umami

Searching For Balance: Exploring Umami In Italian Tomato Sauce (Part 2)

One of my favorite Italian dishes in the summer is mozzarella and tomato salad. This is especially delicious in the season as the locally-available heirloom tomatoes are at their most flavorful. Any leftover tomatoes get thrown into a skillet and made into simple marinara sauce or tomato sauce. Having eaten a variety of delicious homemade Italian food in friends’ houses, I’ve noticed that the classic tomato sauce is always served on the side. This rich sauce can be paired with pasta and Parmesan cheese for a simple meal or served with meatballs for a more filling meal.

Unlike the plain marinara sauce that combines whole tomatoes and garlic, tomato sauce uses several ingredients that play a part in creating balance. Tomatoes contain both the sour element and natural glutamates required for umami, that savory taste. Garlic, onion, black pepper, and chili pepper provide pungency. Carrot and celery provide texture, adding colors that seem to deepen the bright red of tomatoes, and impart sweet and bitter flavors respectively. The herbs round out the balance giving warmth of peppery and astringent tones.

Tomato sauce is easy to prepare, and the sauce freezes well. The sauce has all the qualities of a perfectly balanced dish combined with color saturation, texture, and a full-bodied taste.

Tomato Sauce

San Marzano tomatoes (or other canned tomato) – 28 oz

Onion – 1, diced

Garlic cloves – 6-8, minced

Carrot – 1, diced

Celery – ½ stalk, diced

Olive oil – ¼ cup

Salt and pepper – ½-1 tsp each

Whole red dried chili – 1

Oregano (fresh or dried) – ½ tsp

Fresh Basil – a handful of leaves

Tomato paste – 1 heaping tbsp. (optional)

Sugar – ¼-1 tsp

Parmesan cheese – 3 tbsp

  • Pour out the tomatoes from the can into a bowl. Using the back of the spoon crush them, until they are broken up into small pieces. (Beware the red juice splattering on your clothes and kitchen counter.)
  • Heat a skillet.
  • Heat oil and add the onion and stir for a minute or more, until they are soft.
  • Add the garlic, carrot and celery to the onions. Sauté until they have softened.
  • Add the crushed tomatoes to the skillet and mix into the onion-celery mixture.
  • Add the red chili and let it simmer on low for 5 minutes.
  • Add the tomato paste (this creates a deeper red sauce and thickness) and oregano and basil.
  • Continue to simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the oil appears to float on the top of the tomato sauce.
  • Add the salt and pepper. Check for balance. If the sauce is sour (from tomatoes), start with a ¼ tsp. salt and sugar, and continue to add incrementally until no one flavor is prominent.
  • Remove the chili pepper before serving.

Serve with spaghetti and Parmesan cheese, meatballs, or zucchini spirals.

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Searching For Balance: Exploring Umami In Cuisines (Part 1)

My mother had a remarkable ability to balance flavors and textures in even the daily multi-course Indian meal. This sounds very simple to achieve, but when done correctly, aromatics abound and color saturates the meal, while flavors pop on your tongue. In the Indian Ayurvedic healing practices, a healthy body requires a balance of sour, bitterness, salt, astringent, sweet, and pungent tastes. When I learned of yet another flavor, umami, I wondered how this elusive taste could transform what A. and N. call a “meh” meal to one loaded with a multi-sensory experience.

Umami, in Japanese, loosely translates as delicious food, and is the fifth taste after salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. The “meaty or hearty” sensation felt on the tongue is the taste of glutamates or salts of glutamic acid, made famous by MSG, the now much maligned food additive. Glutamate salts exist naturally in seaweed, some vegetables, seafood, and meat. In Far Eastern cooking, they are used commonly as fermented fish sauce and soy sauce.

I experimented with fish sauce as I reworked a Thai recipe for my favorite papaya salad with ingredients that were available at home. When I attended a Thai cooking class recently, our instructor would remind us to “check for balance,” just before we plated our creations. By pounding individual flavors of chilies, salt, sugar, and tangy lime before adding fish sauce, it became easy to savor the fifth element both in conjunction and separate from the others. The process also led me to want to learn how other cuisines, especially those not served in groupings, manage the delicate balance.

Green Apple And Cucumber Salad

(Adapted from a Thai-style Green Papaya Salad)

Green Apple – 1, cored and finely shredded

Cucumber – 1 medium, peeled, deseeded and shredded

Green beans – 5, sliced thinly in 1-inch pieces

Serrano chilies – 2-3, deseeded and sliced

Garlic –3 cloves, peeled and sliced

Tomato – 1, quartered

Salt – ¼- ½ tsp

Fish sauce – 1 tbsp

Sugar (white, brown or palm) – 1 tbsp

Lime – 1-2 tbsp, juice

  • In a mortar and pestle, crush the chilies and garlic.
  • Add the sugar and pound until incorporated.
  • Add the beans and crush lightly. (If the following ingredients don’t fit into the mortar, move them into a larger bowl.)
  • Add the shredded apple and cucumber into the bowl. Gently crush them with the pestle.
  • Add the limejuice, salt, fish sauce, and tomatoes. Toss gently. Taste just once (or else your tongue gets overwhelmed) to adjust and balance the flavors.
  • Serve immediately.

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