Umami may be the single reason, aside from an inexplicable devotion to bacon, that terrorizes most avid meat eaters when talk of Meatless Monday enters into the conversation. Throwing their hands up in the air, they contend, “Vegetarian food just doesn’t have that certain earth intensity.”
I have heard descriptions like that as well as ones that are not easily put into words. In short, they find the food thin, or lacking depth.
Of course, there is something to this description of a “lack of depth,” when meat is not incorporated into the dish. However, this may be due to novice cooking by omnivores who have not yet grasped the power of umami in vegetarian food.
What is this umami? Categorized as the fifth element of basic food tastes, it now sits alongside sweet, bitter, salty and sour. Largely associated with Asian cooking and its secret ingredient (much-maligned in the West) Monosodium Glutamate, the Japanese describe umami as meaning “a pleasant savory taste.” For die-hard meat eaters, you know this indescribable earthy, meaty coating that gives a full mouth-feel to dishes you love.
Funny enough, this attribute can be achieved without meat. It is the foundation for many Asian dishes that rely upon fermented soybean products, like miso. So, if you are looking to achieve that “pleasant savory taste” associated with mushrooms, seaweed, and Parmasean cheese, get your hands on the following items to bring them to the dishes you serve whilst holed up at home:
Miso: Fermented soy beans and grains, usually rice, miso generally comes in the form of a wet paste. Shelf-stable, the high concentration of salt preserves the product until opening. Once opened, it is recommended to refrigerate miso (for up to a year). However, once you begin to learn the joys of miso/butter pasta, this will be the least of your worries.
Possible uses: Make a salad dressing with miso, tahini, rice vinegar and honey. It works well on green salads, green beans, carrots, and kale. Packed with probiotics, you do not want to boil it. This can cause confusion, as miso soup is a popular Japanese dish. How do you make a soup, without boiling it? Remember the miso is heated, but not brought up to a boil.
Soy Sauce: As with miso, soy sauce is (as its name implies) a soy-derived food. While seeing the word soy may trigger anxieties about GMO monocrop agriculture, do not despair. Miso and soy have been made for generations, and long before GMO technologies were introduced to these traditional products. Nevertheless, check the label. Most brands advertise that they are GMO-free. Almost as precious as black crude oil is to Texas oilmen, soy sauce is so useful that it has worked its way far from Asian cuisine and into many new global trends. If you are trying to ration sea salts, soy sauce can be substituted widely.
Consider salad dressing with soy sauce, orange blossom water, rice vinegar, sunflower oil, and date syrup or honey. Think broadly: soy sauce on eggs, roasted with spring zucchini or with canned beans and legumes (again for an easy salad).
Vegetable Stock: Cubes of vegetable bullion cubes are well-kept secret ingredients for many last minute Monday evening dishes. Throw these compressed salty cubes of flavor into a heated pan with cooked pasta, and limit the need for excess oil. However, time-saving devices may be less relevant to the big slow-down. Instead, make your own. How?
Hold onto the vegetable scraps from past meals: use the parts that otherwise get composted or thrown away (celery bases, onion skins, carrot tops, brussels sprouts bottoms, etc.). Or, if lucky, asparagus will still be found popping up out of the ground. While the tops are divine, the bottoms are often too tough to eat. Instead, pop them in the freezer, with the rest of the scraps. Once you have critical mass, cook them over a low-heat until they break down into an almost-liquid form. Add water, if needed. Once thick and flavorful, let cool and then place in ice trays in the freezer for future use.