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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Blame it on Umami

There's a food trend that's been bothering me for quite a while, and I just reached my limit last week when I visited the adorable little Upper West Side store Spices and Tease .
I was performing my kid-on-a-candy-shop act looking and smelling all the lovely displayed spice and tea blends. I was memorizing combinations and trying to make mental notes (which is hard these days of brain decrepitude), until I saw the "onion and bacon salt."
"Enough! I cannot take it any longer." I thought. Why are they adding bacon to everything? It used to be that if you kept kosher, with the exception of gelatin and possible bug infestation, desserts, teas and spices were kind of on the safe side. That is, until an inconsiderate person decided to add bacon to chocolate, cupcakes, ice cream, milkshakes, and successfully fed them to his/her friends or customers and invaded that sacred world.
Apparently the gross sounding combinations taste really good, because the fad keeps expanding.
The crunchiness, fat and salt in the cured pig meat might add something special to the sweetness of its new companions, but I would blame the success of the pairing to UMAMI.
Umami--for all of us who still think that the basic tastes are only sweet, sour, salty and bitter--is the officially recognized fifth basic taste experience that our taste buds' cell receptors can perceive.
Although the first four known tastes are pretty easy to identify, umami, which comes from the Japanese words for "delicious essence" is harder to describe. It's a savory, full-flavor taste that is not sweet, sour, salty nor bitter, but yet complements all of them. It's what makes stocks and broths delicious and satisfying. As explained in the Umami Information Center website, "umami is a pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate (primarily in meats) and guanylate (more abundant in vegetables), which occur naturally in many foods... As the taste of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don't recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious."
By cooking, aging, drying, curing, ripening and fermenting the foods naturally containing glutamate, the umami taste concentrates even more. That's why red wine, bonito flakes, dried mushrooms, soy sauce, beef stock, aged cheeses and of course, bacon can turn dishes into deliciousness. 
The word glutamate might seem familiar, as in mono sodium glutamate, yes: MSG. The feared food additive famous for flavoring Chinese take-out and many of other foods that had an immediate, fast and inexpensive umami effect. Although the amino acid is indeed the same, MSG is a synthetic form of the substance naturally present in many real and natural foods, and in this case, glutamate has not been linked to allergies nor headaches like the artificial flavoring has been.
Umami might be the answer to our love for pizza, French fries, ketchup (you thought it was all due to the high fructose corn syruped tomatoes???), sushi, your mother's chicken soup and deli pastrami, as among the foods containing the highest concentrations of umami are:
Seaweed, fish (like tuna, anchovies, mackerel, cod and sardines), shellfish, beef, pork, chicken, eggs, Parmesan cheese (and other aged cheeses), green tea, soy sauce, and the following vegetables: tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, soy beans, Japanese mushrooms, truffles, potatoes and carrots. 
And now we know the secret of deliciousness...Some tomato sauce here, bone marrow there, shaved truffles, a splash of soy sauce, a sprinkling of Parmesan, or a couple of hidden anchovies might make a dish go from OK to amazing. 
The irony of it all is that once I dug in deeper (I went all the way to googling Spice and Tease), I found out that their onion bacon salt is made with: Sel de Guérande ( Organic Sea Salt ), Dried Onions and Imitation Bacon Bits ( Soy Flour ). So maybe after all, and thanks to umami and food engineering (which is kind of scary), the dessert and spice worlds might not yet be completely invaded with real bacon. I just hope that we use umami to make our diets more natural, not more fake.

SHIITAKE MUSHROOM PARCELS

This dish can be served as an appetizer or on top of salad greens, cooked rice, quinoa, buckwheat or pasta-- I used umami-rich shiitake mushrooms and white miso, a mild, fermented soy bean paste to bring in the deliciousness punch. It will not disappoint!
  • Vegetarian (uses yogurt), free of: nuts and eggs (miso might contain gluten)
  • Super ingredients: shiitake mushrooms (which support immune system and protect against heart disease and are rich in phytonutrients, vitamins B2, 3, 5 and 6, minerals and fiber), organic miso (high in protein, vitamin B12 zinc, copper and manganese and a huge amount of phytochemicals produced during the fermentation process. Which also, makes miso a great probiotic), thyme and chives (great source of antioxidants and some trace minerals) and Greek yogurt (rich in probiotics, calcium and protein)
INGREDIENTS

1 pound shiitake mushrooms, scrubbed with a kitchen towel, stem removed and caps sliced
2 tablespoons organic (non-GMO) white miso paste, separated
4 cloves of garlic, minced
8 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 sprigs fresh thyme
Fresh ground pepper, to taste1
1 (6-oz) plain Greek yogurt, preferably full fat
8 fresh chives, coarsely chopped

METHOD
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Cut 4 parchment paper rectangles (about 16-in x 14-in) and set aside.
Place sliced shiitakes in a large bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk in  1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of miso, all the minced garlic and the oil and add to the shiitakes, gently, but making sure they are covered evenly.Your hands might be the best tool here!
Add thyme sprigs and divide the mixture into the center of each of the four parchment pieces. Sprinkle mushroom mixture with pepper to taste.

Gather all the edges and corners of the parchment in the center, and tie them (tightly) with kitchen twine.
Place the four parcels in a rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes.


While mushrooms are in the oven, mix the yogurt with the remaining 2 teaspoons miso.


Once parcels are out of the oven, place in bowls or plates and let each person open their own by untying the twine. Serve with a dollop of yogurt-miso mix and top with chives.

Enjoy deliciousness (and not having to do dishes)!

Makes 4 parcels

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