Umami

 What does it even mean?

Sliced portobello mushrooms

Such an unusual word – what does it mean? Traditionally four flavors have been associated with most foods – sweet, salty, sour, bitter. But now cooks are going wild about this fifth taste called umami. It’s what you taste in a roasted mushroom or caramelized onions – a flavor that embodies richness in savory foods. It’s also found in the flavor of meats. 

Umami takes food from ordinary to sublime and it’s something you can master easily with vegetarian cooking. For example, think of the flavor of a steamed broccoli floret, with or without lemon or butter. Now imagine the flavor of a broccoli floret roasted in olive oil until it is somewhat charred. See the difference? 

Where does it come from?

Umami comes mostly from a protein called glutamate. Which is not important to remember, but it is important to remember that roasting or browning foods causes them to release the glutamate and increase flavor. 

Add umami flavor to your foods

Roasting tomatoes and onions

So when cooking, think ahead of time about how you can get more umami into your foods – slow-roasting tomatoes, browning mushrooms, oven roasting root vegetables, caramelizing onions, shallots and leeks. This preparatory step will make a huge difference in your cooking.  

A couple of other tricks to boost the umami is to use coconut aminos, soy sauce or miso in sauces and simply to dress vegetables. These are all fermented products, and guess what? Fermenting also releases glutamate and increases the umami taste. 

Grilled eggplant

Some other sources of umami are the smokiness  you get from grilling, the aged cheeses (especially the rind), nutritional yeast, kombu (seaweed), fish sauce and anchovies.

Umami-rich oven risotto

Risotto is a favorite dish because of its creamy richness. This recipe will let you prepare it in the oven instead of standing over the stove, stirring and stirring and stirring. The addition of roasted mushrooms boosts its umami potential exponentially. 

½ T. olive oil

¼ c. finely chopped onion or shallot

⅔ c. Arborio rice (the only rice that makes a creamy risotto)

¼ up dry white wine, (optional)

½ c. hot water

2 c. chicken or vegetable stock

½ t. salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 T. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

½ c. roasted or sauteed mushrooms of choice

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In an ovenproof saucepan with a lid, heat oil. Stir in the onion and cook until translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring to coat the grains with oil, about 1 minute.

Stir in the wine and simmer gently until it has completely evaporated, about 1 minute. Stir in the stock and salt. Bring to a boil. Cover, transfer to the oven, and bake until most of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice, 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove from oven. Stir in enough water to make the risotto creamy). Stir in the butter and cheese.

Simplicity

Bright Lights Swiss chard

I don’t do resolutions. But I do love the idea of a fresh start for some things in my life. So, here is my resolve for all of us. Just start.

I’ve been reading so many gardeners’ and cooks’ resolutions that my head is spinning. But the one thing that seems a common thread through all of these is the desire for simplicity. 

I’ve touted this for years, that simple gardening and simple cooking will bring us back to the garden and kitchen in a restful, pleasant way. And if it becomes meaningful or artistic, all the better. But mostly, we just need to start. Start small, start easy and most of all, don’t pressure yourself to create a masterpiece. 

Gardening

For gardening, perhaps it means getting two pots, filling them with soil and planting lettuce. When the lettuce is done, plant carrots. Or a pepper or a tomato. If you are successful (meaning you get something on the table, even a simple salad), then ask yourself if you want to go further with your garden.

Bowl full of Batavia lettuce

Cooking

For cooking, try this: 
Chop a sweet pepper, a sweet onion and a small zucchini or a couple of leaves of chard. Saute them in olive oil until tender, season to your liking, and serve over cooked rice or pasta. Simple! And delicious. Cooking doesn’t have to be hard. And, you can always embellish as your heart leads you.

Sauteed peppers and greens

For a bigger challenge:

Saucy Greens

1 small bunch of Swiss chard or other greens

1 clove garlic, minced

¼ c. onion, sliced

1 T. olive oil

1 T. balsamic vinegar

1 t. Sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

½ c. chopped tomatoes

2 T. sour cream or plain yogurt

1 T. sriracha sauce if desired

2 large eggs if desired

Rinse the greens liberally and remove tough stems. Stack the leaves and roll them into a “cigar” and slice thinly. Add garlic and onion to olive oil in heavy pan and saute until tender. Fry eggs in separate pan if you intend to use them. Add greens, vinegar and sugar and saute about 5 minutes until greens are tender. Turn off the heat and stir in tomatoes and sour cream or yogurt. Salt and pepper to taste.

Most of all, have a wonderful 2020 and don’t be afraid to play!





Creamy Mushroom Soup

Creamy mushroom soup with a swirl of sriracha

If you are a mushroom fan (believe it or not, some are not), this is a delectable, warming way to use just about any kind of mushrooms.

Vitamins galore

Packed with over a dozen minerals and vitamins, including copper, potassium, magnesium, zinc and B vitamins, mushrooms also contain antioxidants which help protect cells from damage and reduce chronic disease and inflammation. Also, mushrooms contain Vitamin D, the only produce that does, and you can increase that amount by setting your mushrooms on the windowsill for more sun exposure.

Immune system, depression

If you look up mushrooms and the immune system you’ll find all sorts of research showing how different types can boost your immune system, lower cholesterol, decrease anxiety and depression, improve sleep and clear brain fog. We’re not talking magic mushrooms here – just the culinary ones that are readily available.

Roasted mushrooms lend an even deeper flavor

Mushroom varieties

The standard white mushroom is perfectly acceptable, but you can give the soup added flavor with portobellos, shiitakes, or any other wild mushrooms. The only one recipe doesn’t work well with is the puffball – they are simply too mushy when cooked this way. Serve with whole grain crusty bread and a fresh salad for a complete, easy meal.

Sliced portobello mushrooms

Creamy Mushroom Soup

3 oz. mushrooms sliced
½ medium onion diced
1 clove garlic minced
2 T. butter
2 c. chicken stock
¼ c. white wine
1 medium russet diced
½ c. heavy cream
Salt and pepper

Sauté mushrooms in 1 T. butter; set aside. Sauté onion and garlic in remaining butter until soft. Add stock, potatoes and wine and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are soft, 20-25 minutes. Add half the mushrooms to the pan and puree with a stick blender. Add remaining mushrooms and cream. Warm but don’t boil. Serves 2.

Vegan option:

Replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock. Replace the heavy cream with coconut milk. Saute in olive oil.

Garden Cakes

There’s something so cozy and wholesome about potato pancakes. They’re crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside and a wonderful palette awaiting a dollop of sour cream or applesauce.

Although I don’t have an ethnic tradition of latkes in my background, I’ve taken a traditional recipe from a Jewish friend of mine and adapted it to use whatever is coming in from the garden or left over in the fridge.

This is one of my favorite ways to use leftover mashed sweet and white potatoes around the holidays. The best part is that you can use your imagination and creativity to combine all sorts of vegetables and seasonings.

The basic recipe:

1 c. mashed or grated sweet potatoes
1 c. mashed white potatoes
½ small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 egg
½ c. flour
Salt and pepper to taste

Saute onion and garlic in a small amount of olive oil. Mix all ingredients in large bowl and drop by large spoonfuls into pan glazed with olive oil. Pat the cakes flat. Saute until browned; flip and brown on the other side. Alternatively you can place on parchment or a silpat on a cookie sheet and bake for about 15-20 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Repeat with the rest of batter.

Serve warm by themselves with a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream and a dollop of applesauce or currant jelly or whatever other jelly you have on hand. Or serve cold over a fresh salad dressed with vinaigrette and sprinkle with goat cheese or feta.

Riffs on the recipe:

Swiss chard ready to chop

1 cup of any combination of grated raw beets, carrots, parsnips, finely chopped greens

You can also add cooked grains (quinoa, bulgur, oatmeal), mashed cooked beans (black, garbanzo, lentils). Just remember that the drier the mix, the more binder you may need such an additional egg.

Check the recipe tab for zucchini latkes and quinoa cakes

Ugly Fruit

Ugly tomatoes


Let’s be honest – none of us is perfect. Including the vegetables we so carefully nurture in our gardens. But why shun the forked carrot, the split beet or the knobby tomato in favor of their more perfect counterparts? If a peach has a bruise, can’t we just cut it out and enjoy the rest of the peach?

Food waste is an international issue, and one of the best ways to help stop food waste is to shift our thinking to accepting imperfect vegetables and fruits in our own kitchens and at our tables. 

I’ve recently become acquainted with a wonderful organization called Bounty and Soul (https://bountyandsoul.org/), whose mission is to get food and nutrition and wellness education into everyone’s hands and to build community while doing it. I get to help out with cooking demonstrations and food distribution at their markets. 

Bounty and Soul market

Every week I see wonderful smiles as people from all types of life walk away with not only free food, but information on nutrition bringing the food to their tables. Much of the food is donated by local farmers, markets and groceries, and the truth is that it’s not the picture perfect produce you see in the grocery store. It is all perfectly serviceable and delicious, just not perfect in appearance. 

The French started a national campaign several years ago called “The Inglourious Fruit.” It was a public relations campaign to get French citizens to slow food waste by purchasing and eating those fruits and vegetables that are not perfect. These were discounted in grocery stores and markets, and the campaign was a huge success. 

There is a new website from which you can order imperfect vegetables and fruit and have it delivered right to your door. Check out https://www.imperfectfoods.com/ for great information on food waste, not to mention access to wonderful produce. Their slogan is “Eat Ugly With Us”. 

For my own resolution to reducing food waste, I’ve started keeping all my vegetable trimmings and am using them to make a delicious broth for soups. As I trim vegetables for a meal, I make sure to wash the leftovers well (getting all the dirt out of the onion top), and then throw them in a bag in the freezer. Once I have a bag full of not-so pretty beet greens, carrot tops, leek greens, parsley, mushrooms stems and cilantro stems, I put them in a slow cooker along with the remains of tomatoes and a few garlic cloves. I cover with plenty of water and let simmer twelve hours or so. 

Once it’s done, I either strain the broth, squeezing out all the liquid I can, or I puree it (depending on what vegetables I’ve used). With a seasoning adjustment, this becomes the base for a delicious, nutritious soup. You can use it right away or freeze it for later. 

“Glut” sauce ready to roast

My other favorite way to save the uglies is to make a batch of “glut” where everything goes in to roast and then gets pureed for a pasta sauce or spaghetti sauce base. This is the perfect way to use all of those tomatoes toward the end of summer. You can add any other vegetables and herbs you have an abundance of. It will taste a little different each time, but that’s the fun! Because it is milled, you don’t have to core the tomatoes or peel anything. Simply make sure everything is washed well. 

Sauce for the freezer

6 lbs. tomatoes, quartered (or for an eggplant-based sauce, substitute eggplants)

1 ½ c. coarsely chopped carrots, tops and all

1 ½ c. coarsely chopped celery

1 ½ c. coarsely chopped onion

9 gloves garlic, chopped

6 T balsamic vinegar

1 bay leaf

1 ½ T fresh thyme, oregano, basil, parsley

1 ½ t. salt

1 T. pepper

Roast 45 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Run through a food mill, bag and freeze. Makes 2 quarts. Use for pasta sauce, over fish or chicken, or use as a base for chili or minestrone. 

Roasted Vegetables

Roasted mushrooms
Roasted Broccoli

Nothing is happening in the garden today because of the cold. So, I get to cook – my favorite recreation. I love looking in the crisper to see just what’s there, and then pulling out vegetables like mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, Brussels sprouts, asparagus and even one of the last eggplants of the season. I’m going to roast vegetables!

Roasting brings out the flavor

Roasting vegetables makes them sublime, giving them that rich “umami” flavor everyone is talking about. All you need are fresh-picked vegetables, good quality olive oil, salt, a sharp knife and a roasting pan. Depending on the vegetable, most will roast to caramelized goodness in about 30 minutes at 375 degrees. Drizzle them with olive oil first, roll around, and then salt when they come out of the oven. Then slice into chunks and add to rice, pasta or simply enjoy plain – a perfect side or main dish. A sprinkling of feta or Parmesan cheese and maybe a drizzle of sriracha sauce complete the dish.

Roasted Broccoli and Carrots with Farro

1 c. broccoli florets

½ pkg. baby carrots

3 T. olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

½ small onion, sliced

½ c. cooked farro, quinoa, rice, bulgur or millet (cook according to package instructions)

1 t. balsamic vinegar

¼ c. Parmesan cheese

1/4 c. toasted pecans, pepitas or sunflower seeds

Preheat oven to 375. In a sided roasting pan (broiler pan works well), add the carrots and drizzle with 1 t. olive oil. Roast until a fork inserts with ease, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven, salt generously and put aside in a bowl. Add broccoli to pan, drizzle with 1 T. olive oil and roast until crisp-tender, about 30 minutes. Salt and add to carrots.

Add the last tablespoon olive oil to a saute pan and saute the onion and garlic until soft. Add the farro and heat through. Coarsely chop the vegetables and return to the bowl. Add the farro mixture to the vegetables, sprinkle with the balsamic vinegar and parmesan. Top with nuts or seeds and serve warm or at room temperature.

                                                                                ©Kate Jerome 2019

Pumpkins and squash

All things pumpkin!

The nip of frost in the air and the smell of wood smoke outdoors are sublime companions to the scents of cinnamon baked apples and nutmeg-laced butternut squash in the kitchen. This is the perfect time to raid the last of the farmers’ markets and pumpkin farms to pick up the end-of-season bargain squash in every hue and flavor. Load the car with pie pumpkins, buttercups, Turk’s turbans, blue hubbards and kubochas.

Storing squash and pumpkins

Winter squash and pumpkins can be stored for months in a cool basement if you wash them with soapy water and dry them well. Store on wire racks in a cold room. A basement that stays in the 50’s is just about the right temperature.

Pumpkins are king

Red Pumpkin

Pumpkins are the kings of winter squash. Pumpkin pie made from fresh pumpkin is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, and pumpkin is also delicious when baked and mashed like potatoes. Look for small pie pumpkins, cheddar pumpkin, Cinderella pumpkin and pink or green pumpkins.

Easy to bake

Butternut squash ready for baking

Although often daunting because of the size, all it takes to bake most winter squashes is to cut them in half and invert them on a rimmed cookie sheet. You can remove the seeds before baking, especially if you want to toast the seeds, or you can bake with the seeds intact and remove them after baking. They come out more easily this way.

Bake for an hour or so at 350 degrees, depending on the size of the squash. Serve with butter, brown sugar, maple syrup or stuffed with whatever sounds luscious. All winter squashed are cooked the same way, and can be interchanged in almost any recipe.

Freeze it

The cooked flesh freezes well, and if you measure it into freezer bags in one cup batches, it’s ready to pull out for use whenever the mood hits to make muffins or squash bread. Or soup!

Spaghetti squash

Spaghetti squash and pie pumpkins

Spaghetti squash is a little different in that when it is cooked, you can separate the flesh into strands that really do resemble spaghetti. The “spaghetti” is delicious with a little butter and parmesan or even spaghetti sauce. And it doesn’t have the high calories of pasta.

My favorite recipe of the season is squash or pumpkin soup, flavored in any number of ways.

Easy Squash Soup

small butternut squash, pumpkin or other winter squash
1 c. chopped onion
2 t. oil
5 c. chicken or vegetable broth
2 T. molasses
1 t. curry powder or 2 T. red curry paste
¾ t. salt
1/8 t. cayenne or more to taste
⅔ c. half and half or coconut milk
Sliced red sweet or chili peppers for garnish

Mix onions with oil and spread on pan around squash. Roast at 425 45 minutes or until tender. Scoop out pulp, measure about three cups, and add with rest of ingredients to heavy pot. Bring to boil and simmer 5 minutes. Puree in blender and return to pan. Add half and half or coconut milk and warm until heated.

Serve with a drizzle of Sriracha or coconut milk, sliced red chilis, crumbled crisp bacon if you have meat eaters in the house, or chopped parsley or cilantro if desired.

                                                                                ©Kate Jerome 2019