There is a concept in food that has been around for a while, but like most things to do with food, it has become trendy now that someone discovered it has a cool name to it. I wanted to share this with you as I thought it was quite funny, and a good example of how to have fun and not take ourselves too seriously. Are you ready?
The concept I speak of is called “umami” (just like this week’s title) which loosely translated is the Japanese word for deliciousness. It has been known in Asia for almost a hundred years, thanks in no small part to the scientist (here it comes, folks) who invented MSG.
Maybe I am being silly, but I thought it was funny and even a bit cute that something which people decided had a negative effect on them was now being touted as part of a concept that should be embraced as the new exciting food experience. Of course now the celebrity chefs speak about foods with natural umami (it’s the G in MSG – glutamate – that makes foods very flavourful, or full of umami.) They say that umami could be the fifth taste discernable to us, after the traditional (and one is supposed to believe less interesting, I think) sweet, sour, salty and bitter. They also say that MSG is the poster child for umami in the same way that sugar is for sweet things and salt is for salty things. There is even talk now that if we crave umami-rich foods it is because our bodies need protein, in the same manner we crave sweets if we are low in carbs. Since mushrooms are known to be full of umami, is that motivation to put them over a steak? (That is what the Mushroom Council said you should do in a recently released promotional piece entitled, “Umami: If You Got It, Flaunt It!” – no kidding here; I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried! Who knew there was a Mushroom Council??)
Okay, I know, a foodie like me shouldn’t be so cavalier about a new food experience. Renowned chefs are taking umami seriously, experimenting with trying to get more bang for their food buck. Adding parmesan cheese, or even ketchup or soy sauce can increase the umami in a dish. Techniques of preparing food that break down proteins increase umami too – drying or slow cooking are examples. Combine the two and you get a double whammy, so foods like sundried tomatoes are now called “umami bombs”. I ask you, how can you take that kind of thing seriously??
Just so you know I have no hard feelings against trendy food stuff, I have attached a recipe – one even from a celebrity chef in San Francisco. It is the ingredients here that are the celebrity though, as the combination of flavours really does make a great soup (even with winter canned tomatoes).
So, call it something fancy when it’s homemade or call it nasty when it gets added to takeout or processed food, but this ooh-Mammy thing makes for fun food! Besides, who doesn't love a good soup on a cold winter day? Bon Appetit!
Celebrity Tomato Soup
Roasting tomatoes increases their umami taste. In this recipe from Gary Danko, chef at San Francisco's Restaurant Gary Danko, the addition of tomato paste, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce (based partially on umami-rich anchovies), soy sauce and grated Parmesan pumps up the rich, savory taste. When using canned tomatoes, Mr. Danko prefers to use whole tomatoes in purée, imported from Italy. However, canned whole tomatoes in juice will work just fine.
Yield: Serves 6 (about 8 cups)
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 55 minutes total
- 2 pounds plum Roma tomatoes or 3 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes
- 6 garlic cloves smashed and peeled
- 3 small yellow onions (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 stalk celery or ½ fennel bulb (about 4 ounces), cut into ¼-inch dice
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons tomato ketchup
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- ¼ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
- 2-3 cups chicken broth, vegetable stock or water
- 4-6 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
- 2 fresh mint leaves, chopped
- ¼ cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
- If using fresh tomatoes, wash, dry and core them. If using canned tomatoes, drain tomatoes, reserving the purée or juice. Halve the tomatoes lengthwise.
- Divide tomatoes between 2 shallow baking pans, arranging them cut-side down in a single layer without crowding. Sprinkle the garlic, onions, salt and thyme over the tomatoes and drizzle with oil.
- Roast until tomatoes are slightly browned and tender, about 45 minutes. Let cool slightly.
- Put the celery or fennel, tomato paste, ketchup, Worcestershire, Tabasco and soy sauce in a blender. Add some of the roasted tomato mixture and stock and blend until smooth. Strain through a medium strainer into a pot, pressing the solids with the bottom of a ladle or a rubber spatula to remove the seeds and small skin particles. Working in small batches, continue to purée and strain the remaining tomato mixture, the reserved purée or juices from the can and the remaining stock into the pot, using 2 cups of liquid total.
- Bring soup to a slow simmer over medium-high heat, stirring to combine, about 10 minutes. Thin with additional stock if necessary. Correct salt as needed.
- Serve in bowls with a sprinkle of basil, mint and cheese.
For more recipes (and other commentary), check out my Happy Gourmand blog