Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Deliciousness of Skillet Pasta

Some foods just have a higher deliciousness factor, a certain je ne sais quoi. It is an intensely savory taste that is not sweet, salty, sour or bitter. It is the fifth taste that Japanese Dr. Kikunae Ikeda termed, umami. This sensation he discovered in 1908 literally means, deliciousness or yummy. It explains the mysterious allure of dashi stock. It is the flavor of the those tasty bits stuck at the bottom of a chicken roasting pan or the Parmesan cheese melting into the tomato and pancetta on a pizza. The Umami Information Center (yes, there is one!) describes it as:

Taking its name from Japanese, umami is a pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. As the taste of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don’t recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious."

When you combine several umami-rich foods, the flavor doesn't just add together, but multiplies significantly. It explains why certain foods topped with cheese are enigmatically elevated in flavor. Thank goodness my habit is now justified by science! Jonah Lehrer, science writer at NPR, describes the sensation as similar to a low resonant chord played on a cello, and it was French chef, Escoffier's secret. His long and slow cooked umami-rich veal stock wowed the French culinary world, and changed the way sauces were made.

I recently had lunch with 2 of my sisters and several friends. I ordered Salmon on a Plank served with Roasted Vegetables in a Balsamic Glaze. Our conversation started shifting to the background as I focused on the deliciousness on my meal. Eureka....Umami! My sister Sandy, and I had both ordered the same thing and sat there looking at each other saying, "Mmmm, this is good!!" It was like a party on the tongue. A few days later, as I sat looking out at yet another winter snowstorm, I decided to re-create that party and make a variation of my lunch using pasta. I had a bag of Italian taconelli pasta, penne and an abundance of umami-rich foods in the larder.
I fired up my cast iron skillet and started concocting. The finished dish was definitely delicious, and I think as I took my last bite I may have muttered something like, "Yum-ami!" And it was.

Yum-ami Skillet Pasta

6 ounces dry pasta, cooked al dente
4 tablespoons, or more, extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup red onion, sliced and quartered
4 asparagus, sliced on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces
8 cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons pine nuts
12 dried and reconstituted chanterelle mushrooms, or fresh and sliced mushrooms
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4-1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste
2 handfuls fresh arugula, rinsed
2 very thin slices proscuitto, sauteed briefly until crispy
1-2 ounces fresh goat cheese

In a heavy or cast iron skillet over medium low heat, add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and heat. Add the onion, asparagus, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts. If using fresh mushrooms, also add those now. Stir while sautéing, until the onions are cooked and start to caramelize.
Add garlic and if using dried mushrooms, add those now. Stir until the garlic becomes soft, being careful it doesn't burn. Add the balsamic vinegar and anchovy paste, stirring until the balsamic vinegar reduces slightly to form a glaze. Add hot cooked pasta, toss in the arugula and stir until the arugula is slightly wilted. Add more olive oil, if needed, to evenly coat the pasta.Transfer to a serving platter or individual pasta bowls. Top with dots of fresh goat cheese and crumble the proscuitto over the pasta before serving.Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as a side dish.
Read and listen to NPR's article, "Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter...and Umami" here.
"Proust was a Neuroscientist", by Jonah Lehrer

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