Beef it up with umami

The meaty quality of umami is exploited in a flavour packed beef salad, and truffle oil adds zing to sprouts

Shredded sprouts with chilli and truffle oil. Photograph: Alan Betson

Shredded sprouts with chilli and truffle oil. Photograph: Alan Betson


In rare reflective moments when cooking, I’m given to comparing it to alchemy. And really, if you think about it, cooking is all about transformation. At its best – when done by the masters – it’s a truly magical process, not in the sense of being mysterious, but in creating something bewitching and memorable out of what are, in the end, just straightforward raw ingredients. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can remember some outstanding meals, when all else has faded to a blur.

Even at its most simple, home cooking can offer the occasional red-letter day too. I’ve been reading a lot about umami, the fifth taste, that is roughly translated as “deliciousness” and is best summed up by imagining all the other tastes (sweet, sour, salty and bitter) working together to create this fifth taste. The amino acids and glutamates found in certain foods such as Parmesan, mushrooms, soy sauce, miso, cooked tomatoes and anchovies contribute to umami flavour.

Robust, hearty seasonings such as the ones above add real oomph and body to certain dishes and that is fact, based on the science surrounding these umami receptors on both our tongues and in our tummies, rather than opinion. There is even some discussion over whether breast milk can be described as umami, to help trigger our requirements for protein-rich food and also sweet tastes, which we are hard-wired to seek out.

Think anchovies with roast lamb (it really works you know), Worcestershire sauce with shepherd’s pie, soy sauce with a stir-fry. Individually, these seasonings have their own distinctive character, but when added to the right ingredients, they become something far less one-dimensional. And so we’re back to umami again.

That’s just what happened when I decided to experiment with some (Celtic Tiger) truffle oil that I had in the cupboard. Truffle oil was once as despised as sundried tomatoes, by some, and was rather infuriatingly dribbled on everything – in a bid to charge a few more quid for it.

But as a regular devourer of Brussels sprouts, this old hand needed a new garnish. By shredding the sprouts in the food processor and slowly sautéing them in some simmering, buttery water, along with some chilli flakes and finally a few drops of truffle oil . . .Well, My Oh My!

It was a great dish and even turned a few non-sprout lovers on to these gnarly little critters. Perhaps it’s that sprouts and truffles share a kind of muscular, earthy quality, but their affinity for one another, at least in this case, is certain. I can easily eat a plate of this on its own, but it would also be lovely with roast chicken or grilled pork chops.

The second dish this week also showcases strong seasonings – in this case, wasabi and miso. This is less of a stir-fry and more of a light, warm salad, but it’s very moreish indeed, the seared, wasabi- and miso-smeared beef providing some toothsome softness against the crunch of the mange tout and sesame seeds. And with the lean meat and scarcely any oil, it’s pretty healthy too.

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