“Savoriness or umami is the name for the taste sensation produced by the free glutamates commonly found in fermented and aged foods. The additive monosodium glutamate (MSG), which was developed as a food additive in 1907 by Kikunae Ikeda, produces a strong umami taste. Umami is also provided by the nucleotides that are naturally present in many protein-rich foods, including dried Bonito flakes and in high concentration in dried Shiitake mushrooms, used in much of Asian cooking…. Umami is considered basic in Japanese and Chinese cooking, but is not discussed as much in Western cuisine, where it is sometimes referred to as “savory” or “moreish.” The Japanese name for the taste sensation literally means “delicious flavour.”
– paraphrased from Wikipedia
Buenos Aires – How could we pass up the opportunity to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the discovery of glutamate? I mean, break out the party hats and noisemakers! Yes, indeed, July 25, 1907, a researcher at the University of Tokyo, clearly bored to tears with whatever task the department chair had given him, decided to analyze the ingredients in his daily noodle soup bowl, and figure out why grandma’s tasted better than mom’s. With great glee, given his obviously poor relationship with his maternal parent, he announced it was because nana used more konbu seaweed and bonito flakes, and he even declared the chemical he isolated from those two ingredients was the source of umami, or “delicious taste”. This founded an entire industry and also got him out of having to go home for Sunday lunch visits.
I started off figuring that I had to make some form of dashi – a quick trip to chinatown yielded up some konbu, the bonito flakes were already in the pantry. Instead of infusing them into water, I decided to infuse them in a cream and milk mixture (we don’t have half-and-half here), spice it up slightly with some shichimi, or “seven spice” powder, a touch of salt, and thicken it up in a double boiler with a couple of egg yolks. Now, what to put that on… Salmon, yes that’ll work. And a cream sauce, how about a pasta? So, fresh salmon, put through the coarse meat grinder, some fried onions, and the grated rind of some lemons, oranges, and limes, along with a splash of their juices and some salt – makes a great little salmon burger… oh, a basic egg pasta dough, filled giant raviolis with the salmon mixture, left to dry slightly, cooked off, topped with the cream sauce, sprinkled with chive batons, and yes, that’s got umami in spades.
Dried, aged, tomatoes, cheese, cold and wet days – how about a steaming bowl of tomato soup. Remember those Campbell’s soup ads for a bowl of tomato soup on a cold wintery day? Soup and sandwich, soup and sandwich… soup this good just has to be Ca… mmm, mmm, good. Oh wait, where was I? Ahh yes, a big pot, a liter of milk, about two of water, a whole bunch of sun-dried tomatoes, a couple of onions, some garlic cloves, fresh parsley, cloves, black pepper, thyme, bay leaf, all simmered together for about half an hour, then pureed, strained through a coarse strainer, a little salt… and what atop? Why yes, a parmesan crisp… just a scoop of freshly grated parmesan cheese sprinkled with a little smoked paprika, melted and browned on a silpat, and left to cool and crisp up. Float that right on top of the soup.
Found ’em. English muffins. The recipe that works. Since I’ve been on this baking kick recently I’ve started reading various baking sites. And who knows more about norteamericano baking than King Arthur’s Flour company? And, lo and behold, English Muffins, and the recipe turns out perfectly. Really. Look at them. Try it.
Great sources of umami… bacon or similar cured meats… meaty sorts of mushrooms like shiitake and portobellos… cheese…. How about a sort of McMuffin kind thing? Split those English Muffins we just made. Top with a slice of crispy prosciutto (okay, modern chef’s trick here… you’re gonna love this… get two plates of equal size… lay a square of kitchen towel paper on one… lay strips of prosciutto, pancetta, bacon, whatever you like on the paper, not touching each other… lay another square of towel paper on top… put the second plate atop to press it all together… stick in the microwave on high power for 50 seconds, no more, no less… you tell me), top with some thickly sliced portobellos that have been briefly sauteed in butter, grate some cheese over the top, something that will melt well, I used a cheese called fynbo that has a sort of nutty character to it. Broil. Drizzle a little glaze of reduced soy and balsamic vinegar around it. Eat.
One of the things that I get asked alot is a sort of “where did you get that idea?” usually referring to some sort of strange sounding combination. Much of the time I have no idea, these things just come to me. But this one I know, and I forgot to mention it when I posted about my blue cheese sauce back on the evening of our Sherry Dinner. It was from Tony Bourdain. Now, not anything the man cooked, because my past experience with his cooking is, well, less than favorable. But I do occasionally enjoy watching him traipse around the globe – not because I enjoy listening to him prattle on as if he actually has the “street cred” he thinks he does, but because he often ends up in front of someone who’s whipping up something really cool. In this case, it was a drink. A martini. I think it was a show on India, and he’d gone out to some floating bar in the middle of a lake, where the bartender prepared him what he declared was the best martini he’d ever had – it was garnished with an olive filled with blue cheese, onion, and mint. It got me thinking, and that’s how I ended up with a sauce made from gin-deglazed shallots, melted blue cheese, chopped black olives, stock (lamb for this evening), and finished with freshly chopped mint. You can follow the logical progression, no? The sauce this eve was ladled over seared and roasted lamb loin, which was atop brown butter miso sauteed chinese cabbage. An umami bomb, in the best sense of the word, basically.
Chocolate isn’t an umami sort of thing, but then, few dessert items are. Some beans are. Adzukis for example, so what about adzuki bean paste? And what about sandwiching it between that cocoa crust and chocolate ganache I’ve been playing around with over the last couple of months? It comes out like a dense, really interesting fudge kind of intense dessert. Maybe a little over the top. Maybe.