Umami, man. (Do doo, de doo do.)

Christine will freely admit she’s a particular eater, and that there are foods that she simply likes and food she simply does not like. Largely, it comes down to a textural issue (potatoes, not rice, never mayonnaise, soft pasta). And while it will be a lifelong journey to learn to cook an increasing variety of foods around these not-often-hard-and-fast rules, she’s also never made a fuss about it, and has never managed to leave a restaurant hungry.

But this post isn’t about her. Jason, bless him, seems to have inherited a particular picky palate (let’s call a spade a spade in his case). Even better, they aren’t picky about the same things. He’s almost never a fan of meat in original (non-ground) form. Chicken is verboten. Pasta and cheese works well. The spicier the food, the better. And, like most late-teens/early adults, if it comes in a bag with a flashy logo on the side and a monster sized soda, even better.

Which is why I’ve frankly been over the moon that, for the last five or six meals I’ve cooked for him, he’s given eager one- and two-thumbs-up reviews. Especially since I’ve been working in things he doesn’t normally like.

Take last night’s dinner, for instance. Flat iron steaks, seasoned with a lemon/garlic/pepper seasoning, macaroni and cheese, and broccolini with garlic. The mac and cheese was a gift from a friend’s holiday party the night before – we should all have such great friends. Broccolini was my nod to keeping vegetables on the table at every meal – sautéed in a too-small pan with some olive oil and garlic, and when it became clear they wouldn’t cook through in the pan without burning the garlic, add a bit of water, cover, and steam ’em. Season the steak liberally, sear on both sides, and if it’s not done (my thermometer died on me!) put the pan in the oven to finish the steaks.

(Click to embiggen.)
What pushed this over the line, and the long-winded way to getting to the point of this post, was the sauce for the steak. Umami (oo-MAH-mee), Japanese for “savory”, is the fifth taste that doesn’t get all the press (the others being sweet, salty, bitter, and sour). It’s been intuited in food for, well, forever but has only been identified for the last 100 years or so as a distinct taste.

In this case, I knew that steak by itself wasn’t going to do much to win the kid over. So, I decided to create a thick sauce with as many umami-packed things as I could come up with quickly. Mushrooms are packed with it, so into a pot go some sliced mushrooms along with sweated onions. That all cooked down as far as time would let it (just starting to really caramelize), then a healthy dose of Worcestershire sauce – a Western cousin to Oriental fish sauce, full of umami – to cook down. Finally, some heavy cream, to give it more of a sauce consistency and because, well, why not? I let that reduce way down, since this was going to be done on flour tortillas as a soft taco, so I didn’t want too wet of a sauce.

This is part of what pushed Jason over the edge. It didn’t hide the beef flavor at all, but having that addition made it much richer and more complex, so much so that he went back for seconds. (Also seconds on the mac and cheese. And extra broccolini, as a barter for the portion size of mac and cheese…)

So – the moral is, think about flavor not just as what will taste good together, but what helps bring out or balance the five tastes in your food.

For more on umami:
Wikipedia – Umami
NPR: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter … and Umami
IFT.org – Unleashing the Power of Umami

Oh, and to explain the title of this post:

And, because it’s likely my favorite Muppet musical interlude ever:
(* – the music interludes were added to non-US airings to compensate for the advertising breaks here.)

And no, I haven’t seen the movie yet. No spoilers in the comments, please.