Fifth Sense

I am officially cookied- and cupcaked-out! Don’t get me wrong: I have a big appreciation for sweets, especially those made with sea salt caramel and custard. It just looks as if most chefs and their loved ones went on a molten cake, muffin and mousse diet for the month of February. Even during months further removed from Valentine’s, reputable foodie sites and food blogs alike are constantly abuzz with various dessert ideas, totally disproportionate to all other content. I am not even going to talk about Pinterest. Doesn’t anyone eat normal savory dishes anymore :-) ?

I personally believe that savory food is potentially so much more satisfying than the sweet stuff! Several years ago, umami was conclusively added as one of the five senses, or basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Umami was deemed to be the dimension of deliciousness, or savoriness (and this concept virtually equates the two!). These days, I understand we are officially up to six senses, with the recent addition of kokumi (translated as heartiness, or mouthfulness; a sensation of higher intensity of flavor often brought about by curing, braising, or roasting).

I may have mentioned before that I am fundamentally lazy, and that as a chef, I constantly cheat in order to maximize my cooking and eating pleasure. My goal is to find the least possible amount of work to have the best possible experience. Thus, I have learned to rely on umami-rich ingredients and methods producing the highest amount of umami in the shortest time possible (such as roasting).

Without further ado, I would like to present two quintessentially savory ideas:

1. Soba noodles in dashi broth, with fresh silken tofu, scallions, shiso leaf, and mountain yam (see above), served with good quality soy sauce (I love my Yamasa Yuki Marudaizu Ginsen soy sauce!), and nori on the side. 

This dish features several umami-rich foods, – kelp and bonito flakes in the dashi broth, soy sauce, and nori. Soba noodles (which are made of buckwheat) are not only fantastic conduits of umami, but they add an umami dimension of their own due to their earthiness. I often supplement the dashi powder with miso paste or dry mix to moderate the fishy taste of bonito (the additional bonus is that miso is another one of those super-umami ingredients).

I also love this dish because of its textural interplay, so make sure you do not overcook the soba noodles. I typically shoot for a minute less than suggested on the package. The grated mountain yam and the fresh silken tofu provide a really nice contrast. Both of them are available in specialty Asian stores, such as the fantastic Japanese shop Hana here in DC. The mountain yam is really neat to work with; all you do is peel away the outside firm skin, and grate it (I like to use my Microplane on it). Its jelly-like, foamy texture is unlike anything else I have encountered. Shiso leaf adds another interesting note to the dish both in terms of aromatics, texture, and flavor. I am a big fan, and have previously written about shiso leaf here.

 2. Parmigiano Reggiano soufflé.

Aged parmesan is super high in umami, courtesy of its glutamate levels developed during maturation (and visible as the white crystals in the cheese): 

For the soufflé recipe, I simply adapted the one I have used a number of times to make a blue cheese soufflé. I used a 24-month Parmigiano, but you can certainly use whatever aged cheese is available. An aged sheep’s milk cheese will make it saltier and more intense.

Most importantly, don’t stress about the soufflé too much; it does not have to be perfect. Go nuts: make it on a week night! (I did!) That’s right, soufflés are not just for snooty Russian service dinners anymore. It is true that my soufflés may not win any prizes for their beauty, but they are, as Italians would say, brutti ma buoni (ugli but good).

As for the cooking time, it will totally depend on your ramekin or soufflé dish type. My soufflés in ceramic ramekins cooked in 15 minutes flat; the metal ramekins took 23 minutes. Just look for the visual clues listed in the recipe. Serve immediately atop a simple green salad, perhaps with a few slices of proscuitto or serrano ham on the side to push the “umaminess” just a bit further. Now, you just need a crisp white, and nice company to make the evening complete…

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Now I have to say goodbye till next week when I will be reporting back on our eating, drinking and dancing trip to Portland, Oregon. This weekend we turn into complete piglets by day, and Argentine tango-dancing zombies by night…