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 is 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!

 

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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?

 

Fruit Meets Fennel Salad

I made this kind of late one night last week and it was so good we just scarfed it down.  No pictures or anything! So I thought I’d make it again and share it with you this time. The recipe morphed a bit. The first time I made it I used half a granny smith apple thinly sliced. This time I wanted to use up a grapefruit, pomegranate and some tangerines.

I use and recommend only organic ingredients.

FENNEL SALAD (Serves 4)

  • 2 cups thinly sliced fennel bulb
  • 1 cup thinly sliced celery
  • 1 red grapefruit, supremed
  • 2 tangerines, peeled with all pith removed
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced roasted almonds
  • 1/4 cup low fat plain greek yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh crushed garlic
  • juice of half a lime
  • 1/4 teaspoon lime zest
  • salt
  • pepper
  • pinch of celery seeds
  • pomegranate arils
First "supreme" the grapefruit by removing the top and bottom and then carefully slicing away the sides.

First “supreme” the grapefruit by removing the top and bottom and then carefully slicing away the sides.

Turn the grapefruit over and continue trimming the peel. Then open the grapefruit and clean the pith and any seeds in the center.

Turn the grapefruit over and continue trimming the peel. Then open the grapefruit and clean the pith and any seeds in the center.

Separate the sections, removing all the connective tissue.

Separate the sections, removing all the connective tissue.

Now peel the tangerines, removing all the white pith. I used Satsuma tangerines which separate very easily from their skin.

Now peel the tangerines, removing all the white pith. I used Satsuma tangerines which separate very easily from their skin.

Wash the fennel bulb and remove the top and trim the bottom. Cut the bulb in half and slice it thinly.

Wash the fennel bulb and remove the top and trim the bottom. Cut the bulb in half and slice it thinly.

I put my sliced fennel in a bowl of cold water with some lemon slices to keep it from discoloring or wilting while I finished prepping the salad.

I put my sliced fennel in a bowl of cold water with some lemon slices to keep it from discoloring or wilting while I finished prepping the salad.

Slice the celery. I cut it at a strong angle to create longer slices and take advantage of the texture. The celery leaves were in good shape so I used them too.

Slice the celery. I cut it at a strong angle to create longer slices and take advantage of the texture. The celery leaves were in good shape so I used them too.

Wash raw almonds in cold water and lay them out in a single layer in a baking pan. Roast at 350 until they smell aromatic and begin to brown. When they are cool, slice them up.

Wash raw almonds in cold water and lay them out in a single layer in a baking pan. Roast at 350 until they smell aromatic and begin to brown. When they are cool, slice them up.

Mix the yogurt, cider vinegar, olive oil, lime juice, garlic, lime zest, salt, pepper and celery seed.  Voila! Dressing!

Mix the yogurt, cider vinegar, olive oil, lime juice, garlic, lime zest, salt, pepper and celery seed. Voila! Dressing!

Coat the fennel, celery, grapefruit and tangerine with dressing. Garnish with roasted almond slices and pomegranate arils.*

Coat the fennel, celery, grapefruit and tangerine with dressing. Garnish with roasted almond slices and pomegranate arils.*

*I used an underwater method of seeding my pomegranate which I got from Saveur.com. See the video here.