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Friday
Jun202008

Umami and the Italian Nonna

What's a Japanese word doing in an Italian food blog? Because it's something every Italian nonna knows about when it comes to adding flavor to dishes. And if you don't know what umami is, you will. It's one of the hottest subjects in the cooking world right now.

We 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!

Umami 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.

 

 

And 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.

 

Monday
Jun162008

Focaccia Bread

I've tried a lot of different focaccia bread recipes over the years, but this one is my favorite.  I found it years ago and I've made it so many times, I don't even need the recipe anymore. Don't let the length of the recipe discourage you. It's lengthy because it takes about 3.5 hours to make, not because it's hard. This recipe calls for three risings of the dough. It also begins with a "sponge", which gives the dough a boost.  If you are not experienced with making breads, remember that it's important the dough be placed in a warm area to rise.  My oven has a "Proof" setting, just for this use, which is really helpful.  Lots of new ovens have this setting now.

(Confused about yeast?  This post explains it all:  Yeast Explained.)

 

Focaccia Bread

Adapted from "Focaccia" by Carol Field

For a printable recipe, click here

Ingredients:

 for the Sponge

  • 1 tsp. yeast (I use a rapid rise yeast)
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 3/4 cup unbleached all purpose flour

for the Dough

  • 1 tsp. rapid rise yeast
  • 1 cup water water
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • Sponge, above
  • 3.25 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt 

for the Topping

  • 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. coarse sea salt or kosher salt 

Instructions:

To make the sponge:
Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a large bowl (I use the mixer bowl of my KitchenAid mixer) and stir in the flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled and bubbly, about 45 minutes.

To make the dough:
Add the yeast, water and the olive oil to the sponge in the mixer bowl. With the dough hook running, add just under 3 cups of the flour and salt and mix thoroughly. The dough should come together in a ball in the mixer bowl and then start sticking to the sides of the bowl. When this happens, add flour by the spoonful and mix again. Each time if you see the dough is still sticking to the sides of the bowl, keep adding flour until the dough isn't real sticky anymore. Stop the mixer and touch the dough with your finger. When it is smooth and elastic and not too sticky, it's done. Place the dough in a clean bowl that you have drizzled with a little olive oil. Roll the dough to coat in the olive oil, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1.25 hours.

Second Rise:
Punch dough down. Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet and press out the dough on the sheet. Let the dough relax for a few minutes and finish stretching it until it reaches the edges. Cover with a towel and let rise again in a warm place for about 1 hour until the dough is doubled. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Just before baking, dimple the dough with your fingers, leaving indentations. Drizzle olive oil over the dough, brush lightly to coat, and sprinkle with salt.

Bake the bread til the crust is crisp and the top is golden, about 20 - 25 minutes. Slide the bread from the pan and slice.

Tip: You can actually make the dough, cover it and refrigerate it for use the next day.

Tuesday
Jun032008

Stuffed Artichokes


Aren't these beautiful? These are Big Heart artichokes which I found at Papa Joe's, in Birmingham. They're much bigger than the regular globe artichokes in the local grocery store. These are special, but you can certainly make this recipe with globe artichokes, which I usually use.

If you've never prepared an artichoke before, give it a try. Once you've done the first one, it's a cinch. It's not as hard as you would think. This is a great vegetarian dish for lunch or you can serve it as a side dish.  The stuffing is really delicious and has a little zing to it because of the red pepper flakes!


Stuffed Artichokes

 

This recipe will stuff 2 large Big Heart artichokes or 3 regular Globe artichokes.

Ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup diced onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2 cups chopped mushrooms (use any kind you like)
  • large pinch of red hot pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 cup fresh bread crumbs*
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup white wine

*Don't use dried bread crumbs from the grocery store.  Make your own, fresh.  Just take some sourdough bread, or any kind of bakery bread like Italian or French.  It can be stale.  Cut off the crusts and place the bread in a food processor and process until it becomes crumbs. You can keep these in a plastic container in the fridge quite a long time. They're much better than buying them.


Instructions:
First, make sure you have a really sharp knife. Have a lemon, cut in half, ready.

Slice the top inch or so of the artichoke off. These tops of the leaves are inedible.


Slice off the stem of the artichoke, so the artichoke sits flat.


Snap off the small, touch outer leaves near the bottom of the artichoke.


Using scissors, snip off the tops of the remaining leaves.


Squeeze lemon juice all over the cut leaves. This helps prevent the artichoke from turning brown.


Start pulling out the inner, purplish leaves. Keep pulling the inner leaves out until you expose the entire choke at the bottom.



Taking a small spoon, scrape out the hairy choke. Drizzle some more lemon on the inside of the artichoke.  Keep the lemon halves for later.

Make the filling:

Saute the onion in a skillet for a few minutes with a pinch of salt, until the onion is soft. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and stirring frequently, saute for 5-6 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes. Transfer mixture to a bowl. Add the parsley, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese.



Fill the artichoke with the stuffing mixture. Do not pack.



Place stuffed artichokes in a baking dish. Fill dish with water until the water comes up about an inch around the artichokes. Place cut lemons in the dish. Add the wine in the water. Cover with foil. Bake at 400 degrees for an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the size of the artichokes. To test for doneness, pull out one of the leaves and when the fleshy part is soft, it is done.