Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Umami mia!

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 Umami mia! This thick, warming vegetarian soup started with random leftovers but turned into a rather elegant dish that takes full advantage of "umami," the Japanese "fifth taste."
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Umami mia!

The ancient sage who first coined the term about necessity being the mother of invention may well have been looking into an almost-bare larder when he thought that one up. There's nothing like a limited selection of leftovers and wizened veggies to inspire the home chef to culinary creativity.

So it was the other night, when a busy day at the computer coincided with a chilly, rainy December afternoon. Battle Christmas-shopping crowds to go to the grocery in the freezing drizzle, or stay home and figure out something based on the contents of a refrigerator and pantry that badly needed a refill? No contest!

Things looked bleak in the pantry and fridge, though: No meat, poultry or fish that wasn't frozen. Not much in the way of healthy green, leafy veggies. We did, however, have a big eggplant and a bunch of brown mushrooms, an earthy flavor combination rich in that savory "fifth taste" that the Japanese call "umami."

The concept of umami, loosely translated as "meaty" or "savory," as a fifth taste category - separate from but equal to the traditional sweet, sour, salty and bitter - has been fundamental to Japanese cuisine for ages.

American home cooks of the '60s took advantage of umami, without realizing that they were doing so, when they dosed virtually everything with copious quantities of monosodium glutamate (MSG) in the trademarked brand Accent.

But umami in more serious and subtle form started gaining traction among Western chefs and foodies only around 2000. The concept has become trendy of late, earning its 15 minutes of fame, and then some, in a Wall Street Journal article last week headlined "A New Taste Sensation." Top chefs like New York's Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the article noted, are plating up so-called "umami bombs," described as "dishes that pile on ingredients naturally rich in umami for an explosive taste."

Asian fare is rich in sources of umami; so is Mediterranean cuisine. If you want to make your own umami bomb with no MSG added, gather a list of umami-rich ingredients ranging from soy sauce and edible seaweed to anchovies, tomatoes, Parmigiano and other hard Italian cheeses, dark mushrooms, eggplant and red wine. Sounds good to me!

But what to do with my eggplant and mushrooms? An Italian-style dish over pasta came right to mind, followed closely by an Indian vegetarian curry or Asian stir-fry. Close inspection, though, revealed an ugly truth: My veggies were still perfectly palatable, but a week in the crisper drawer had left them less than mint condition. Scratches, dents and browned spots on veggies may not hurt the flavor, but they don't look pretty on the plate.

Solution? Simple! Buzz the ugly ducklings into a swan of a soup. Make it thick and hearty, draw on Italian, Indian and Asian influences, and load on the umami to make a hearty, satisfying soup so "meaty" that nobody's likely to notice it's vegetarian.


 The Wall Street Journal article is currently available online without charge:

 Our FoodLovers Discussion Group has been carrying on an extended discussion of the WSJ article and umami in general. You're welcome to read the conversation and join in here:


(Serves two)

1 medium eggplant, enough to make about 4 cups (1 scant liter) when peeled and cubed
2 cups roughly chopped brown domestic mushrooms
1/2 of a small white or yellow onion, enough to make 1 cup slivered
3 tablespoons good olive oil
Dried red-pepper flakes
Black pepper
1 teaspoon (5g) Madras curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
2 cups water or vegetable broth (see note)
1 tablespoon (15ml) soy sauce
1/2 cup (120g) cooked or thawed frozen lima beans or fava beans (optional)
Yogurt or sour cream (optional)
Steamed white rice (optional)


1. Peel the eggplant and cut it into 1-inch cubes. Clean the mushrooms and cut them into halves, quarters or thick slices; reserve a few thin slices for garnish. Peel the onion and cut it in half across the equator. Save half for another use; cut the other half vertically into thin slices.

2. Put the olive oil into a saute pan or skillet over medium-high heat and saute the onion slices with a discreet shake of dried red-pepper flakes until they turn soft and translucent but don't start to brown. Add the chopped mushrooms and continue cooking just until they "sweat" and wilt. Then do the same with the cubed eggplant. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and season with the curry powder, cumin and about half of the Spanish smoked paprika.

3. Add the water or vegetable broth, using only enough to make a thick soup. If you don't care about making a vegetarian dish, chicken or beef broth will yield a somewhat richer result; but the umami-rich combination of bold flavors in this dish makes such a filling meatless soup that it seems a shame for any animals to be harmed in its production.

4. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to very low and simmer until the vegetables are very soft and the flavors well blended, adding a little water or broth only if it seems necessary. Then buzz with a stick or stand blender. Don't over-blend; it's better with a more interesting rough texture than silky smooth. Check seasoning and keep warm until serving time.

5. If you use the optional limas or fava beans, warm them while the soup is simmering. Place a portion of beans in the bottom of warm, shallow soup bowls, then ladle in the thick soup. Garnish with the reserved thin mushroom slices and the rest of the smoked paprika. Serve by itself or, if you wish, with dollops of yogurt or sour cream or over rice.

WINE MATCH: A subtle-style Pinot Noir - perhaps a modest Bourgogne Pinot - would be perfect with this umami-rich combination, but had none lined up for tasting and wasn't any more interested in going out in the rain for wine than I was for groceries. As it turned out, I was just about as happy with a fruity, fresh young 2006 Cotes-du-Rhone from Georges Duboeuf's Domaine des Moulins.

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