I don’t remember when i first learned about umami, the “fifth flavor element,” but I know I was pretty young and already a burgeoning food snob. Let the yokels in my class naively recite the four tastes – sour, salty, bitter, and sweet – and eat their repulsively bright Sour Patch Kid candies. I was busy nibbling on aged parmesan and bonito, thank you very much. And I have to admit that not much has changed. I am now a full-fledged umami addict, although I like to think I’m no longer a snob. (And non-snobbish me wants to make sure no one feels left out, so I’ll explain what on earth I’m talking about: umami is a Japanese word for a particularly wonderful taste that doesn’t fall into any of those four traditional categories, but is a savory, rich experience that is as much about the mysterious “mouthfeel” as it is about flavor. Umami is what gives MSG its magic and is also found in aged cheeses, fishes, and meats, mushrooms, Marmite, and dashi, which is broth made with seaweed and bonito (fish) flakes.)
Scientists are theorizing now that, the same way we are attracted to sweet flavors in order to ensure we eat enough carbohydrates, we are attracted to umami in order to ensure we get enough of the right kind of proteins. Umami is apparently one of the things that make meat so satisfying to eat, so as a vegetarian it seems like a particularly good element to attend to.
Last week I hadn’t renewed my CSA box in time, which meant I actually had to go to the grocery store. It was overwhelming but fun, and also meant I got to bring home some varieties of non-box produce I haven’t had in a long time, like mushrooms. I still tried to buy local and seasonal, though, and I spent a painfully long time in the cheese aisle trying to apply my humane/local/vegetarian-rennet matrix to actual cheese buying. (I’ll write more on my dairy adventures in another post, I think.)
The best thing about the day after a trip to the grocery store is always the sexy pair Vicolo cornmeal pizza crusts waiting to be filled with whatever I can imagine. And as I fantasized about fillings, it became clear that I was dreaming up a very umami pizza.
I zested a lemon (a gorgeous lemon from a friend’s aunt’s tree) and mixed the zest into fresh Bellwether Farms ricotta. I spread a light layer of this over the cornmeal crust, then topped it with grilled balsamic portobello mushrooms, grilled lemon-oil asparagus, and little chunks of Point Reyes Farmstead blue cheese, and, once it was out of the oven, finished it off with toasted walnuts and fresh arugula. I also made a less dairy-heavy one with roasted garlic, lemon olive oil, and lemon zest in place of the ricotta.
Oh yum, yum, yum. Umami heaven, served hot in a pie!