The word "umami" seems to be creeping into everyday cooking vocabulary these days. And I watch enough of the TV cooking shows to know that there's something to it. But I'll admit, up until now, umami is just something I just didn't pay attention to. Maybe I've been aware of it on some subliminal level -- you know, you taste a dish and it's immediately satisfying, but you don't bother to analyze it to figure out what it's got that's so darned appealing... so comforting... so right.
But yesterday I decided the time had come for me to be proactive. So I Googled umami to learn a little more, and to get a sense of the foods that are major contributors of umami. Then it was time to try it -- on a small scale, of course, because I didn't want to mess up what I'd already considered one of my consistently delicious recipes -- my plain-and-simple pasta sauce. I started my sauce the way I usually do -- onions sauteed in olive oil, then add minced garlic (lots of it) and saute until it's fragrant. Then a good shake of crushed red peppers. And then I added the umami -- in the form of anchovies. I minced up about 8 little filets from a tin, and sauteed them as I mashed them until they kind of disappeared. That didn't take long. Then I added a little tomato paste and let it cook a minute or two, and then I added two cans of crushed tomatoes, a little salt, and a generous sprinkling of dried oregano. That was it. I let the sauce simmer for an hour or so.
My pasta sauce is ALWAYS delicious. This sauce was delicious. Yet, I'm willing to say that there was, this time, a certain "je ne sais quois" -- something that added to the complexity without being so prominent it could be identified. Maybe I was just really hungry. But I'm willing to give umami -- the anchovies, in this case -- the benefit of the doubt. More than that, I want to do a lot more experimenting with my cooking, but I need guidance -- lots of guidance.
So my question is: short of using MSG in my cooking, in what ways can I add the essence of umami into "everyday" dishes? Into soups, for example, or roasts, or simple stir fries? Is umami something you consciously incorporate into your cooking, or does it happen more by serendipitous circumstance? Do you recognize it when it's there? Do you miss it when it's absent?
I feel like a whole new door has been cracked open for me, and I'm eager to explore what's behind it.