Umami. My favorite flavor: round, earthy, bass-notes that make foods taste delicious. If you haven’t gotten your head around umami, think about tomato, mushrooms, steaks, anchovies, soy sauce, miso. It is the difference between ranch dressing and caesar dressing. And the reason that a plate of spaghetti with simple tomato sauce just needs a little Parmigiano Reggiano.
The umami flavor comes from glutamates, a group of amino acids that (among other functions) enhance flavor. Glutamates occur naturally in these umami-bomb foods. But because humans can’t leave well enough alone, we’ve also isolated glutamates to make MSG, and synthesized glutamates to make hydrolized proteins, and added them in copious quantities to processed foods, which makes them delicious. But just as there is a big difference in the way our bodies process natural sugar in an apple versus refined sugar in a cookie, there is a big difference in the way our bodies process natural glutamates in dried mushrooms versus hydrolized vegetable protein in a can of soup. Personally, I opt for the whole foods approach to umami, every time.
Traditional cooks have found many ways to add umami without reaching for the MSG. Kombu dashi, the base stock of Japanese cooking, uses glutamate-rich seaweed to impart soulful flavor with just a few ingredients. In Southeast Asian cuisine, shrimp paste and fish sauce are ubiquitous, adding rich bass notes without actually making food taste fishy. Colonial Brits brought this concept home, brewing Worcestershire sauce with anchovies to enrich the cuisine of the motherland. And the secret to Italian minestrone has always been to toss the rind from a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano into the simmering stock to add a meaty richness to a vegetable soup.
Which brings us to the point: Parmigiano Reggiano. It is a magical ingredient in the kitchen, because of its concentrated umami. In fact, one resource I found (albeit of dubious trade organization origin) lists Parm as second only to Roquefort cheese in glutamates, with levels five times as high as other umami benchmarks like mushrooms and tomatoes. It is my go-to flavor booster for creamy sauces that are too sweet, or a crumb topping that tastes flat. A handful can round out the bitter flavors of dark leafy greens, and its rind…yes, the part you threw out last month, grumbling about wasting an inch after paying 22 bucks a pound at Whole Foods…turns a pallid broth or stock in the stuff of food memories.
In this lovely little treatment, I’ve taken the last (please be the last! My freezer is groaning under the weight of bagged roasted tomatoes, and I can’t face another tomato salad) of this summer’s tomato glut, roasted them with garlic and rosemary, and simmered the concentrated tomato goodness with stock and Parm rind. Then, because we do like our creamy goodness around here, I’ve nestled a pepper-spiked, umami-rich Parmigiano Reggiano flan in the middle of each bowl. This is dinner party food. Or Tuesday lunch with your husband food, if he’s working from home and you are working from home and everyone is wearing flannel pants but let’s have a date lunch anyway. Or rainy Sunday food, because rainy Sundays are the best cooking days of all. Find an opportunity make it, then take a moment to savor the umami of it all.
Rustic Tomato Soup with Parmigiano Reggiano Flan
For the soup:
About 4 pounds assorted tomatoes
2 heads garlic
1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 large sprigs rosemary
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups flavorful stock (chicken or not-too-sweet vegetable)
1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes
1 2″x 3″ piece Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
4 cups stemmed spinach, coarsely chopped
For the flans:
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 1/2 cups half-and half
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, plus more for serving
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
butter for the ramekins
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cut the tomatoes into roughly the same size chunks, leaving cherry tomatoes whole, halving Romas, and chunking up larger slicing tomatoes. Slice the top 1/2″ off each of the garlic heads. Combine chopped tomatoes, garlic heads, chopped onion, and rosemary in a large bowl. Pour olive oil over everything, and season with the salt. Toss to combine, then pour out onto two rimmed baking sheets, shaking gently to settle everything into a single layer. Ensure the garlic heads are cut side down, then roast in the preheated oven for 30-40 minutes, until tomatoes are blistered, onions are lightly charred in spots, and the garlic is soft and aromatic. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees after taking the tomatoes out.
Remove the garlic and rosemary from the pans, then scrape the tomato mixture into a 4 quart pot, making sure to get all juices and crusty bits into the pot. Squeeze the roasted garlic from its skins and add to the pot, along with the stock, chile flakes, and cheese rind. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, for at least 15-20 minutes. Fish out the cheese rind, and use a stick blender to puree soup somewhat, leaving plenty of texture. Stir in the spinach, taste for seasoning, and continue simmering until spinach wilts.
While the soup is doing its thing, combine the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese with the half and half in a small pot over medium heat. Stirring frequently, heat the mixture until bubble appear at the edges and wisps of steam escape, then remove from heat, cover, and set aside for about 15 minutes.
Butter 6 1-cup ramekins and place them in a deep baking dish. In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, egg yolks, salt, and pepper. Strain the cheese-infused half and half into the egg mixture, then whisk well to combine. Divide custard between the prepared ramekins. Pour very hot tap water into the baking pan so that the ramekins are sitting in at least 1 inch of water, then transfer to the oven (remember, you turned it down to 300?) and bake until set, about 40 minutes.
When ready to serve, run a sharp knife around the edge of each flan and turn out into a wide soup bowl. Ladle soup around the flans, and generously garnish with fresh cracked pepper. Serve hot.
Disclaimer: This blog post constitutes my entry into the Legends of Europe Market Basket Recipe Contest.