Everyone fails to do something that may at first glance seem minor, but in practice, proves to handicap them in a rather alarming manner. Casual observers can’t help but notice the dazzling spectacle of omission. The vibrating white space, the shimmering hole in their life.
My wash n’ wear bush of befrizzed, ragged red hair is the most visible mascot of my strict stance of non-embellishment and unfussy-ness, but quieter signs are everywhere. (Hello, half-tucked shirts, unshined shoes, mascara-less eyelashes, handbag that’s needed a replacement for 3.5 years!)
Most of the time, I get away with my carefully cultivated carelessness. But every area of my life occasionally feels the sting of my slap and dash modus operandi. Without a scrupulously annotated calendar, birthdays can be overlooked, appointments occasionally neglected and deadlines elided.
And mis en place? Too often, I fuhgedaboudet, only to find myself diving for the spice cabinet for a dash of nutmeg, while hysterically screeching and demanding that Stephen drop everything to rummage through my disorganized kitchen tool drawer for a whisk, like, pronto.
Aside from the obvious, ubiquitous fallout the Faustian Bargain I struck with Father Time has wrought, I find that sometimes my need for speed even impedes even the simplest recipe — if I only took that extra step, or spent those extra 20 minutes carefully, meticulously, anal-y fussing, my food would taste pretty darn good, instead of just pretty good.
So, I have decided to attempt to embrace my (very) inner accountant, and take all of the time I need to really cook a dish beautifully. To maintain my sanity, I am simultaneously embracing my (much less inner) carni — because cooking should be raucous and fun and if I have to stand over pots and pans with measuring spoons and an egg timer, I may as well also have some taste bud trickery up my sleeve to entertain myself with too.
The trickery, in a word: umami.
Umami was “discovered” in the mid-1800’s, separately by Kikunae Ikeda and Karl Ritthausenm, who identified glutamic acid, the amino acid responsible for the savory, multi-dimensional, mouth-watering sensation and “fifth taste” all the foodie hipsters and indie chefs have been touting with such uncharacteristically unironic, veritably histrionic levels of enthusiasm of late.
David Chang, everyone’s favorite Harvard-lecturer/crazy NYC chef employs umami the way Lady Gaga employs crystal-studded platform pumps — without ’em, their products would still be good, they just wouldn’t assault you with the ol’ razzle dazzle, the ol’ flim flam flummox, you wouldn’t stagger away with sequins in your eyes, sated by their sorcery.
Chang’s go-to umami receptacle is dried shiitake mushrooms, a magical, cheftastic ingredient that automatically imbues everything it is scattered upon with an upgrade of deliciousness. It will never avert catastrophe, and I wouldn’t just throw it in a chocolate chip cookie recipe, but a deft touch here and there — with some added fussing — has helped me karate kick my cooking up a notch.
Below, check out umami-infused recipes for Marco Canora’s Lasagna Verde and Sausage and White Bean “Salad”, with pictures.
Marco Canora’s Lasagna Verde
Original recipe here
Makes 12 servings
- 4 TBSP unsalted butter
- 4 TBSP olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced fine
- 2 carrots, diced fine
- 4 sticks celery, diced fine
- 2 TBSP dried shiitake (ground into powder in spice grinder or small food processor)
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 lb. ground beef (80-85% lean, don’t go super lean)
- 1/3 lb. pancetta, bacon or pork bellies, diced fine
- 12 oz. tomato paste
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 2 cups red wine, dry
- 28-ounce canned tomatoes (whole if possible), in juice
- 2 cups chicken or beef stock
- 6 TBSP butter
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1/4 cup + 1/2 TBSP AP flour
- 12 lasagna noodles
- pinch nutmeg
- 2 cups Parmigiano-Reggagiano, grated
Method for sauce:
- Heat butter and olive oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until butter is melted and foamy, about 3 minutes. Add onion and cook until softened, two minutes, adding salt. Add carrots, and cook until softened, about two more minutes, add a dash of salt. Add celery, the dried shrooms, more salt, pepper, and cook until soft and all veggies take on a bit of color, about 10 more minutes. The dried shiitake mushrooms seem like a fussy addition, but they make a huge difference — they’re a big kick of umami flavor, and help make the lasagna even more addictive and toothsome.
- Make a well in the middle of the veg, add pancetta. Cook for a few minutes, add beef, add garlic, stirring to break up the meat. Cook until meat is browned all over, stirring frequently to break up the meat and brown evenly. This will take about 20 minutes, don’t rush it.
- Lower heat to medium, add tomato paste and stir vigorously. Cook until paste begins to caramelize, about five minutes. Add milk and simmer, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn. When much of the milk has been absorbed, add the wine and simmer on high until liquid has dissipated quite a bit.
- This is a fatty sauce. I tried reducing the amount of butter and oil and the beginning, but the vegetables weren’t properly hydrated or coated in a delicious lashing of fat. I tried using leaner beef and/or eliminating the pork. I found the results insipid, flat and uninspired. I have since come to the conclusion that I must skim the fat as a I go. I keep a giant cup by the pot, skim off the red oil as it rises to the top. Once you’ve eliminated the oil slick and the liquid reduces quite a bit, add the tomatoes and stock, turn the heat to low and simmer, partly covered until sauce is thick, delicious and reduced, about 2-3 hours.
- You can make the sauce ahead, up to 3 days in the fridge, or a month in the freezer.
Method for the bechamel:
- Melt the butter and milk in a saucepan over medium-high heat.
- Whisk in flour, bring to light boil, reduce immediately to simmer so milk doesn’t explode out of the pot and onto your stove, as it often does on mine. Simmer until thick, about 15-20 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper, and a bit of nutmeg.
Method for the noodles:
- Boil about 4 quarts of water, salted generously. Add noodles, cook until al dente, drain and rinse with cold water to prevent sticking.
Method of assembly:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Spray 9 X 11 glass baking dish with vegetable spray “just in case”.
- Dole out a layer of pasta sauce, add a thin layer of bechamel, sprinkle with cheese, add first layer of noodles. Repeat until you have four layers of noodles, cover with one more layer of sauce, bechamel and cheese.
- Pop in oven and cook for about 25 minutes, until sauce is bubbling frantically but not explosively. Pull out of the oven and allow all of the cheese/sauce goodness to calm down and come together. Serve.
Nutritional breakdown for Marco Canora’s Lasagna Verde: About 525 calories and a panty-bustin’ 27 grams of fat, mostly naughty saturated fat. Let’s not try to throw the hooker in church in here — lasagna that is worth eating will never be healthy. Any attempt to make it so should be regarded with unwavering skepticism and moral outrage.
Cost breakdown for Marco Canora’s Lasagna Verde: About $2 a serving.
Verdict / In the Future: This is my favorite recipe for lasagna, bar none. It takes a full days worth of cooking, but it is really worth the drool-inducing effort. The smell alone has been known to sway vegetarians. Stephen’s feedback: “My biggest problem with this lasagna is that I have a hard time telling myself it’s time to stop scraping the sides of the bowl to try to get the last bit out.”
Sausage and White Bean “Salad”
Makes 7 servings
- 2 cups white beans (I used Great Northern), dry (or 3-4 15 oz. canned beans)
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and whole
- 2 cups chicken stock (homemade if possible)
- 1 bay leaf
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 bunch kale (or other dark leafy green)
- 2 medium potatoes (I used Yukon Gold)
- 1 TBSP olive oil
- 5 sausages (I used red pepper and spinach chicken sausages)
- 1 ounce Parmesan, grated
- 1/4 tsp ground shiitake mushrooms (optional)
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 TBSP balsamic vinegar
- 2 TBSP fresh basil, minced
- 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling.
- Brine beans in 4 quarts water and 3 TBSP kosher salt overnight. Drain and rinse beans.
- Heat oven to 250 degrees. Put beans in Dutch oven. Pour 2 cups of chicken stock and 6 cups water over beans, add whole garlic clove, salt and pepper to taste, bay leaf, cover and pop in oven for 1 hour. I learned this technique from Cook’s Illustrated. The results are terrific, I promise. The beans are uniformly tender without being musy, and the skins are intact.
- Bring salted water to boil in large saucepan, blanch kale for about 1 minute, shock in ice water bath. Bring water back to simmer. Pop in potatoes and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
- Drain and set vegetables aside.
- Heat 1 TBSP oil in large saute pan over medium-high heat, until shimmering. Cut sausages into thirds, brown on all sides, drain fat if necessary.
- Put mushroom powder, mustard and vinegar in blender and mix. Add salt, pepper, oil and basil and blend until it emulsifies.
- Drain and rinse beans, add back to pot. Add in all of the other ingredients, dressing last. Mix, season to taste, drizzle with more olive oil if desired, and serve.
Nutritional Breakdown for Sausage and White Bean “Salad”: 350 calories and 14 grams of mostly excellent fat. Full of protein, enough fiber to bankrupt ex-lax, busting at the seams with Vitamins A, C.
Cost Breakdown for Sausage and White Bean “Salad”: About $1.71 per serving.
Verdict / In the Future: One of my chronic issues in the kitchen is cutting items to an appropriate size. Like Goldilocks, I often bemoan the “too small” vegetables that turn into teensy pills of mush after stewing on the stove for hours and disintegrating, or struggle to wrap my mouth around giant leafs of lettuce or perilously prodigious hunks of broccoli. This time, I grappled with the ponderous potato chunks and jumbo kale — lesson learned.