Whole foods with umami

This article was originally published in April 2015

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There are several whole food sources of the delicious fifth taste, umami. (See “Understanding umami” to learn more about this flavor sensation.) At PCC, our selection of umami-rich foods meets the high standards for sustainability and taste you expect.

Kombu

Kombu, also known as kelp, is a sea vegetable prized not only for its abundance of essential minerals, vitamins and trace elements but also for its natural glutamic salts that make it an excellent flavoring agent.

PCC carries kombu from the Emerald Cove and Eden brands. Unlike these brands, which are carefully harvested in Asia, commercial kombu can be cultivated artificially or just gathered from the beach after washing ashore. Many are sprayed with chemically produced monosodium glutamate (MSG) to make the kombu more tender.

How to use

Kombu most frequently is used to make the delicious Japanese noodle broth, dashi. But it also can be used to make a variety of soup stocks. Simply place a strip in a pot of water and bring to a boil. Remove the kombu after 4 to 5 minutes and discard or chop and use in other dishes. Vegetables, herbs, spices or fish can be added to the stock after removing the kombu. Kombu also can be soaked, chopped and simmered with carrots, onions, squash or other vegetables. A small piece of kombu added to dried beans helps to tenderize them as they cook.

Dried Mushrooms

PCC carries a variety of dried organic mushrooms that lend their earthy, slightly smoky essence to many dishes, from stir-fries and curries to pasta sauces and pizza toppings. Selection varies by store and can include chanterelles, maitake, porcini, shiitake, morels and more from Fungus Among Us of Snohomish, Wash., and MycoLogical in Portland, Ore.

How to use

Rehydrate the mushrooms in boiling water (soak for 30 minutes, then strain) and you’re left with two separate ingredients — the mushrooms and their aromatic broth. Sauté the mushrooms to add to recipes and use the broth as the base for soup.

Fish sauce

Fish sauce provides the essential savory flavor found in traditional Thai cuisine. The Thai Kitchen brand sold at PCC is made only from the first pressing of salted anchovies.

How to use

Replace soy sauce or salt to add a savory taste to many Asian dishes. Visit pccmarkets.com/recipes for a range of recipes that include it, such as Coconut Fish Curry with Charred Chiles and Lime, and Quick Beef Faux Pho.

Sun-dried tomatoes

Sun-dried tomatoes have a more concentrated flavor than fresh, so they add a powerful punch of umami to recipes that feature them. PCC’s are organic and available dried or packed in oil in jars.

How to use

Because sun-dried tomatoes are small and shriveled, it’s tempting to add more than you need. Be careful, or your recipe will be overwhelmed with tomato flavor. Try recipes on our website for PCC Roasted Tomato Pasta Salad, or Hazelnut, Sun-dried Tomato and Herb Pate. Or, soak the dried tomatoes in olive oil, then whir them in your food processor with some garlic and parmesan for a lovely pesto.

Parmesan

Plenty of cheeses have umami, but parmesan is best recognized for lending this savory flavor. At PCC we carry the following brands in wedges:

  • Reggiano Parmesan from Italy — named the King of cheese, this raw cow’s milk cheese is a 700-plus-year tradition in certain regions of Italy. Each wheel is aged at least 24 months for a crystalline texture perfect for shaving and grating.
  • Parmesan Reggianito — Translated it means “little reggiano.” It’s made from the milk of pasture-fed cows in Argentina treated much the same as their Italian sisters. Sweet, robust and a little salty.
  • SarVecchio Parmesan — This American Parmesan has a saltiness that’s unique to parmesan-style cheeses, but that’s outweighed by a sweetness that really takes center stage. It’s less dry than other parmesans, so it melts well and is perfect for cheese plates.

How to use

Grate over pasta or polenta, shave slivers on top of green or grain salads, or fold into omelets, casseroles or gratins. The rind of a Parmigiano Reggiano wheel is edible, so when you get down to the end of the cheese, toss the rind into simmering soup, stew or pasta sauce for extra umami.

Anchovies and sardine

Chock-full of calcium, protein and omega-3s, these tiny fish are one of the healthiest foods you can eat. They’re sustainably caught and deliciously savory when added to pizzas, salads or pasta. We carry several brands at PCC, packed in oil or water.

How to use

See our website for a recipe for Pasta Con Le Sarde. Or, try Wild Planet’s white anchovies — known as boquerones in Spanish restaurants — that have a clean, mild flavor perfect for a tapas platter or as a snack straight from the can.

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Understanding umami

"Delicious taste" is the translation of the Japanese word umami — the fifth taste sensation first identified in Japan and more recently in the United States. Fermentation and aging transforms the flavors of foods such as miso, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, and aged and cured meats, in part by freeing the amino acid glutamate to produce umami.

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