I suspect fellow umami lovers at UR (see here, here, here) were, like me, initially thrown by the concept. How is it that some upstart new taste can shoehorn its way into the the four-way schema we’ve known for our whole lives? It was puzzling at first but after a while I realized that I was mostly thrown by the idea and the odd name. My brain was in the way. Further south, in my mouth . . . well then it came down to the old de gustibus non est disputandum. As a matter of actual taste, there could be no dispute that umami was right there all along, hiding in plain sight.
Indeed, as I thought about it more I came to realize that for as long as I could remember my cooking was oriented unconsciously toward the fashioning of umami bombs. Dinner is just OK? Mmmmm . . . . maybe add some parmesan? Maybe some soy sauce? Bacon?
I also came to think of the things I am never without, like fish sauce and anchovies. And then, come to think of it some more, I recalled the three things I specifically make up to be kept in the freezer, to be added whenever the occasion arises. I have them in there right now, my own Umami-at-Home kit.
The first: duxelles. Easy enough. Buy mushrooms in the cheapo bin, a lot of them if they have ’em. Cheapo is usually fine since if they are getting a little past, the more’s the funk. Run them through the food processor till very finely chopped. Sautee in butter and/or olive oil, some salt/pepper till reduced to a paste. Freeze. I freeze in small blocks so they can be tossed in whenever. There are a ton of recipes on the web that are a little more elaborate, and I will often vary with different herbs. But that’s basically it.
The second: roasted tomatoes. At the end of the season I bought a 20 pound box of plum tomatoes. I cut in half and placed them on baking sheets, adding a good amount of olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake at fairly high heat, 400 or so, until they have given off most of their water and are beginning to char. You want something between a cooked tomato and a dried one. Freeze these, too. You can freeze as is or run them through the food processor for a kind of homemade, charred, oiled-up tomato paste.
The last in the freezer is the best, IMHO. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: trotter gear. This is the term Fergus Henderson (he of nose-to-tail fame) has come up for for his ingenious additive. It’s trotters–pig’s feet–simmered in a wine and vegetable broth until totally, totally falling apart. Several hours anyway. Then the hard part: pulling apart the falling apart feet, discarding the many tiny bones and saving the broth, the skin and the little meat that is there.
The skin and meat are chopped up fairly fine, but there is not all that much of them. That’s OK, though–the lead actor here is the broth, which contains copious amounts of gelatin from the simmered feet. This is the magic part. Food chemists slave for what they call the right “mouth feel”, and hope to get there artificially. Nope. This is mouth feel personified, or pork-onified if you will. Honestly, adding this to most stews, soups and braises can do wonders.
Here’s some gear in a glass jar. I usually freeze mine in chunks.
Added Umami-at-Home Bonus!
Here’s a recipe for homemade Chiu Chow Chili Oil. This does not have to be frozen. It keeps well in a jar at room temperature. But to be honest, it doesn’t survive long in the house. My wife and I and all three kids–often picky eaters–put it on almost everything. Such is its umami punch. I use it on eggs a lot, as Fenster recounted here. But it has gone on most everything else, save things with chocolate. Come to think of it, though, that might work, too.
Chiu Chow Chili Oil
2 cups peanut oil
1/4 cup sesame oil
3/4 cup tablespoons dried chili flakes
1 tablespoons onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons fermented black beans, or fermented black bean and garlic paste (Amoy is good. See picture below.)
Heat the peanut oil and sesame oil in a pan till it gets to around 250 degrees. Assemble the rest of the ingredients. Take the oil off the heat and add them all, stirring carefully as you do. Cool. That’s it.