The living and writing of my last post took a tiny chunk out of me. I was on an enthusiastic Jell-o crazed roll, internally compiling my recent adventures and documenting the dance with this most highly temperamental partner. By the time gelatin fantasia appeared, I was beginning to worry about the longevity of my shrimp. I had a short health service movie projection going on in my head showcasing two lab technicians nervously swabbing microbial cultures onto rounds of gelatin. Was my lovely tomato aspic plan B really a live breeding ground for voracious organisms? I really needed some down time- with all my fretting and jelly rigging. Over the weekend I hit a low and skidded out into food oblivion; eating off the remains of almost-expired food products with the exception of a carefree toss-in-the-blender pesto sauce. Empty stomached and uninspired, I began to fuss again. Since the start of FOODChair, I have wanted to remain as fluid as possible, allowing the food muse to sound off and simply follow with knife and fry pan in tow. But last night, I began to wonder if the muse was going to show up at all. For the love of my blog, what was going to happen if I kept turning out poorly executed meals out of questionable produce? Before I could adequately respond to my own query, I thought about Umami, the je ne s’ais quois of taste.
Umami, the Fifth Sense, I learned on Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words, is a more recently accepted term used by western food scientists. If we were to look at the pantheon of understood taste: sweet, sour, bitter and salty; we could brazenly foist umami on top to newly create a pyramid. Well that is what Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University did in 1908. He surmised after slurping up a bowl of good dashi, that some palatable secret was locked within the kombu flavored broth. His research to uncover the nature of this “deliciousness” led to the finding of glutamate, an amino acid within the kombu. He coined the word umami to describe the subtle synergistic taste that rounds out other flavors. According to the Umami Information Center, umami can be detected within meats, fish, dairy and vegetables, wherever glutamates and ribonucleotides can be found. Finally in the 1980’s umami was proven to be a legitimate taste (the appropriate receptors to the amino acids were located within taste buds) and recognized by international tongues. I figured the seventy some years between initial discovery to concrete proof must have generated a lively discussion between individuals who seek to quantify taste and those who see flavor as a composite of more intangible qualities such as emotions, memory and food experience (for example: the way food feels and sounds while being chewed). It is understood that taste attracts us to certain foods and repels us from others for survival. Generally, the desire for sweets keep us pumped up with carbohydrates, salt cravings keep us sated with necessary sodium chloride, bitter and sour flavors warn us away from poisons and rancid foods, and umami draws us towards mandatory proteins. With my logic, deliciousness is mandatory.
Growing up on miso soup and practically having soy sauce flowing through my veins, this elusive savory taste is indelibly imprinted upon my being. I like the way umami fills my mouth when I pronounce it, sounding as luscious as it tastes. But I like “the fifth sense” most as a metaphor for all that is meaty and appetizing. And just like that, the muse has spoken- I now have a better understanding of what has been invisibly driving me in my culinary adventures. I cannot always create what I want, how I want. But I always look towards that which flavors my world a little more vividly and adds more depth and character.
Imagine my delight when I read that bacon is an Umami-rich food. For this post, I offer Spinach Salad. This is an updated version on the classic. It is so simple that no recipe need be given, just a cheer or two of encouragement. First, find your nicest large shallow bowl. I am imagining a ceramic cobalt blue one. Place a bounty of baby spinach leaves intermixed with a handful of torn radicchio leaves (Belgian endive is nice too) for great color and bitterness. Slice thinly (but not so thin as to be considered shaved) pure white button mushrooms and toss into the greens. Fry until crisp and crumble your pork protein of choice: bacon, pancetta, spam, Canadian bacon. Scatter abundantly and ceremoniously over the other ingredients. I do steer you away from turkey bacon which for this project I did purchase and found the chew to be wholly dissatisfying (similar to fruit leather). Crack, peel and quarter the eggs which have been previously hard boiled. Artfully arrange these around the perimeter of the growing umami delight. I like to fry up an onion in some of that abundant bacon grease until caramelized. Once cooled, they will go into the mix. Now here is where we take a major detour from the classic recipe. I am partial to a fruit item making its appearance at this point. I like it as a contrast to the saltiness of the bacon. Usually I go for something relatively innocuous like a dried cranberry. Shavings of tart apple would also work nicely. But today, I am thinking blueberries, probably because I have a bunch waiting for me in the refrigerator and I am working the visual color palette in my head. At this point I like to whip up a mustard vinaigrette but I make the inclusion of about a teaspoon of jelly. This is a terrific tip passed onto me by J-Bird of V-8 Jell-o rescue fame. While this sounds bizarre, the fruit preserves really serves to support the sweet undertones of the balsamic vinegar in the dressing. Drizzle and toss gently right before serving. Shave crumbly shags of your best parmesan cheese on top and enjoy.