Today the sky never seemed to lighten up. It’s rained pretty much since I got up, and a short trip to the allotment to pick some greens confirmed a temperature drop, a hostile wind and a bit of proper winter weather.
Armed with some dark green kale, some muddy leeks, probably the last of the chard and a fresh chili from the last of our chili plants, I’ve got the making of a lovely savoury winter soup – umami flavours and winter are made for each other.
The taste of umami (or savoury) was identified about 100 years ago, by a Japanese chemist Professor Kikunae Ikeda and now it’s generally accepted as one of our key tastes. Ikeda had added kombu (kelp seaweed) to his soup and achieved a wonderful deep, savoury flavour that he went on to analyse.
In Japan, as well as edible seaweed, the soy bean is a favourite umami ingredient – often in its fermented form of miso. (Miso works brilliantly as a natural stock seasoning for soups and stews and is a great alternative to a meat stock).
Meat – especially red meat – is a classic umami ingredient, but you don’t need meat to enjoy umami….
We might not use a lot of soy or seaweed in European cooking, but we certainly do love tomatoes – another umami-rich ingredient. Tomatoes are used as either the main flavour in dishes like a good roasted tomato soup or sauce, or as a more subtle addition to dishes where a rich, depth of flavour is wanted without being too tomatoey – both are brilliant.
Spinach, chard and kale
As well as being up there at the top of the nutritional table, dark greens like spinach and kale are also high in umami flavour.
Mushrooms also feature in my list of favourite umami ingredients.
A few days ago I made the classic ‘vegetarian option’ – a spinach and mushroom lasagne. The bubbling, creamy, savoury pasta dish was hearty and absolutely delicious. I guess there was a reason for its popularity, even if it did end up suffering an image problem!
For cheese fans, ‘proper Parmesan’ Parmigiano-Reggiano and real Roquefort are the most umami-rich cheeses you can eat, given their particularly high glutamate content. Both are made from unpasteurised milk (Parmigiano – cows; Roquefort – sheeps). They may be expensive, but a little goes a long way. I’m not a big blue cheese fan but I’m working on it and it’s on my New Year’s list of ingredients to experiment with.
And for fish fans – anchovies, prawns, mackerel and tuna are all strong in umami.
So if, like me, you woke up this morning a little underwhelmed by the grey skies and rain, and pulled up the duvet till you realised the sky wasn’t about to change – my recommendation is to get in the kitchen and create your favourite umami dish – a good soup keeps the heart warm.