Friday, November 27, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

As usual, we hosted Thanksgiving this year, with 10 adults, our one-year old great nephew and our three-year old great niece. The two kids more than made up for the smaller adult group in terms of energy and excitement (and noise).

Dinner was largely a repeat of 2014's, with substitutions for things that did not work or had becoming boring after too many years (like Ottolenghi's excellent sweet potato gratin).

Here's what I cooked:

Thanksgiving Dinner
 November 26, 2015
Salmon rillettes (from a class at Atelier des Chefs in Paris)
Slow poached garlic shrimp (from Tyler Florence's Ultimate TV show)
Mustard and tapenade batons
(from Dorie Greenspan, Around My French Table)
Smoked ricotta and sun-dried tomato spread with lemon zest (Bobby Jay)
Bar nuts (from The Union Square Cafe Cookbook)
Turkey with sage and dried apricot and cranberry stuffing (from American's Test Kitchen)
Cranberry mostarda (from Food and Wine)
Roasted acorn squash with maple butter (from American's Test Kitchen)
Hashed Brussels sprouts (from Union Square Cafe Cookbook)
Bourbon caramel pumpkin tart (from Fine Cooking)
Fresh Ginger Cake (from Sylvie Thompson, via Food 52 Genius Recipes)
Marie-Hélène’s apple tart
(from Dorie Greenspan, Around My French Table)

Here are the hors d'oeuvres:

 Mustard and tapenade batons
Garlic shrimp tapas style while cooking and as served
Salmon and smoked salmon rillettes with pumpernickel rounds
And here are the turkey with stuffing and the roasted and broiled acorn squash (the cranberry mostarda and brussels sprouts were camera shy):
Turkey and stuffing à la Julia Child
Roasted and broiled acorn squash with maple sugar butter
Finally, two of the desserts:
Pumpkin tart with bourbon caramel glaze and candied pumpkin seeds
Marie-Hélène's apple cake
I had considered retiring Marie-Hélène's apple cake this year because I have made it so often, but we recently lost a great friend named Marie-Hélène so I could not bring myself to make the change just yet. I think of her every time I make this cake even though it is named for a different Marie-Hélène.

This meal obviously involved a lot of work, but I knocked off three items on each of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, leaving only the shrimp, turkey, stuffing and sides (already much prepped) for Thanksgiving day, leaving me plenty of time to watch the spectacular Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with very dear friends and our niece.

Bobby Jay

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thoughts on Japanese Food Presentation

My last 11 posts have described and shown photos of some of the amazing food we ate as we toured Japan in late October through early November. Reflecting on this, and similar experiences from earlier trips to Japan, got me thinking about what makes Japanese food so special, and I set forth my thoughts below. This is a long post, but there are some nice pictures at the end, and this one just to prevent you from being bored during the introduction.

Rice course at Kanmean ryokan in Kyoto
Elizabeth Andoh, who knows as much as anyone about Japanese food, sets forth the "five principles" of Washoku (Japanese food) in her authoritative book of the same name.
  • Five colors. Each meal should include foods that are red, yellow, green, black (or nearly) and white.
  • Five tastes. Salty, sour, sweet, bitter and spice tastes should be present, in a harmonious way, in each meal.
  • Multiple cooking methods. Simmering, boiling, steaming, raw and yaki (broiled, grilled, and/or sauteed).
  • Five senses. The senses of taste, sight, sound, smell and touch (i.e. texture) should all be engaged.
  • Five Buddhist rules about eating. Respect for those who contributed to the food (farmers as well as cooks), doing good deeds to be worthy of the food, coming to the meal without anger, eating for spiritual as well as temporal well-being and struggling to attain enlightenment.
Fine Japanese cooking embodies the first four principles. The fifth comes from the diner, and is outside the scope of this post.

I love the tastes and textures of Japanese food, which reflect meticulously produced and cared for ingredients that are elevated by amazingly skillful chefs and the principles described above. However, the most striking thing to me, and what I discuss in this post, is the way a Japanese meal, and each plate, engages the sense of sight.

Japanese people have learned the ability to see beauty in the midst of the ordinary, or worse. Thus, they can focus on a flower, a bonsai tree or a bamboo and pine arrangement placed in a window or on a door and shut out the extraneous visual or aural noise, which can be pretty extreme. Similarly, the tea ceremony, which is an important influence on all Japanese esthetics, involves concentration on a lovely, but contrived, environment, with tea bowls and utensils, flowers and art all contributing to a kind of miniature tableau in which to escape the outside world and its pressures.

Another important characteristic of the Japanese sensibility is the awareness of the seasons. Probably the most common theme in Japanese painting is the four seasons, and this motif is carried over into ceramics and lacquer ware, as well as food presentation, with appropriate seasonal symbols (plum in winter, cherry blossoms in spring, flowers in summer and vibrantly colored maple leaves in autumn) being seen throughout Japan.

Applied to food presentation, I am always struck by the multiplicity of dishes that are served at the same time, usually a central tray and surrounding dishes but often a large plate with multiple elements. With luck, the dishes themselves and some of the serving plates and implements are of fine quality and enhance the experience of the meal by emphasizing the season in a beautiful way.

To me, this type of presentation fills the peripheral vision and permits (commands may be more accurate) the diner to focus his or her attention on a tableau that is not unlike a garden. It is beautiful when viewed from a distance and equally rewarding, in a different way, when each element is focused on separately. The idea is to take in and admire the garden from multiple points of view, with each one enhancing the total experience, which will vary greatly from one season to the next.

Tenryuji garden, Kyoto, central part viewed from a distance
Tenryuji garden, closer view of central part
Tenruji garden, still closer view
Tenryuji garden, left side
Tenryuji garden, closer view of left side
Well, you get the picture.

Now let's examine some food presentations that invoke the same exercise, i.e., to admire the whole but then focus on the separate elements and enjoy the relationship between the multiple views.

Here's a two-part lacquer box from a restaurant in Izumo, which contains some 19 elements (counting the soup as one), with a close up of part of the top half, focusing on a mere 12.

Izumo restaurant tray and close-up of a portion
Another example is this breakfast tray from Saginoyuso Ryokan, and close-ups of some of the major elements.

Saginoyuso breakfast tray and some individual elements
And from this year's tour, a magnificent breakfast presentation at River Retreat Garaku.

Breakfast platter at River Retreat Garaku with close-ups of some elements
We saw a different take on the same idea at Daigo, the famous temple food restaurant in Tokyo, where a round sectional plate presented about 15 separate elements, one more gorgeous than the next.

Sectional plate and separate elments at Daigo
And on the trip we just completed, there was Zeniya, already described in my post of November 15, 2015 in detail. But the seasonal plate, with 10 exquisite items, is worth examining in detail, as it makes my point more eloquently than I possibly can.

Zeniya seasonal plate and some of its elements
This style of presentation is not limited to Japanese ingredients. At one modern ryokan we visited on a prior tour, a Western style breakfast was given the same treatment.

Western breakfast, Japanese presentation
In the 1970s, a number of young French chefs visited Japan and became entranced with the way the Japanese presented food. These chefs created the movement known as Nouvelle Cuisine, of which an important element was a revolution in plating, with larger plates giving the ingredients room to breathe and to tell a story. Although the Nouvelle Cuisine movement is long over, the influence of Japanese presentation is still seen in fine restaurants in France and, indeed, around the world.

On a less global note, enjoying Japanese food is an important part of traveling in Japan, and the glorious presentation is at least as important as the food itself. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that careful observation of the plates of food placed in front of you can provide profound insight into how the Japanese relate to their environment.

Bobby Jay

Friday, November 20, 2015

Japan 2015 - Kyoto's Nishiki Street Food Market

Although the Central Japan portion of our tour ended in Toyama, there was a two-day extension in Kyoto, my favorite tourist city in the world.

I love going to food markets wherever I can find them: Paris, New York, Tokyo and especially Kyoto. There the Nishiki Street food market is open six days a week, throughout the day, and one encounters wonderfully fresh food products as well as an abundance of exotic prepared items, from Kyoto's renowned pickles to freshly ground hot pepper spices.

In my unofficial foodie-in-chief of our group, I volunteered to lead a tour of the Nishiki market, which my companions enjoyed immensely.

Some of the highlights of our stroll through the market are below, more or less in the order of our visit (I have tried not to repeat my post of November 6, 2013 too much):

Real chestnuts, not to be confused with those at Zeniya
A weird product, octopus head stuffed with quail egg (photo by Jan Golann)
Shrimp, dried and caramelized
Fried scallop adductor muscles - things we throw away: who knew?
Sea snails
Tea roaster and freshly roasted teas
Assorted mini fish for rice - a super rich source of calcium
Seaweed products, fish and Kyoto style natto (I think)
Steaming oden (mostly various fish cakes and vegetables)
Omelet making 101 and the final result
Cucumbers pickled in miso
The eel guy has various qualities and sizes
Prepared garlic (I don't know how this is used)
One of my favorite stands: the ichimi and shichimi  hot pepper spice grinder.
Mochi tea sweets
Real wasabi root, not to be confused with the powdered stuff
Fancy rice crackers
Although one can find many of the same items, beautifully presented, in the basement floors of the major Tokyo and Kyoto department stores, you can't beat a tour of the Nishiki Market.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Japan 2015 - River Retreat Garaku: Heaven for Ceramics Devotees

Leaving Kanazawa, we traveled by a scenic coastal bus ride to the rural Noto Peninsula, where we had a wonderful, nearly solitary visit to the very spiritual Myojoji temple complex, followed by lunch and a little shopping in Wajima, a lacquer town. The we continued on to River Retreat Garaku, near Toyama.

Garaku is a ceramics lover's dream, featuring major works by many of Japan's leading contemporary artists scattered throughout the modern, architecturally significant property. It also has wonderful food, beautifully and thoughtfully presented, with a French twist.

Breakfast plate at River Retreat Garaku
The building, by the renowned Naito Hiroshi, effectively echoes Japan's traditional square log architecture in a modern context, and has beautiful, linear public spaces and rooms.

Lobby at River Retreat Garaku
Some of the rooms feature sculpture gardens consisting of a single huge ceramic work.

Koie Ryoji
Kato Tsubusa

The food is an equal part of the experience. The restaurant, L'Evo, purports to be French, but I would say that it features elegant French-inspired Japanese cuisine.

Dinner started with a "prologue" of assorted delicacies, followed by mushroom puree with soft roe, mushroom with bayberry and chrysanthemum, egg with bell pepper and sausage and conger eel with grilled eggplant, all presented in or on interesting bowls and plates.

Mushroom puree with soft roe
Mushrooms with bayberry sauce and chrysanthemum
Red pepper and sausage with egg
Fried conger eel with grilled eggplant
Then some more recognizable dishes: gazpacho with cucumber and mozzarella, rockfish with pear a nd spice, black cod with sesame and perfectly grilled hida beef.

Gazpacho with cucumber and mozzarella
Rockfish with pear spice sauce and greens
Black cod with wild sesame
Ikeda beef with onion and mâche
And finally dessert, called "Sugar Apple/Spicebush," although I must admit that I couldn't (and still can't) decipher it. Although it was not very good, I include it here as a quiz: what  exactly is it?

"Sugar Apple/Spicebush," whatever that is
Breakfast at River Retreat Garaku is fabulous! Indeed, it merits another post, although I'll just include it here. Eaten in a spectacular room full of Ogawa Machiko plaques,

Breakfast is ready in the Ogawa Machiko room, River Retreat Garaku
and inventively served on a succession of particularly beautiful plates.

Breakfast at River Retreat Garaku
As I said, absolute Heaven for devotees of Japanese contemporary ceramics. A perfect way to end our tour of Central Japan!

Bobby Jay