Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Umami: The Fifth Taste

Recipe: Exotic Mushroom Tart

There are only five definable tastes that humans are able to recognize. Taste is different from flavor. While flavor is the inherent and distinctive quality of food that is perceived with our other senses, taste is defined as the sensation recognized in our brain as food comes into contact with our taste buds. While flavors are diverse and multiple, tastes are boiled down to a distinct five: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. It’s easy to recognize the first four tastes. Sweet is recognized as you bite into a pillowy cupcake or soft piece of dark chocolate. Salty is most apparent in a bag of potato chips, popcorn, or pretzels. Bitter is prominent in dark peppery greens and Sour is the taste you experience as you bite into a fresh lemon.

The previous four tastes are easily defined. Umami on the other-hand is unfamiliar. It comes from the Japanese word umai, meaning delicious, and is not easily translated into the English language. For me, it is the savory feeling of richness and fullness found in food.

In order to feel satiated after a meal, all of the tastes should be balanced in the dish. You can leave a meal hungry, if your tastebuds weren’t satisfied. Since umami is most commonly found in meat, that is why it’s hard to feel full after a vegetarian meal. But don’t fear my readers! Umami is found in vegetables and non-meat items too:



Soy Sauce



Aged and Fermented foods

I found the following recipe in Professional Vegetarian Cooking by Ken Bergeron. I’ve edited it significantly though so don’t go searching there if you’ve forgotten my website. It is the perfect umami meal. The meatiness of the mushrooms, mixed with the wine and the soy sauce, will make your forget the absence of meat in this meal. Enjoy it with some sautéed dandelion greens with caramelized onions and tomatoes. Dandelion greens are deliciously bitter, but the sweetness of the tomato helps your taste buds deal with the bitterness. Finish it up with a squeeze of lemon and some salt and pepper, and you’ve got a balance of tastes that will satisfy your palate and your stomach.

Exotic Mushroom Tart


For the pie dough:

AP Flour 12 oz

Salt 1 ½ tsp

Butter, chilled 6 oz

2 eggs

4 tsp water

½ cup mixed fresh herbs (I used thyme and parsley from my garden, but use whatever you want. Have fun!)

2 cups Parmesan

Egg Wash

Vegan option: Omit the eggs and the parmesan and substitute ½ cup Vegetable Shortening for the butter

For the Filling:

Onions, small diced 1 ½ cup

Carrots, small diced 1 ½ cups

Parsnips, small diced 1 ½ cups

Shallots, minced ¼ cup

Olive oil 2 TBS

White Wine, dry ½ cup

Exotic Mushrooms, such as shitake, oyster, enoki, lobster 10 cups

Fresh Thyme 2 TBS

Fresh Rosemary 2 TBS

Soy Sauce 2 TBS

Salt, Pepper To Taste

Note: To save on money, you can buy more of a cheaper variety of mushrooms (such as baby bella or button) to mix with the exotic mushrooms. The flavor won’t change much, but you’ll still get to enjoy the expensive ones!


For the pie dough

1. Mix the flour and salt together.

2. Cut the butter into small cubes. Mix it in with the flour salt mixture, using your fingertips, until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add the herbs.

3. Making a well in the center, mix in the water and eggs until the dough just comes together. Add more water if too dry. The dough should not be too sticky, so be careful.

4. Kneed out on a floured surface until the dough is smooth, about 1 minute.

5. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 30 minutes until use. Meanwhile, prepare the filling.

For the filling:

6. Sauté the onions, carrots, parsnips and shallots with the olive oil for about 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté another two minutes. Add the white wine and let it reduce to au sec (or almost dry.)

7. Add the remaining ingredients and sauté another 5 minutes, or until almost all the juices have evaporated. If the filling is too wet it will make the tarts soggy.

To assemble:

8. Preheat oven to 400°F. Roll out dough on a floured surface until it is between ¼ - 1/8 inch thick. Using a 6-inch cookie cutter or other circular object with a 6-inch diameter (I used a cup), cut out circles and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. You can continue to roll out the dough as much as you need to until most of it is used up. If the dough gets too warm, place it back in the fridge to chill it down again.

9. Fill the circles with ¼ to a ½ cup of the mushroom mixture. Crimp the edges of the circle up, until it looks like a cute little coin purse. Brush the circles with the egg wash (Vegan substitute: use oil), and sprinkle with the parmesan.

10. Bake until the crust is a deep golden brown. Eat and enjoy!

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