When presented with my two snack options on my West Jet flight yesterday, I was irked that they’d only covered sweet and salty options (“cookies or snack mix, miss?”) I’m not sure who regulates things like taste, but a fifth taste is pending on the bitter-sweet-salty-sour gamut. This new addition is none other than umami, a relative newcomer to the taste scene.
While it might take a few more years for airlines and convenience stores to start offering snacks in this new category, elsewhere its popping up as plentifully as my basil plants. This taste, often described as “savoriness” (read: deliciousness), can be understood with a simple mental exercise. Think soy sauce, parmesan cheese and anchovies, not neccessarily together but rather by their “essence.” These foods possess the mysterious fifth taste credited with imparting indescribable “heartiness” to foods.
Good ol’ Wikipedia tells us that umami comes about more technically via the detection of the naturally present amino acid, glutamic acid, or glutamates in some foods. This is why MSG also presents a unique heartiness to food, despite it being an additive most health nuts decry.
It turns out that the Clamato juice I had with my West Jet salty snack mix might qualify as being umame, but I’m not sure yet. For now, I’ll cling to it as a convenient “je ne sais quoi” term for food that surpasses my inner thesaurus.
With arugula sprouting up in my garden faster than I can caress my tomato plants (who apparently like that sort of thing) this salad has become a faithful and fast dinner these days. With a supply of candied walnuts and a block of stinky cheese, umami is never too far away to meet a craving that goes beyond the everyday. And even better, some health gurus claim that the more tastes you can meet in one meal, the more likely you are to feel satisfied.
Take this salad, one of my favorites. Sure it’s a little salty, a little bitter, and a little sweet. But its main star power is in its combination of big, bold flavors I have trouble describing the marriage of. So umami it is. Peppery, nutty, hearty deliciousness that is perfect for these hot summer days when we live on salad and then listen to our bodies thank us profusely.
vary the amounts of each ingredient to suit your tastes
a generous bowlful of arugula and spinach leaves
diced Bartlett pear, firm but gently yielding, not overripe
a sprinkling of candied pecans, recipe to follow
crumbled blue chees
optional additions: dried cranberries, alfalfa sprouts
Dressing: anything light and vinaigretty will work here (see the bottom of this post) or combine apple cider vinager with olive oil, a splash of honey, fresh lemon juice, a few teaspoons of dijon mustard, and a crushed garlic clove. Balsamic vinager and olive oil also work well in a pinch. Experiment, or find a light and mild commercial vinaigrette.
1 lb pecans
1/2 cup icing sugar
1 tsp fine sea salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
3 cups boiling water
splash soy or tamari sauce
Add nuts to boiling water, stir and return to a full boil. Drain nuts and mix with icing sugar, salt, cayenne and soy sauce in a medium mixing bowl (mixture will be sticky). Spread out on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 20-35 minutes or until dry and crunchy. Also good on ice cream.