Umami for you, umami for me

We’ve been flirting with springtime for several weeks here in New Mexico. I’ve been lightening up the menu since early February, accented by the occasional heavier stew or soup when needed.

Now we are about to touch upon some much warmer days and I know that May will usher in a long and lovely hot summer. But no matter how hot it gets, I am a dedicated, all-season soup lover!

The secret to great soup is the broth.

A warm weather soup can be more challenging than autumn’s squash bisque or winter’s hearty bean and root veggie soup.  A summer soup calls for a broth that is both light and deeply flavorful. A successful soup broth will rend a delightful soup.

Umami for you, umami for me.

I have heard this word “umami” a lot in the past few years and decided to check out what it really is. Believe it or not, there is a website called “The Umami Information Center” which was enlightening. Seems the Japanese word “umami” has to do with the taste imparted by glutamate.

I react to that piece of information as if they said a bad word.  Glutamate?  As in Mono Sodium Glutamate?  No way I’m using that in my food!

Turns out glutamate is naturally occurring in many foods which can be used in cooking to create the coveted Umami flavor.  Some of the foods on the list I absolutely knew were umami-rich. Others, I hadn’t thought of before.

“Wow!” I thought, “This is enough to keep me souping in my kitchen all summer long!”

Without a doubt, the best umami, the best food, the best meal comes from your own kitchen. Even if you are a novice.

Okay I will get to the soup recipe. I promise! But I’ve gotta take a little side trip here.  I’m going to make a umami-rich broth made with real food ingredients and condiments. It is not difficult and it can even be considered economical because one way to get a highly-flavored soup broth is to save the cooking water from boiling or steaming other veggies and voila! you have umami.  Or, you can consciously decide to create umami from specific foods that you choose just for your soup recipe.

Either way, the point is–cooking for yourself with real food in your own kitchen wins flavor-wise and health-wise every single time over buying soup in the store (natural food store or not) or ordering it in a restaurant. Forty plus years of savoring my own cooking versus even the best dishes in the best restaurants has taught me that.

Lemon Fennel Soup

Making the umami-rich broth:

2 quarts spring water

4-6 inch piece of kombu seaweed

1 head of nappa cabbage (sometimes called Chinese cabbage)

Naturally brewed soy sauce (“Nama” brand is far and away the best flavor and the most umamiful.)

  1. Quickly clean the dried kombu by brushing it off with a clean, damp paper towel or vegetable brush. Place the kombu in the bottom of a large pot and add all the water. Bring this to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile wash a head of nappa cabbage, cut it in half and again in quarters. The core may be cut out and separately sliced fine. Cut the cabbage into 1-inch pieces. If you don’t want to use all the cabbage at once, just use the amount you will probably eat.  The cabbage itself will not wind up in the soup. It will be served separately as a lightly boiled salad.
  3. Put the cabbage in the boiling water and cook for just about a minute or until the green parts become bright green. This may take less than a minute!  Immediately remove the cabbage into a colander to cool.
  4. Continue allowing the broth to simmer with the kombu for about 15 minutes, then remove the kombu. (Save the kombu for another use or to slice up and add to another dish.
  5. Strain the soup broth so there are no solids in it.
  6. You now have a light, flavorful broth that delivers umami flavor.

Putting the soup together

1 large fennel bulb

1 shallot

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 lemon

chili flakes (optional)

  1. Wash the fennel and separate the bulb from the rest. Save the feathery fronds for garnish.  Thinly slice the fennel, about 1/4 inch slices.
  2. Slice the shallot
  3. Heat a pan of your choice (I use cast iron) and add the sesame oil.
  4. When the oil is hot add the shallots with a pinch of salt and saute until they soften.
  5. Add the fennel slices and another pinch of salt and continue sauteing until the fennel is well-cooked.
  6. Put the sautéed fennel and shallot into the soup  broth. Season lightly with soy sauce, add and let it all simmer a few minutes.
  7. Just before serving, zest your lemon and add to the soup.  I use a zester that produces thin little slices of zest. In that case I’m going to add about 2 Tablespoons of this.  If you are zesting your lemon with a microplane that produces grated zest, you may want to use less. Experiment with this!
  8. Serve the soup garnished with fennel fronds and a few drops of lemon juice.

Some more soup broth tips:

Keep in mind that some veggies, like carrots, have a very definite flavor and color.  Others, such as white daikon radish taste very different when cooked than when raw. Think  with the flavors to get the broth you want. Sometimes you just want lots of flavor and it doesn’t matter too much what you use. If you make a vegetable soup, you can add all kinds of things together. But if you are going for a more delicate taste like the fennel soup, then choose ingredients for the broth that will enhance but not interfere with your finished product.

Sauteing vegetables helps bring out their flavor and sweetness. Decide, however, what oil you will use based on the flavors of that oil. At first I was going to use toasted sesame oil to saute the fennel and shallots but that would definitely have brought in a flavor that might have taken over too much.

Dried vegetables, such as dried shiitake mushrooms have a concentrated flavor that provides a lot of umami, even though you will reconstitute them by soaking first. See more about shiitake and kombu in my 2013 post, “Rejuvenation and Dashi.”

Apparently tomatoes are considered to yield a very high level of umami.  Hmm, sun-dried tomatoes. Gotta play with that!

The Queen’s Navee Beans


“When I was a lad I served a term
As office boy to an Attorney’s firm.
I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor,
And I polished up the handle of the big front door.
I polished up that handle so carefullee
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!” — Sir Joseph, .M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan


No idea why they call these little white beans “Navy Beans.” Anyone have a guess? These small white Great Northern beans, also called “pea beans,” got the name “Navy Beans” because they were a popular staple for the U.S. Navy in the 20th Century.

Small white great northern beans

That doesn’t stop me from singing Gilbert and Sullivan while making my Navy Bean Soup!!

One little trick in preparing these beans (or any beans for that matter) is that I use a bit of kombu seaweed in the bottom of the pot while cooking the beans. Kombu adds minerals which help you digest the beans without an unintended “musical accompaniment” to your chorus.

Lest you think that kombu seaweed is only Japanese, let me remind you that kombu grows in cold Atlantic waters too and seaweed was used to wrap and eat pickled herring in the northern British Isles. Blimey!

The Queen’s Navee Bean Soup

(Makes One Gallon – eat some, freeze some)

  • 2 cups of white navy beans, soaked in spring water
  • 1/2 cup of pearled barley also soaked in spring water (you can put both the beans and the barley in the same soaking water after they’re washed, of course)
  • 1 4-inch piece of kombu seaweed
  • 1 large diced onion
  • 2 large diced carrots
  • 3 diced ribs of celery
  • 1 cup of diced mushrooms
  • sea salt
  • parsley
  • black pepper

What you need to know for this soup is basic bean preparation from dried beans:

First sort through the dried beans and barley and take out any stones or mysterious pieces of stuff. It’s so tempting to skip this step but much better to take the time now than to go to the dentist after someone has chipped a tooth on a small stone left in your soup. At the very least, stones are painful to bite down on.

Thoroughly wash the beans and barley in cold water. Do this by putting the beans and barley in a big bowl and filling with water. Use your hands to swish the beans around and pour off the dirty water. I don’t recommend a colander or sieve because they don’t allow the dirt to float away efficiently. Do this at least twice until the water comes out clean.

Soak the kombu, beans and barley in spring water for at least 2-3 hours or as long as overnight.

Place the kombu in the bottom of a large soup pot and layer the beans and barley over it. Cover with spring water and bring it to a simmer.

Do not add any salt at this point. If you add salt now while the beans are uncooked, they will not soften. Salt is added when the beans are almost done. At that point the salt will help finish the beans and sweeten the dish. (Yes I said “sweeten.” That is what good sea salt, properly used will do!)

Continue cooking the beans in this layered fashion without stirring. When the water cooks down, add more cold water to cover again. Do this as often as needed but only when the water has cooked down to almost gone. Adding the cold water to the hot beans will drive the heat into the beans and help them get cooked inside. The result is fully cooked beans that are not mushy.

The beans should soften up in an hour or so but there are no rules about this. You just have to see when they’re done. When the beans are about 2/3 done, add the diced onion, celery, carrots and mushrooms and cook them in until tender.

NOW add sea salt – about 1/2 teaspoon or more if your taste demands it. NOW you can also stir the soup up. [Note: I almost never take the kombu seaweed out. It cooks into the soup and usually breaks down into bits. Or, you can remove it and cut it up and put it back in. No point in wasting this fabulous source of plant-based minerals and trace minerals!]

When the beans are fully cooked, add more water to make the right consistency for soup. Season with pepper and garnish with parsley.,

Serve with greens or a salad and some crusty bread. I sometimes will mix in sauerkraut (Yes! Try It!) or serve pickled vegetables or a semi-pickled pressed salad with a hearty soup like this. It’s a meal to keep anyone’s Navy hard at work and soon they’ll be calling you, “Sir.”


Navy Bean and Barley Soup, Lightly Boiled Kale with Toasted Sesame Salt (Gomasio), Pressed Salad Pickles and Ye Olde Crusty Bread

Under De-Construction

Nothing like moving your household to disrupt things thoroughly! Not that I’m complaining. This is a move I’ve been waiting for a long, long time! My husband and I have finally decided to put apartment life in the past and we are buying a home of our own. (WAIT ’til I show you my new kitchen!!!)

Christmas packages have been replaced with boxes. Cupboards and drawers are starting to be emptied. Blogging time is mostly replaced with dekludging time. And more dekludging time, and still more . . . Nothing better than moving to take the opportunity to get rid of some of the burden!

With my schedule, there is only less than a day each week to get everything done. Cooking has become fast and minimal. Nothing fancy, just something to eat. Not exactly your gourmet, unique, photo-worthy delicacies. Not the kind of thing you blog about.

Or is it? Last fall I started to write a post that I called, “What you don’t see.” It was going to be about our day to day fare that isn’t special or unusual—just all the things that are made and eaten in between the masterpieces.

Now seems like the perfect time to share these with you while I pack and tape and label my material life. Cookbooks are in a box and shortly so will be most of the utensils and dishes. Life and menus are literally under deconstruction. But we still have to eat, don’t we?


Miso soup—the breakfast of healthy champions! This is absolutely one of the rock solid foundations of our daily fare. Alkalizing, loaded with beneficial bacteria from naturally fermented miso (as long as you don’t boil this soup), and a great way to use up bits of veggies you have in your refrigerator. This one has some red radishes that needed using. Takes just a few minutes and I usually make enough for the next few mornings. I’ve given the recipe for Miso Soup before, so I’ll just post the link here.

Creamy Celery Root Soup

Sometimes when you meet a new vegetable, you take one look and think you know what it’s going to be like.

Take this celery root for example. This is the same one we saw last week.


Interesting looking . . . different in a big brown sort of way . . . not something you’re supposed to actually cook, right?

Yes!! Yes!! It is something you’re supposed to cook—eat—and you’ll love it!

Creamy Celery Root Soup

  • Two or three large celery roots (AKA celeriac)
  • Mirepoix (fine diced onions, celery and carrots)
  • garlic
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper
  • pinch of crushed anise seeds
  • coconut milk
  • soup stock of choice

Peel all the brown skin off the celery root and remove any dark spots or ingrown roots. Cut the peeled roots into 1-inch chunks.  Steam the celery root in a little water until it is tender. Blend the steamed celery roots with a little coconut milk. I use a power blender to get a super creamy consistency but any blender will work fine as long as you blend it long enough.

Saute the mirepoix in olive oil and sea salt and add some soup broth – start with about a cup.  I used a simple broth of kombu seaweed simmered in spring water because I wanted a mild broth that would not overwhelm the taste of the celery root.  Add in the garlic, the anise seeds. Add more salt, pepper, broth and or coconut milk until you get your desired thickness and taste.

You will have the richest, thickest soup with a sweet and delicate flavor!


Minestrone My Way

Who doesn’t love a bowl of thick and hearty soup?

I do! So I’m continuing my “Lighten it Up” challenge by putting together one of my all-time fave Italiano soups—Minestrone! Let’s all say this with the kind of passion and romance of a real Italian! Just click on the link and learn how!

Minestrone Soup typically does have a lot of veggies in it but it also has beans, pasta, sometimes potato, sometimes meat and often a chicken or beef-based broth. Today I am first of all making a vegan version of this soup which will lighten it up considerably and I’m going to tweek the basic recipe to lighten it further still without sacrificing flavor, thickness or richness.


Start by sauteing one medium onion diced in one tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt.  Or, water sautee. Continue sauteing until the onions become translucent and start to brown.


Slice a few sliced cloves of garlic and dice about three stalks of celery and toss them into the saute action.  Add another pinch of sea salt. Add a bit of water if the pan gets a bit too dry.


Check out the action shot! Add a can of diced tomatoes.


Now here’s a good trick . . . take half of a 15 ounce can of chickpeas and a little bit of vegetable broth and puree them with a blender. This nice thick puree helps make the soup rich, rich, rich! You may do this with any kind of bean you choose for your minestrone. Then add the rest of your chickpeas and vegetable broth. (I used one box of Imagine Foods Vegetable Cooking Stock. It is one of the only prepared soup stocks that does NOT have any sugar in it.  Instead of pasta, I added 2 cups of cooked wild rice that I had leftover from stuffed squash.  Season with salt and pepper to taste, oregano, pepper flakes or whatever sounds Italiano to you!


Now were going to really up the heartiness level with 5 cups of escarole! Wash the escarole and give it a rough cut before adding it to the soup. Don’t worry about how bulky it looks, it will cook down pretty fast.


Adjust your seasonings and—Mama Mia! That’s one beautiful Minestrone! Come on everybody! Let’s say “Mama Mia” just the way our Italian friends do!

Vegan Chilled Cucumber Fennel Soup

Lately, it’s been too darn hot to cook!

Summer has hit very hard around here with temperatures over 100 degrees for the last several days. On top of that we are having the worst drought in history with no prediction of when relief will come.

What’s a cook to do?

One thing I have been doing is getting up early enough to cook something in the morning when the air is . . . well I wouldn’t go so far as to say “cool” . .  but I figure early a.m. is when the temp is as low as it’s going to get for the day. Even so, I do not want to fill our home with heat from my stove and oven!

The other evening I was through with work and even though it was rather late evening, it was still mucho calor fuera and even though I had not eaten since about 11 a.m. (only breakfast and second breakfast). I still didn’t want to eat anything. Just too hot! But I knew I would eventually get hungry.

(And that’s the thing about summer, don’t eat, don’t eat, too hot to eat, and then Wham! Starving! Eat Everything!. I mean, what’s with ‘second breakfast’ lately? What am I, a Hobbit?  I’ll let you know if I ever get that under control.)

Mucho calor fuera!
Mucho calor fuera!

I thought, “I should eat something at least. What could I possibly make that I might feel like eating?”

There it was! A visionary flash of the ultimate cool-as-a-cucumber but loaded with savory, satisfying flavors.
There it was—a visionary flash of the ultimate cool-as-a-cucumber-but-loaded-with savory-satisfying-flavors summer refreshment idea!

“How about a cold, creamy cucumber soup?”

So I got busy. There was a little cooking involved, but not much.

1. I minced a little red onion—very fine mince—and sauted that with a touch of olive oil until it was sweet and tender.

2. I added some soup stock. I used Imagine Foods Vegetable Soup Stock which is the only ready-made stock I have found that does not have cane sugar in it. (More notes about the soup stock later.)

3. I grated a bulb of fennel and a cucumber—both organic—and added that.  I added salt, white pepper and then a little unsweetened coconut milk and some nutmeg. I adjusted the salt and then chilled the soup. Surely you could play around with the seasonings. A bit of cardamom perhaps? Or go for a hit of hot chili pepper?

Lovely chilled soup in three four easy steps!

4. Use the fluffy end of the fennel as a garnish. (That is, if you can. The fluffy tips of the fennel look lovely when dry and seem like the perfect garnish. But as soon as they get wet they rapidly collapse and resemble a wet Shih Tzu.  So throw on that garnish and serve it fast!)

Now let me talk to you about the color.  If you buy one of these ready-made soup stocks it’s going to be orangey-yellow because they use a lot of carrots or squash. And the flavor of this stock is very nice but definitely affects the outcome of the soup.

If you think creamy cucumber soup should NOT look like pea soup, and you want a more traditional white-looking soup, you should make dashi as your soup stock.  This is not hard to do at all. Then you will have a clear broth to start with. Further, if you really want a whiter soup, you could peel the cucumber before grating it and then you would have much less green color.

I’m sure my photo of this soup would be much more picture perfect had I done that but I was looking for something very fast so used the packaged broth and I prefer to use whole organic foods whenever possible so I generally don’t peel my cucumbers.  There’s lots of good stuff (nutrients) right under that skin!

When the soup was chilled, I served it to my Hubbin’ and myself. I thought probably the soup would be too mild for him and he might not like it. Wrong!! He did like it very much! We both enjoyed the flavors and felt refreshed after eating it.

Another tip about this soup is that you can keep it chilled in a container for work or travel and enjoy it as is! How simple is that?

Rejuvenation and Dashi

Springtime rejuvenates me. I love the budding trees, the very young, very light shade of green that new leaves have. I look forward to the sweet, sultry smell of the Russian olive trees. And I love putting away the coats and gloves and hats. Here in Central New Mexico, we get to closet them for a good eight or nine months.

Spring is a miraculous season.

Spring is a miraculous season. This photo is dedicated to my blogging friend, Kathy, who lives in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan where she is still experiencing the need for the coats, hats and gloves.

Seems like all living things are awakened in the spring—even my Christmas cactus has decided to bless us with a single bright blossom! This hasn’t happened in three years since I first got the plant as a Christmas present. It was covered in bright red blooms then, but little by little they finished their time and dried up and dropped off. Never to be seen again. Try as I did to encourage another bloom, the Christmas cactus remained a beautiful green with new growth and a lovely vibrancy, but alas, no flowers. Until now!

A Springtime Christmas gift!

A Springtime Christmas gift!

I celebrated with a little springtime rejuvenation of my own.

Shiitake Scallion Soup – Makes 6

  • 1 1/2 quarts of spring water
  • 6 inch piece of kombu
  • naturally brewed soy sauce to taste (I recommend Nama Shoyu)
  • 1/2 cup bonita dried fish flakes (optional)
  • 1 package of extra-firm organic tofu
  • 1 bunch of fresh organic scallions
  • 6-8 dried shiitake mushrooms

1. Make the soup stock, also known as dashi-a Japanese-style broth. Put the kombu and spring water in a pot and let it come to a boil. Reduce heat and let it simmer for 10 minutes. The kombu has many minerals and creates a wonderful flavor for this basic soup stock.

2. Remove the kombu* and (optional) add the bonita flakes. Turn off the heat and steep the bonita flakes for a few minutes. They will sink to the bottom. Strain the stock. I used a strainer with an unbleached coffee filter inside to get all solids from the bonita flakes out.

3. Soak the shiitake mushrooms until they are soft. Remove any stem pieces. The stems are not generally used because they remain tough. Slice the mushrooms very thinly and add them to the strained stock and bring to a simmer again. Let it simmer while you prepare the tofu.

4. To prepare the tofu, you can cut it into bite-size squares. Use whatever amount you wish but for me, I’m making this a light, light soup and I don’t want a lot of tofu. I decided to make a single large piece of tofu for each bowl by cutting the tofu into six big chunks and then making partial cuts in each chunk creating a sea anomone effect. Use chopticks or wooden spoon handles to prevent the knife from cutting all the way through. Place the tofu pieces into the broth.

Use the chopsticks to keep the knife from slicing all the way through.

Use the chopsticks to keep the knife from slicing all the way through.

5. Season the (still simmering) soup with soy sauce–just enough to give a light flavor but not enough to be salty or overwhelm the flavor of the broth. The best way to judge this is to taste your broth each step of the way so you know what the flavors are and won’t overdo the shoyu.

6. Wash the scallions and remove the roots.** Make a small verticle slice in the little white bulb of the scallion, then cut on an angle to create 1-inch pieces. I like to use the white part and the lighter green part but not the dark green ends. You aren’t really cooking this; just put it in the hot soup, turn off the heat and it will become a beautiful bright green just like the new spring leaves outside!

Dashi makes a light and flavorful base for your springtime soup bowl.

Dashi makes a light and flavorful base for your springtime soup bowl.

*Save the kombu you used for the broth and add it to another soup or vegetable dish.

** If the scallion roots are nice and fresh, as they often are in the spring and early summer, you can store them in a glass of water in your refrigerator and use them to flavor soups. Just chop them up very fine and add them in!

Creamy Moroccan Chickpea Soup

I was out looking for a fast dinner one night and picked up some “Moroccan Creamy Soup” to try. Somehow I got the impression that it was a vegetarian soup, but darn, I think it was made with chicken broth. The soup was nevertheless delightful especially in its consistency and the way it was seasoned.

The main ingredients were chickpeas and spinach and I could taste cumin and perhaps cinnamon. There were onions and some garlic in the soup as well. The creaminess of the soup I bought came from milk or cream and that didn’t thrill me.

So I decided to make my own version of this soup using a vegetable broth, chickpeas, spinach, onions, garlic mushrooms, spices and for added creaminess–a little coconut milk.

Luckily I was able to save this last little serving for a photo!

Luckily I was able to save this last little serving for a photo!

Moroccan-Style Creamy Chickpea Soup

No need for much of a recipe here. I didn’t measure anything. I just constructed the soup this way:

  • Cooked chickpeas in vegetable broth, partially blend leaving at least half the beans intact. I used 2-3 cups of cooked chickpeas.
  • Dice an onion and saute in olive oil with some salt until the onions are translucent and sweet. Continue to saute to caramelize the onions. Add this to the soup.
  • Add garlic and mushrooms.
  • I added some seitan chunks since I didn’t want chicken. Seitan is made by creating a dough from whole wheat flour and then washing out the starch and the bran. The protein (wheat gluten) is left. I will show you how to make this in the near future.
  • Add the coconut milk until it is creamy enough for you
  • Season with salt, pepper, cumin, thyme, allspice and a bit of cayenne. Taste. Adjust. Taste again.
  • Add spinach at the end. I was making about 2 quarts of soup and used about 2 cups of chopped spinach.
  • I garnished my soup with a few slices of Preserved Lemon Rinds, which some of you know I just love to use! If you don’t have this, try a thin strip of lemon peel.

I served this yummy soup with a side of olives and a simple salad. It got almost all eaten up before I had a chance to take a picture for this post! I finally ensconced the last little serving to the back of the refrigerator and we had our “photo shoot” today.

I wanted to see if I could capture steam in the photo and I did just barely. Can you see it? I can probably because I know it’s there!

Maybe if I circle my steam in bright pink you can squint real hard and imagine you can see it!

Maybe if I circle my steam in bright pink you can squint real hard and imagine you can see it. Hey! That sort of works!

I have not even reached the “amateur” status in food photography just yet but I’m working on it. However my soup cookery is quite good!