to Amazon - I get some spare change if you buy something.