If not for the majestic mountains in the distance and the occasional volcano emitting wisps of steam, you’d think you were in the American Midwest rather than Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. In the summer, hand-lettered signs at the ends of driveways advertise sweet corn, cantaloupes and watermelons. Roadside markets sell asparagus and potatoes, two of the local specialties. Creameries proudly market their butter, ice creams, yogurt and baked goods made with the “special milk” of Hokkaido.
On a recent trip, I discovered that the island where my husband grew up is famous throughout Japan for producing vegetables, fruits and dairy products that seem distinctively American. And they are American, I learned. The government imported seeds, farm tools and agriculture experts from the United States in the mid-1800s to turn the populace into farmers. The experiment succeeded to the point that Hokkaido now is the main growing region of Japan.
Hokkaido remains one of the premier fishing ports in the world, and Tony and I enjoyed plenty of seafood on a trip to visit his parents. But I was entranced with the ways the citizens have made American produce and dairy products their own. For example: Gawkers clustered around a normal-sized oval watermelon labeled “Godzilla” in one shop. Almost all Japanese watermelons are small (no bigger than your head) and round. While we let watermelons run amok, the Japanese treat each melon like a precious baby, turning them incrementally each day to prevent that awful white spot where the melon rests on the ground. No wonder they cost $20 and up per melon.
Cantaloupes are even worse. A mid-quality melon costs about $40. They are harvested with a T-shaped portion of the vine attached for convenient toting. They are picked at the absolute peak moment of ripeness. The one I tasted was the best cantaloupe I’ve had in my life.
Asparagus also is grown for quality, not quantity. The spears are either creamy white or deep green, about a foot long and a half-inch in diameter. They’re so perfect they look like wood carvings. A popular summer appetizer is one spear cut into shorter lengths and artfully stacked on a plate.
Corn gets the glamor treatment, too. Although I visited Hokkaido at the height of corn season, I never saw an ear in a husk. They are stripped, cleaned (and probably waxed) and individually shrink-wrapped in plastic. They are sold by the ear, not the dozen. At fairs and roadside attractions, ears of corn on a stick are brushed with teriyaki sauce and grilled over charcoal until the kernels just begin to char.
This abundance of American food without the American cultural context has led to such oddities as Idaho potatoes candied in sugar syrup and sweet corn ice cream.
The corn ice cream in truth was pretty good. It was so good I made a batch after returning home. I served small scoops garnished with blackberries. Tony and I both loved it I’m holding off for now on the green soybean ice cream.
The bare bones of the following recipe is from Jeni Britton Bauer of the Columbus-based chain, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. She uses cream cheese and corn syrup as emulsifiers to produce a creamy texture that resists forming ice crystals in the freezer.
The ice cream may be churned in a frozen-canister-style machine. I made it in a countertop compressor-style machine.
SWEET CORN ICE CREAM
- 4 to 6 ears fresh corn, husked
- 1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. cornstarch
- 1 1/2 oz. (3 tbsp.) cream cheese, softened
- 1 1/4 cups half and half
- 6 tbsp. sugar or to taste
- 2 tbsp. light corn syrup
- 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
Hold one ear of corn over a medium-sized bowl and with a sharp paring knife, cut vertically down each row through the centers of the kernels. Place ear on end in the bowl and with the back of the knife (the dull edge), scrap downward along the rows to remove the milk and insides of the kernels while leaving the skins on the cob. Repeat with remaining ears of corn. Measure out 2 cups and puree in a blender.
Use 2 tablespoons of the half and half to blend with the cornstarch and make a slurry. Set aside. In a medium bowl (2 qt.), whisk the very soft cream cheese until smooth. In a 4-quart saucepan, combine remaining corn liquid, remaining half and half, 4 tablespoons of the sugar and corn syrup. Whisk well and taste for sweetness. If necessary, add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Bring to a boil and boil for exactly 4 minutes. Remove from heat and slowly add cornstarch slurry in a steady stream, whisking rapidly to prevent slurry from sinking to bottom of pan. Return to medium heat and bring to a rolling boil. Remove from heat. Pour about two tablespoons of the hot mixture into the cream cheese. Whisk until completely smooth. Add a little more cream mixture and whisk. Add the rest of the cream mixture and whisk until incorporated. Stir in vanilla extract. Pour mixture into a heatproof plastic bag (Ziploc), remove air and seal. Submerge in an ice bath until completely chilled, about 30 minutes. Or Place in refrigerator to chill overnight.
Freeze in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s directions. Quickly transfer to a lidded container and place in freezer for at least 4 hours. If ice cream becomes too hard to scoop, let stand at room temperature before proceeding. Serve in small scoops with blackberries or blueberries. Makes about 1 quart.
WHAT I ATE ON MY SUMMER VACATION
Before Tony and I left for Japan, I asked readers to share the best, worst and most unusual things they ate on their summer vacations. Here’s the first batch of reports:
From Jodie Grasgreen:
On two separate trips I was in Virginia this summer. One for the highly popular bike extravaganza, Bike Virginia and then for the Veterans Soccer Tournament in Virginia Beach this year. On our way home from the biking trip (we did 240 miles over 5 days), we accidentally found an amazing and very successful tapas bar, mas, in Charlottesville, Va. (http://www.mastapas.com/tapas/). Prides itself on local produce, cheeses and meats — amazing! Large selection of Spanish wine along with goat cheese, breads, sausages. We found them just as they were opening at 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. In 15 minutes, the place was packed! A couple weeks later we were in Virginia Beach for a senior soccer tournament and across from our hotel was the Hot Tuna Bar & Grill (http://www.hottunavb.com/). They also served tapas one night and it was so good we came back the next night. Decadent mac and cheese appetizer, fish tacos, and other fresh seafood… and grilled avocados, which I made at home to the delight of my guests.
Both restaurants were very much into very fresh, local suppliers and were very reasonably priced and both had great, personalized service.
From Leah Francis:
We just got back from Cocoa Beach, Fla. On Sunday morning we walked the beach and my brother-in-law suggested we stop for a bloody Mary at a hole-in-the-wall bar called Hunkerdowns. At the Sunday bloody Mary bar from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the drinks are made to order and you get to choose four toppings for it. Toppings included skewers of shrimp, blue cheese-stuffed olives, warm meatballs, beef jerky celery, skewered pepperoni and cheese, pickled egg and about 10 other items I can’t remember.
Each item is on a separate skewer. Two of these were great for breakfast
From Robin, Creston:
Our family has had a fun spring and summer, and our travels definitely have an influence on what we will try in our own kitchen. Here’s a recap of our adventures and the food associated with it.
We spent spring break in Puerto Rico. Our family loved the guava chicken and shrimp pinchos (shish kebabs) sold by the local vendors in the village of Las Croabas (where you board the kayaks for the bioluminescent bay near Fajardo). They were $3 each and absolutely delicious! They are stacked along with three slices of toasted French bread. We’d love to replicate the guava chicken at home but I can’t find guava jelly. Any idea how to make these? The sweet, tasty coating was a real hit with our daughters.
The malanga mash (root vegetable that was similar to mashed potatoes) was another favorite served at our favorite restaurant, Kasavista Restaurant, also in Las Croabas. My meal also included panko-crusted, oven roasted grouper with cilantro garlic butter sauce and a bean puree. The malanga mash made me feel better thinking I was not eating starchy potatoes, but who knows. I also enjoyed a light puffed bread (I forget exactly what they called it) filled with a tasty homemade shrimp salad. They made me think of your arepas. We enjoyed great food at our hotel, area restaurants and from the local food vendors.
In July we visited Chicago and ate traditional deep dish pizza at Pizano’s. This was a short walk from Millennium Park which fit together for a nice evening. For dessert we walked about a block or two away and enjoyed absolutely delicious coconut cake and red velvet cake at Magnolia Bakery. The moist coconut cake was stacked high with a thick, gooey coconut filling and meringue frosting. We have enjoyed reading the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook and now my daughters have promised to replicate the coconut cake from the cookbook for my birthday. The vintage look of the Chicago branch of this bakery was fun and the delicious cake did not disappoint!
We just returned from visiting Toronto last week. We especially enjoy this city as we walk everywhere on foot. While we always felt safe, the homeless problem seems to be increasing and is very sad. The St. Lawrence Market signage advertises it as the #1 Food Market in the World and is the home of the Peameal sandwich, which we didn’t taste.
The market is wonderful and is a feast for your eyes. We wish we had arrived at lunch and taken advantage of all of the many lunch offerings available. It’s probably best to visit on a full stomach. We brought home homemade pizza dough and frozen homemade cheese ravioli. The pizza dough turned out great homemade pizzas made on pizza stones in our kitchen. The ravioli did not stay fully frozen even though on ice. The resulting ravioli was OK, but not great. The meals did provide great memories of our visit.
We especially enjoyed the French macaroons from Eve’s Temptations in the basement of the Market. We tasted several varieties with our favorites being the salted caramel and pistachio. We now want to learn to make these light delicious desserts at home! Our visit to the St. Lawrence Market reminds me we need to schedule a visit to Cleveland’s West Side Market where it would be more convenient to bring food home.
We enjoyed shopping in Eaton Centre and a rainy day worked out fine in Toronto’s underground system. The Urban Eatery is like an international food court. Toronto has a high Asian population which is reflected in the food offerings which we enjoyed sampling. Bubble tea was fun for my daughters and chopsticks were the norm for most people. We were definitely the minority.
We also loved browsing through Toronto’s Chinatown. While we didn’t eat a meal there on this visit, we enjoyed taking a break at Furama Cake & Desserts Garden on Spadina Avenue. Just like the locals, we took a tray and made selections from the many clear cases in the bakery. Three of us shared an egg bun filled with a miniature hotdog. Surprisingly, this was our favorite and on a return trip we plan to try some of the ham and cheese varieties for lunch. We weren’t thinking the bakery would be an appropriate lunch destination — we were thinking snack.
The bakery was very interesting. We brought home some nice pre-packaged almond cookies, butter cookies, etc. along with “relaxation” tea from one of the herb vendors to share with my co-workers. This was a great experience for young girls to feel like they were in Asia so close to home. Next time we will stop at the bakery for lunch instead of dessert.
We look forward to hearing about everyone else’s food adventures.