Earlier this summer, I came across the words “umami taste.” I read a book about it and still wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be. Traditionally, there are four tastes in cooking: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Umami taste is considered the fifth taste and is based somewhat on glutamate (as in monosodium glutamate but from naturally occurring glutamate in foods.) The more I read about it online and in cookery books, the impression I managed to describe it is a Chinese Mandarin adjective, pronounced as “hsien” (not sure of the spelling.) I remember that word spoken when a fresh sea bass steamed with fresh green onions and sliced ginger with salt, fragrant with umami was set on the table. I can’t really translate umami taste into words but I can tell when I taste it or smell it in a dish.
Yesterday, my daughter C. and I had a late, leisurely lunch at the Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge. This restaurant, along with Maison Robert in Boston, were my favorite places to eat while living in Lexington when the children were young. I ordered two courses: a fresh corn soup which appeared not as a corn chowder but a puree that was just thick enough to coat a spoon. Its taste and texture were unctuous. For my entree, I ordered fresh pappardelle (handmade pasta) with a garden-fresh sauce, fresh corn and herbs on top with small cooked tomato pieces in the sauce. Both dishes, but especially the pappardelle had a strong umami taste which was just delicious.
I asked our waiter (who was from Brazil) to compliment the chef on the delicious “umami taste” of my meal and to ask what kind of stock was used in the pappardelle dish. He came back smiling and reported that the chef had used a little garlic, fresh thyme, vegetable broth and canned tomatoes for the sauce. I was surprised by the use of canned tomatoes but it made sense because the tomatoes were subdued, not flagrantly farmstand sharp in taste. The other surprise was vegetable broth as the base for the light sauce.
When I got home, I looked online at vegetable broth recipes and alighted on one that actually talked about incorporating an umami taste by adding sea vegetable or nori (laver) into the stock! Nosing closer, I speculated that perhaps making my own vegetable broth might serve as the base for unctuous corn soup and pasta, a milder, lighter tasting broth than either chicken or beef broth.
I’ve made vegetable broths before that were mildly sweet and delicious during the time when I attended a macrobiotic cooking week at the Kushi Institute here in Western Massachusetts. It was at least a decade ago when I was recovering from viral meningitis and thought a macrobiotic diet might help. It did.
Lately this summer, I’ve been finding that my cooking attempts have not been as appealing as usual. I couldn’t tell if it was because I was fatigued from the recuperation of both my broken ankle and G.’s back injury or what. But more than a couple of meals have fallen flat for some reason.
Today, following my intuition that a)a restaurant like the Harvest would make its own vegetable stock; and b)making vegetable stock myself and trying it out as a new base flavor for my cooking efforts might be an adventure worth trying. Especially since the vegetables I planned to use didn’t cost a lot.
Here are the ones I used, selected for sweetness, saltiness and robustness. In the recipes, I was warned against using potatoes that absorbed flavor and cabbage which didn’t add good flavor (which surprised me.) In a large enamelled stockpot which I haven’t used in years, I put in a little olive oil, heated the pot and added:
2 vidalia onions (sweet) cut up in large chunks
2 medium leeks, carefully washed to rinse grit and dirt out from the closely spaced leaves, esp. the green parts; chopped up in 1 inch pieces
3 small cloves of garlic–smashed and browned with the onions and leeks
Only the onions, leeks and garlic were sauteed in olive oil until they softened and browned a little. Then, I added:
6 ribs of celery hearts; the lengths sliced and chopped into one inch pieces
a whole pack of baby carrots, peeled and just the right size for sweetness
2 large parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks for sweetness
1 bay leaf
I added spring water to the top of the pot and slowly brought it to a simmer–not a boil. Simmered covered for over an hour. Then added:
1 bunch of fresh flat leaf parsley–very well washed of grit and cut up coarsely (added in the last half hour)
1 can of stewed tomatoes (added in the last half hour)
1 tablespoon of instant dashi (Umami flavor to the max)
After adding the parsley, tomatoes and dashi, I simmered the broth for another half hour or so with the lid off. Tasted the broth before and after adding the tomatoes, parsley and dashi. MUCH better afterwards. I didn’t add any salt at all, figuring that I could add it to taste each time that I used the broth in various recipes.
I let the vegetable broth cool completely, then strained it through a large sieve. I emptied an ice cube tray and ladled cooled broth in it. When frozen, I’ll store them in a Ziploc bag and use them without having to thaw out a larger amount. I had bought some soup size plastic containers a few months ago like the ones Ina Garten uses on her TV show for homemade chicken broth. I’ll use those to store soup recipe size broth and keep them in the 2nd floor freezer.
I’d like to mention that making the vegetable broth created a light cooking fragrance throughout the kitchen. And unlike Ina Garten, I didn’t have to use two whole chickens and all kinds of strong herbs. The vegetable broth-making process was incredibly satisfying to make because it was full of freshly washed, chopped up vegetables and water, that’s all.
Whether I’m right or wrong about vegetable broth being the basis for creating soups and sauces that have an umami taste, my kitchen right now smells like an umami factory so maybe I’m on the right track. It tastes incredibly delicious and robust for a vegetable broth too.
Come to think of it, I’m remembering the exquisite small roast chickens with bread salad that we made last Christmas Eve to salute Judy Rodgers, the chef of the Zuni Cafe in California who died just a few weeks before Christmas at the age of fifty-seven. The taste of that dish had an “umami-ness” to it too–and we all noticed it as being extraordinarily delicious.