Unlocking umami: Foods high in glutamates offer sought-after flavor



Tomato-Crimini Mushroom and Bacon Salad

8 ounces crimini mushrooms

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon soy sauce

2 ripe tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice

6 slices thick-cut bacon, cooked until crisp and chopped in 1-inch pieces

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon maple syrup or honey

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

Prepare a grill for medium heat. In a bowl, toss the mushrooms with 1 tablespoon oil and soy sauce. Grill mushrooms, turning every minute or so, until lightly charred and cooked through. Remove from grill; return to bowl. Let cool to room temperature.

Add tomatoes, bacon, vinegar, maple syrup and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toss well; adjust seasonings with salt and pepper if needed. Serve topped with the shaved Parmesan. Makes 2 servings.

Source: Adapted from chef Christopher Prosperi, Metro Bis restaurant, Simsbury, Conn.

Per serving: 186 calories, 14 g fat (4 g saturated), 19 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 9 g protein, 1 g fiber, 420 mg sodium.

Main dish

Miso-Marinated Cod

1/2 cup sake

1/4 cup white miso

1/4 cup mirin

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced

2 green onions, white and light green parts, finely sliced

4 cod fillets, skinned (5 to 6 ounces each)

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons oil

Combine sake, miso, mirin, vinegar, soy sauce, ginger and green onions in a shallow glass dish large enough to hold the cod in a single layer. Add fish, thick side down. Cover and refrigerate for 6 to 8 hours, turning fish halfway through.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Lift the fillets from the marinade; lightly season both sides with salt and pepper.

Heat oil in an oven-safe skillet over medium heat. When hot, lay the cod in the pan; cook about 1 minute. Transfer the skillet to the oven until fish is cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from “The Dinnertime Survival Cookbook” by Debra Ponzek with Mary Goodbody (Running Press, $22).

Per serving: 174 calories, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 54 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 23 g protein, 319 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.

Main Dish

Coq au Vin Nouveau

The umami-rich components here are the ham, chicken thighs and broth, mushrooms, wine and carrots. Make the dish a day ahead for better-developed flavor.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 ounces lean smoked ham, diced medium

8 skinless chicken thighs

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour or Wondra

1 medium onion, diced medium

4 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup minced shallots

1 cup crimini or button mushroom slices (1/3 to 1/2 pound)

1 cup fruity white wine such as sauvignon blanc

14-ounce can low-fat, low-sodium chicken broth

2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced 1/2-inch thick

2 ribs celery, sliced 1/2-inch thick

2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high in a heavy Dutch oven or skillet with a tight-fitting lid. (Choose a pan big enough to fit the chicken in no more than 2 layers plus the vegetables.) Sauté the ham until browned all over. Remove and reserve, leaving as much oil in the pan as possible.

Liberally season the chicken with salt and pepper and dredge in flour. Add the remaining oil to the pan and heat. Working in batches, brown the chicken well on all sides. Take care not to scorch the flour coating, but do let it get brown. Reserve the chicken with the ham.

Reduce the heat to medium, and add the onion, garlic, shallots and mushrooms to the pan. Sauté, stirring constantly, until tender and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the wine, broth, carrots, celery and thyme, and bring to a boil. Return the chicken and ham to the pan. Cover the pot, adjust the heat to maintain a simmer and cook 45 to 50 minutes, until the chicken is very tender and the sauce has thickened. Taste and correct seasoning with salt and pepper.

Arrange chicken and vegetable pieces on a platter, and cover with the sauce. Serve with rice, noodles or roasted potatoes. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from “The Fifth Taste” by David and Anna Kasabian (Universe, $27.50).

Per serving: 425 calories (42 percent from fat), 19.7 g fat (4.6 g saturated, 9.9 g monounsaturated), 115.5 mg cholesterol, 36.6 g protein, 15.2 g carbohydrates, 1.9 g fiber, 625.3 mg sodium.

Main dish

Umami Shrimp

2 tablespoons canola oil, plus more if needed

8 ounces sliced crimini mushrooms

3 green onions, sliced

1/2 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 pound cooked shrimp

1 cup cooked broccoli florets or green beans

Cooked noodles

Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add mushrooms; stir-fry until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer mushrooms to a plate with slotted spoon.

Add more oil to wok, if needed; add onions. Stir-fry 1 minute. Add chicken broth, tamari, sesame oil and pepper; heat to a boil. Stir in shrimp, broccoli and reserved mushrooms; heat until hot, about 2 minutes. Serve over noodles. Makes 2 servings.

Per serving: 367 calories, 57 percent of calories from fat, 23 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 172 mg cholesterol, 10 g carbohydrates, 30 g protein, 1,290 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

Chicago Tribune

Umami is the so-called “fifth taste,” and given that scientists only proved its existence this century, it can also be considered the most elusive.

To unlock that savory umami taste, you have to combine flavors – but which ones? Start with foods rich in glutamates.

Glutamates sometimes get a bad rap because of the notoriety of the food additive monosodium glutamate – MSG. But there are foods naturally rich in this protein-building amino acid, and they live up to the meaning of umami, a Japanese word roughly translated as “delicious.”

“As a cook, you want to balance foods. We’re always looking for a little umami,” says chef Christopher Prosperi. Umami, he adds, is why certain dishes – like the Silver Palate Cookbook’s iconic Chicken Marbella with its lively mix of capers, olives and prunes – make our mouths water.

“We can’t get enough of it,” Prosperi says.

Indeed. That umami hunger is why one of the hot “new” ingredients surfacing in restaurant kitchens is koji, which is used traditionally in Japan to make soy sauce, sake, miso and other fermented food products. Prepared koji, available at a growing number of Asian markets, is ready to be spooned into all sorts of recipes.

Generally, though, getting that umami fix isn’t easy – nor is it as easy, say, as sparking foods with a spritz of lemon.

“To work its magic, umami needs to be in the company of other ingredients,” Michael Pollan writes in his new book, Cooked. “A bit like salt, glutamate seems to italicize the taste of foods, but unlike salt, it doesn’t have an instantly recognizable taste of its own.”

Prosperi agrees that a combination of flavors is needed to unlock umami. But he doesn’t go reaching for a shaker of MSG. He instead goes to his larder for glutamate-laden vegetables like tomatoes and mushrooms, plus cheeses, fish, meat – even seaweed.

“We use dashi all the time for soups and pan sauces,” he says, referring to the Japanese stock made from kombu, a type of seaweed.

Dashi’s versatility is also endorsed by Elizabeth Andoh, a cookbook author and American-born authority on Japanese cuisine.

“It can be used in anything, any style of cooking,” she writes in an email from her home in Japan. “Dashi enhances any ‘ethnic’ flavors including standard American seasonings.”

Andoh, a self-described “kombu freak,” says she has nothing good to say about any artificially created flavor-enhancements – including MSG.

“On the other hand, I extol the virtues of naturally occurring glutamate, especially in kombu.”

Don’t overlook what’s in your larder for glutamate-rich flavor boosting. Drape anchovies on hard-cooked eggs or a salad. Shave Parmesan cheese atop a fresh tomato sauce, itself an ingredient loaded with glutamate. Toss bacon – a veritable umami bomb – wherever you can, from salads to sauces to side dishes.

Try these recipes, using foods naturally laden with glutamate, to capture that sought-after umami flavor.

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