Let’s go to Tottori!

Let’s go to Tottori!


It was great fun to be a guest at the Official Residence of the Consul General of Japan in NYC to celebrate the Capital of Japanese Food (self declared): the Tottori prefecture.  Under a grey and crying sky ready to fall on my head I was more than happy to take refuge in the Carrère & Hasting early 20th century building for a gastronomic & cultural escapade.  While being searched to the beat of light salsa music, the gaudy French Louis the something or other décor and the delicate Japanese paintings indicated a delightful  juxtaposition of cultures. I knew nothing about the Tottori region, but I’m ready to go visit! To quote Wikipedia:

Tottori PrefectureJapan (鳥取県, Tottori-ken?) is a prefecture of Japan located in the Chūgoku region on Honshū island. The capital is the city of Tottori. It is the least populous prefecture in Japan.

According to the brochures, the Tottori region offers an amazing variety of landscapes, natural resources & ancient cultures. From the legendary largest sand dunes of Japan, to the beauty of Mt Daisen, to the treasures of ancient Buddhist temples — and all this at the edge of Sea of Japan!

The short and convivial opening remarks by the consul & the governor were followed by an Ikizukuri demonstration/performance by master chefs from the Tottori region: Souichi Chikuma (executive chef at Ryokan Ohashi)  and Tetsuyoshi Hada (executive chef at Kouraku). Ikizukuri means “prepared live,” and is the preparation of sashimi from a living animal. In this case the fish was already dead. The master chef skillfully carved the flesh out without damaging the exterior appearance of the fish (that reminded me of the first time I had to debone a quail without breaking the skin, not easy!) The fish was then set on bamboo sticks and adorned with an Ikebana style flower arrangement. The flesh cut into bite size sashimi was laid on top of the fish. While chef Chikuma worked on the huge red sea bass, chef Hada turned a large daikon into lace. We were told that this type of arrangement is very costly and done only for special celebrations like weddings. 

daikonlace DSCN4815 DSCN4816

JapanOn the second floor Tottori products were displayed for sampling. Tottori’s water is renown throughout Japan for its purity and richness, thus the quality of the local rice, sake, tofu and other products. I tasted delicious sakes from different grades of polished rice, though I need a few more tastings before I can really appreciate the sake subtleties.  I was introduced to 20th century pear liquor and vinegar. They didn’t come from the same company but they were both interesting and I will certainly buy them when readily available. The 20th century pear grown in Tottori is the Nijisseiki variety; in Japanese Nijisseiki means “20th century”. I would assume that the link between the name and the date comes from the fact that the cultivar was created in Japan in1898.

Tottori Fish

One regret was not to get to try the star crab of Tottori, the Matsuba crab also called Queen crab or snow crab, it is a winter delicacy that was on display (frozen) but not for tasting. We got to try the delicious white squid served raw over a cup with a light broth; a most delicate colored trio of Aji —horse mackerel— wrapped in ribbons of radish, carrot and cucumber.
I cannot describe everything I ate as I am running out of time and I will conclude with Tofu Koubou Amedaki, a tofu doughnut! I was not going to try it, but being a fried dough fan I couldn’t resist and I am glad. It looks like a doughnut but tastes like a heavenly doughnut! Very soft inside, crunchy outside, not overly sweet & made with fresh soy milk.

Tottori came to me, now I need to go to Tottori!  And thank you Shigeko & Miguel from La Fuente Services & of course Chiaki!

squid sashimi DSCN4810 DSCN4819

Ragoût Express

Ragoût Express

ragout express

A râgout express is a contradiction in term. A stew should cook as long as possible. This being said let’s move on!
The term râgout covers a lot of territory. A good definition would be “a  well-seasoned meat or fish stew usually with vegetables.” The word ragoût comes from old French ra-gouster “to revive the taste”. We already find several ragoût recipes in Apicius’ cookbook De Re Coquinaria (25 AD). The Latin name for ragoût is: offella – a diminutive for offa which means “piece of meat, morsel”. As the name indicates, all those recipes call for some meat cut up into small pieces, a lot of spices and marinating in liquid, often wine or garum. The English equivalent is stew —from middle English stewen, to bathe in a steam bath; from old French estuver, possibly from vulgar Latin extufare, and from the Greek tuphos, source also for typhus and typhoid which provokes very high fevers.
Every cultures have some sort of ragoût. To name but a few: the Italians have ragús, the Mexicans have moles, the Spanish guisados.  They all emphasize the use of produce of their area, an  illustration of the local food culture. For example let’s take daube,  a typical french ragoût made with beef and red wine, in New Orleans it became: “daube de boeuf Créole” where the wine has been replaced by rum.  Have you tried it? I have not, but below are Elizabeth Davis ‘ words on it:

“The meat is studded with olives and cooked with rum instead of wine, and the curious point is that although the result is a very rich-tasting dish I think very few people would be able to detect the presence of rum, or to say in what precise way the stew differs from the French original”.

A big advantage of stews is that you can use the less expensive cuts of meat. After marinating over night or for several hours, and after the long simmering on top of the stove or in the oven the meat will be tender. If you use poultry, like in my recipe today, the meat is much leaner and will cook faster. It had too in my case!

So back to the story behind today’s recipe. We had to be out of the house at 7:30pm; it was 6:10pm. Pierre wanted to order out and I really didn’t. Any decent take out in our area takes 45 minutes and it’s expensive. I had a 2 lb turkey breast  in the fridge and I had planned to cook and eat it that night! Granted we ate a little fast and to be really honest the dish tasted better the next day, but that’s true of any stew.  Please look at the short video below for the recipe. I am still trying to find better ways to cook/film at the same time. Thank you for your patience and suggestions are always welcome!

Purple Cabbage & Gromperen Plaâ

Purple Cabbage & Gromperen Plaâ

Red Cabbage Salad

When we took off for France in mid-July I left a purple cabbage (red cabbage is actually never “red”) in the fridge. I was pretty confident it would keep until our return. It was a beautiful purple cabbage from our CSA share and I actually wrote a post and took pictures about that particular share — click here for details. It was a very firm,  bright, shiny and freshly picked purple cabbage.  I must say I was a little surprised to find it in the CSA box so early in the season.  When we returned mid-August, the cabbage was holding great, no obvious signs of aging. It was not wrapped, or in the crisper, but just decorating the middle shelf of the fridge. I still was not ready to eat it; summer veggies were still plentiful and I assimilate cabbage more with a fall/winter food. I became so used to see it in the fridge that I almost forgot to eat it.  But a few nights ago I pulled it out of the near empty fridge to accompany Pierre’s Bay Ridge version of a Luxembourgish dish: the Gromperen plaâ. Only the first layer of the cabbage leaves where a little limp, the rest was still crisp. Before I tell you a little more about the Gromperen  plaâ this is how I made the cabbage salad:
1/2  red/purple cabbage head sliced thinly
1 diced onion
1 diced apple
1 diced celery rib
Chopped walnuts and/or almonds

Moisten all the ingredients with olive oil. Drizzle with vinegar — it can be: apple cider, or rice or light wine vinegar. Add a dash of sesame oil —very little, the goal is to use it to outline the ingredients  not to really taste it (do you  know what I mean?). Then add  fresh  chopped Italian parsley, salt & pepper to taste.

Pierre was supposed to give me the detailed recipe of the Gromperen plaâ but as you can check on his blog he is not home very much these days. In Luxembourgish Gromper means potato & plaâ means dish —plat in French. This is the first dish Pierre’s sister Michou makes when we visit. All the ingredients go into a terrine or a lasagna type dish. As I indicated I don’t have an exact recipe but I think I am right to say that Pierre never really follows one either. This is the kind of dish that is adjustable to what you have and how you feel. I personally encourage this kind of cooking and would like to have the guts to write such a cook book! Now here are the indications for you to make your own potato dish:

Butter  the bottom of the pan.
Line with one layer of sliced parboiled potatoes.
Sprinkle with  diced sautéed onions.
Cut slices of Mettwurscht the “national” sausage of Luxembourg.
In Bay Ridge we don’t have Mettwurscht so Pierre decided to make the Gromperen plaâ with the Turkish sausage sujuk— a beef sausage usually spiced with cumin, sumac, garlic, paprika and other red pepper —we always get it at Aunt Halime’s Halal Meat Market on 3rd avenue and Ovington in Bay Ridge.
Repeat layers until there is no more room in the dish.
Then fill the dish with seasoned
heavy cream—with salt, pepper and a touch of freshly grated nutmeg—  until the top of the pan is barely covered.
Top with a generous layer of shredded
cheese – can be Swiss , Emmental , Gruyère or even cheddar! 
The result was superb; I had forgotten to take a picture of the dish before we started digging into it and next thing we knew is that the three diners around the table cleaned it up in a flash! The combination of the textures and tastes were perfect. Thanks Pierre and this menu is a keeper! The only disappointment Pierre had is that he thought he was going to have some left over for lunch. Sorry!

Gromper Pla

Green Tomatl Salsa

Green Tomatl Salsa


As a seasonal occurrence let’s taste another distinguished native American food: the tomatillo, miltomate or husk-tomato.  Pierre had bought the 2 lbs of them I had ordered last week  —a good thing that they keep well— and today I finally got to make a salsa verde.  This green-husked fruit is a close relative to the tomato. Also member of the Solanacea family, it’s Latin name is Physalis philadelphica. The Latin name for what we know as tomato today is: Solanum lycopersicum. Both fruits’ names (yes! they are fruits) derive from the Nahuatl word: tomatl. Sophie Coe in her book America’s First Cuisine gives an important precision:


“Nahuatl is an agglutinating language, which means that the root of the words were modified by adding prefixes and suffixes. To find out exactly which plump fruit was being eaten one must distinguished between a miltomatl, a xitomatl, a coyotomatl and many other kinds of tomatl. Some Europeans, who did not understand the structure of the language they were dealing with, thought they were simplifying things by shortening the name of the larger fruit which we know as the tomato from xitomatl, meaning plump things with a navel to plain tomato”

I have read that Tomatillo husks are used to help retain the bright green color of the cactus when boiled with the latter. But this is not something I have yet tried; if you have, please share your experience.
The Salsa Verde recipe I made today is very simple and can be used in many ways. The picture shown above is a pan fried fillet of sole with Salsa Verde & brown rice.  I made enough salsa to serve tomorrow with chips and cocktails. I also froze a container for later in the season.

2lbs of TomatillosSalsa Verde
Remove the husk.
Wash thoroughly with hot water to remove the slightly slimy coat.
Meanwhile boil water & blanch the tomatillos for 30 seconds.
While they cool:
chop 1 onion very small.
1 jalapeño pepper
1 bunch of fresh cilantro (fresh coriander)
Salt to taste
Optional: lime juice, olive oil.
Blend your tomatillos in food processor or chop by hand.
Add your chopped veggies.
Keep in the fridge until serving time, or save at room temperature if you are going to serve it with fish or poultry.
How to cook your fillets:
Heat your pan coated with a dollop of butter and a table spoon of olive oil.

Dip your fillet in milk, drain excess and dredge in lightly salted flour, drain excess.
Cook your fillet about 3/4 minutes each side over medium heat.
Remove and serve over a bed of green salsa and steaming brown rice.

Yum! Healthy, fast and tasty!



Zea Mays

When Colombus discovered the existence of corn (maize) in November 1492 on the island which today is called Cuba, he noted in his diary that “there are large cultivated areas which produce roots [cassava], a sort of bean [the haricot], and a sort of grain called maize.” He certainly had no idea that maize was already ruling the entire Americas, being under cultivation from southern Canada to lower South America. Mahiz is the phonetic name Colombus picked up from the natives. When European botanists began to list maize in their indexes, it became Zea Mays, Zea being a Greco-Latin generic name for wheat like grains and Mays the Latinized version of the original Taino name mahiz which means “life-giver”. How appropriate, maize being the most productive of the grasses but also the only cereal which cannot reproduce itself without the aid of men.

So how did maize become domesticated? Well, do not expect me to give you a precise explanation of the mysteries of the origin and domestication of maize when the “professionals” have been fighting over this issue for half a century. In her book The Story of Corn, Betty Fussel dedicates an entire chapter to the “Corn War” that started in the 50’s. One school, led by Havard Prize winner Paul Mangelsdorf, believed in — and searched for — the “primal ear,” convinced that the ancestor of cultivated corn was some kind of ur-corn. The other school, led by Nobel prize winner Georges Wells Beaddle, discovered through chromosomal interbreeding experiments that corn evolved from a kindred grass called teosinte, a wild grass still found south-west of Mexico City. This seems to be today’s consensus:

“Everybody agrees that domestic corn began about ten thousand years ago and that the place was Mexico and that present-day corn came, one way or another, from the interbreeding of teosinte and maize.”

Thus Garrison Wilkes of the University of Massachuset as interviewed by Betty Fussel. The explanation of how it happened is however still in the ground, and even though archeologists, scientists and botanists all believe that Mexico is the cradle of maize, the oldest — 7,000 years old! — carbon-dated trace was recently found in Panama.

What we do know for sure is the profound cultural/economic importance of maize. The Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, describes it as “the grain that built a hemisphere”. For the Incas, the Mayas, the Zapotecs, the Aztecs, the Zunis, the Iroquois — to only name a few — maize was also a core element of their spiritual life. As Eduardo Galeano was aware long ago:

Guatemala City, 1775
Nor do the Indians come to Mass. They do not respond to announcements of the bell. They have to be sought out on horse back in villages and fields and dragged in by force. Absence is punished with eight lashes, but Mass offends the Mayan gods and that has more power than fear of the thong. Fifty times a year, the Mass interrupts work in the fields, the daily ceremony of communion with the earth. For the Indians, accompanying step by step the corn’s cycle of death and resurrection is a way of praying; and the earth, that immense temple, is their day-to-day testimony to the miracle of life being reborn. For them all earth is a church, all woods a sanctuary.

The settlers called maize Indian Corn and when the grain reached Europe — 50 years after Columbus — it became known as Turkish Corn. At that time Turkey was often a convenient origin for unknown alien produce, flower or animal. There is a logical explanation though, as most of the New World produce entered the Old World from the eastern side of the Mediterranean basin and not as one might think through Spain, Portugal or Italy.

Since then the entire world diet depends on corn and the corn situation today would require several post. I intend to complete the article at some point.

The sweet corn that we enjoy throughout the summer should be eaten immediately after being picked because as soon as the ear is separated from the stalk the sugar begins to turn to starch. As Waverly Root writes in Food:

“Sweet corn is botanically green but gastronomically ripe…..Mark Twain recommended putting a kettle of water in the middle of the corn field, building a fire under it and, when the water begins to boil, picking the ears within reach and shucking them directly into the kettle”.

My favorite way of having sweet corn is a northeastern Native American recipe which I found in Cooking with Spirit by Darcy Williamson and Lisa Railsback:

“Pull husk halfway down ears of corn and remove silk and sprinkle with sea water. Pull husk back over and twist shut. Place over hot coals and turn frequently for about 12 minutes.”

Obviously, for those who do not live by the ocean, salted water will  have to do the trick. I use a bit of wire to keep the ear tightly shut. Don’t forget to turn it over frequently, then just add some butter and salt. After 12 minutes on the barbecue you will have the best corn ever.