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Taste Greg Atkinson

Beyond PB&J

Pack that school lunch with something fresh, like a sushi roll or four

My wife and I have always tried to make sure our two sons had good lunches to take to school. But long before they outgrew bagged lunches, the boys grew weary of peanut butter and jelly. Even when the peanut butter was organic and the bread and jelly were Dad's homemade best, the sandwich just stopped being interesting.

So we tried ham and cheese, turkey, roast beef — you name it. Before long, the whole genre started to wear thin, and our boys started pining for lunches with a little more sparkle. We tried wraps and slices of cold pizza. I baked homemade cupcakes and cookies.

By the time he entered high school, our oldest son started improvising his own portable salad bars of raw carrots, apple slices and sandwich bags filled with dried fruits. I pushed cheese sticks and nuts on him to up the protein content. For him, the school day became an all-day snack orgy as he grazed his way through the lunch bag.

"I love to watch him eat," confided one of his female classmates. "It's like watching some kind of little animal." I wasn't sure how to interpret that. A couple of his teachers laid down the law and forbade munching during class, but most of them were tolerant.

My younger son stuck with sandwiches, but he started demanding more from them. "Extra mustard on the ham," he'd say as he slipped on his shoes and I scrambled to slap together something he would eat. "Put a little pesto on that turkey sandwich, would you?" And, "If you're going to make roast beef, I want lots of horseradish."

I felt like an underpaid deli worker, but that's a role I've always been pretty comfortable with, so I spread on the condiments and shouted orders right back, "Make sure you pack your homework!" and "Comb your hair!"

Then one day, the older son asked me to help him make sushi rolls that he could take to his Japanese class. Sushi rolls are a form of Makizushi, the style of sushi that's rolled inside sheets of "nori," or roasted seaweed. Popular fillings include sweet Japanese omelets, sashimi-grade tuna and, for the famous "California Roll," cooked crabmeat with avocado. So we made several variations including our own take on a Seattle Roll, characterized by hard-smoked salmon in the filling.

This year, our oldest is off to college where an on-campus food-service company will provide his lunch. But our youngest is still in middle school, and for him, sushi rolls will be making regular appearances in the brown bag for years to come.

Greg Atkinson is author of "West Coast Cooking." He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at studio@barrywongphoto.com.

Recipe: Bainbridge Island Rolls

Makes 4 large rolls

Filled with smoked salmon and avocado and seasoned with "furikake," a Japanese table condiment made with sesame seeds and flaked seaweed, this sushi roll is perfect for packing into older kids' school lunch. It's best to prepare them the morning they are to be served, but they may be made the night before and refrigerated overnight. You will have a small amount of leftover flavored rice.

For the rice

2 cups short-grain rice

Water for washing the rice, plus 3 cups for cooking

1/3 cup rice vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon sea salt or 2 tablespoons kosher salt

For the rolls

Wasabi-flavored furikake (Japanese rice seasoning) or toasted sesame seeds, to taste

12 ounces alder-smoked salmon fillets

1 large avocado

4 sheets of nori

soy sauce for serving

1. Put the rice in a large mixing bowl and cover it with several inches of tap water. Swish the rice around in the water to release any clinging residue from the milling process. Pour off the water and repeat the process 2 or 3 times until the water that comes off the rice is no longer cloudy, but almost clear.

2. Pour the washed rice through a large strainer and allow all the water to run off. Put the washed and drained rice in a rice cooker or a heavy 4-quart saucepan with a close-fitting lid and pour on 3 cups of cold water. Cook over high heat until steam escapes from under the lid. Immediately reduce the heat to low and simmer, tightly closed and undisturbed, for 20 minutes. Turn the heat off and let the rice rest for 10 minutes.

3. While the rice is cooking, whisk together the vinegar, sugar and salt in a large wooden salad bowl, or a large mixing bowl. Toss the cooked rice with the rice-vinegar dressing, fanning it lightly with a fan or a piece of cardboard.

4. Cut the smoked salmon lengthwise into logs, about 1 inch wide. Cut the avocado in half lengthwise and remove the pits. Using a large metal cooking spoon, scoop out the half avocados in a single piece and lay them on the cutting board. Cut them into 1-inch slices.

5. Lay a sheet of nori, shiny-side-down on a bamboo sushi-rolling mat. Use about 1 cup of the sushi rice to lightly cover the surface of the nori sheet, leaving a 1-inch border uncovered on the far end. Sprinkle furikake or sesame seeds over the surface of the rice.

6. Layer a fourth of the smoked salmon and a fourth of the avocado on top of the rice in a straight line running from one side of the sheet to the other. Starting at the end closest to you, gently roll and press the rice and the nori around the filling to form a fairly firm log.

7. Repeat the process with the remaining sheets of nori and the fillings to make four logs. With a very sharp knife, cut each log into 6 pieces, leave the pieces in place and wrap the log in baker's parchment.

Greg Atkinson, 2007

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