Umami and the Italian Nonna

by Elaine McCardel
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pasta.jpgWe all know there are four tastes   salty, sweet, sour and bitter. But researchers have identified a fifth taste and that is umami - the rich, savory taste of some foods. This taste is found naturally in certain foods   very ripe tomatoes, anchovies, parmesan cheese and mushrooms to name a few. It's why fish sauce and soy sauce make fried rice so savory.

Cooks have known for ages that these foods enhance the taste of savory dishes. It's because these foods naturally contain glutamate. It is why MSG (monosodium glutamate) makes foods taste better. If you like the way adding a chicken or beef bouillion cube (which has MSG in it) enhances the flavor of a sauce or a stew, why not try adding a food that naturally contains glutamate?

It's why Italian cooks often add an anchovy in the beginning when cooking a sauce. Even if you don't like the taste of anchovies, you will never know it is there. It completely dissolves but it adds a depth of flavor you would not have otherwise. Don't say, "Ew!  I don't like anchovies!" Take advantage of the glutamate in this food and enhance your cooking – your umami!

anchoviesindish.jpgUmami means "delicious" in Japanese. The Japanese, by the way, use MSG extensively. MSG was undeservedly blamed for a number of side effects by people and fell out of favor in the United States. It is widely used in other countries, though.

In 1995 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a large-scale review by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, clearing glutamates as a health risk. Even Marion Nestle, author of the recent best seller "What to Eat" and this country's leading nutrition and food safety expert, says MSG was stuck with the stigma of being bad for you. “There was simply no clinical evidence for any of it,” she said. She did not even mention MSG in her book. “I thought the issue was settled, though I know a lot of people will never believe that,” she said.

capersinjar.jpgAnd if you think you're not eating any MSG, think again. The food industry has simply used variations of it with different names. If you are eating processed foods, you're probably eating some MSG. That bowl of Ramen your teenager loves so much tastes so good because of the MSG. Look at the food labels – if you see these words – "yeast extracts, hydrolyzed proteins, antolyzed yeast, whey protein concentrates" – you are basically eating a variant of MSG.

The food industry will be adding these ingredients more and more to foods. In their effort to offer lower sodium foods to consumers, like soups, they will make up for the flavor loss by putting in some form of MSG. Some people will always be worried about MSG, even if there is no evidence that it's bad for you. If you are, stick to whole foods, not processed foods. Know which foods contain glutamate and use them in your cooking to boost your umami.

Spaghetti with Anchovies, Capers and Bread Crumbs

This recipe uses what Italians call "the poor man's parmesan cheese" – fried bread crumbs. It's actually a really delicious topping to put on pasta. This pasta sauce takes a mere 5 minutes to make!

Ingredients:

for bread crumbs:

Some crustless bread (can be stale), pulsed into crumbs in food processor
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 large pinches of kosher salt

Take about a cup of the bread crumbs and fry in the olive oil until crispy and turning rosy. Add salt. Set aside.

For spaghetti:

1/3 cup olive oil
3 anchovy fillets
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 heaping Tablespoon capers, rinsed
1/4 cup chopped parsley
lemon zest
8 oz. thin spaghetti

Instructions:

While you make sauce, cook the spaghetti until just al dente.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and add anchovy fillets. Heat them gently and stir with spatula until they dissolve.

Add garlic and heat gently for about two minutes. Do not let it burn.

Add half the parsley, all the capers and cook for one minute. Add the cooked spaghetti to the skillet and toss, coating with the sauce. If a little dry, add a few tablespoons of the pasta water. Add the rest of the parsley, the bread crumbs and lemon zest and toss again. Serve hot.

* Use good anchovies if you can find them. I can find Scalia anchovies in most good gourmet grocery stores.

 

Elaine McCardel shares her love fresh, homemade Italian cooking and food photography on her blog The Italian Dish.    

 

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