Hello there, friends! What’s been cooking?
It’s back to school (back too soon) time for some of us, and it’s hectic as can be. As food preferences change almost daily these days (among the younger half of the family), there’s a lot of brainstorming, and hair-pulling on my part 😠. As for the other half of the family, we’ve been eating a lot of light, no-cook, or stove-top cooked meals, since we’re still without an oven (it’s been almost 5 months! 😞).
So today, I made us some seriously delicious adult food – a warm salad of charred eggplant with umami sauce! I grilled some eggplants on the bbq, until they are nicely charred and smokey, then I paired them with this amazing umami sauce, inspired by a True Food Kitchen‘s recipe, added some toasted, garlic quinoa for extra nutritional boost, and sprinkled toasted sesame seeds on top! It’s such a simple dish, yet bursting with complex flavors, ranging from sour, salty, smokey, garlicky, earthy and cheesy. I think that sums up pretty well what this umami sauce tastes like.
But wait, what is ‘umami‘, you might wonder? Is this even a thing?
What is umami?
Glad you asked. Let me try to describe a sensory experience, you have no preconceived notion about! Did you know that umami is the 5th taste (after sweet, sour, salty and bitter)? I can see a lot of raised eyebrows… I hear you, but bear with me for a second here, there’s some science behind this.
To start with, it’s savory…add to that an undertone of earthy cheese, smoky bacon, and some fermented fish, and you’ve got umami! Ok, I just raised more questions than I answered. Scratch that, let me start again.
Umami, translated as ‘delicious’ from Japanese, was discovered in the early 20th century by a Japanese chemist, who thought the dashi broth, rich in kombu (kelp), and a staple in Japanese cuisine, did not taste exactly salty, sweet, bitter or sour. It had another, almost indiscernible dimension to its flavor that gave the broth its meaty, lingering taste, which he coined as ‘umami‘ taste. He then found out that the underlying compound in the broth, and the source of this unique taste was glutamic acid, naturally occurring in kelp, fish, meat, and other protein-rich foods. He also discovered that when foods rich in glutamates combine with foods rich in another umami inducing substance, ribonucleotides, the flavor of the resulting combination was exponentially enhanced, to create this tantalizing, addictive 5th taste, which gives foods a ‘wow factor’ quality. Subsequent studies, as recent as a 1994, confirmed that there are actually receptors present on the human tongue, that can detect and react to the specific taste of glutamates.
Ok, that’s great, you think, but it still seems like a stretch, and you still don’t get what this mysterious, phantom ‘umami’ actually tastes like…
What does umami taste like?
Let me try to be a bit more helpful by listing the foods rich in glutamates, and impairing the strongest umami taste – dried mushrooms, soy sauce, aged cheeses like Parmesan, cured meats, dried and smoked fish, seaweed, fermented foods, leeks, asparagus, tomatoes, green tea, nutritional yeast. Now, strain your imagination, and try to find out the common taste among all the above!😜 Or better yet, make this sauce, and you’ll get to experience the 5th taste, first hand!
But enough geeking out about food science. Let’s just talk about this dish in layman terms – it’s simply too good to be missed!
I’m layering different flavors and textures but the basic components are the eggplant and the umami sauce. Don’t get scared away by the mysterious ‘umami’ word. The sauce literally takes 1 minute to mix. The base for the sauce is nutritional yeast, which is one of the most umami-tasting ingredients you can get. It’s the vegan Parmesan cheese, and here it works beautifully, as it gives the sauce a touch of sweetness, in addition to the strong earthy, cheesy flavors. You can find nutritional yeast in the bulk section of health food stores, or online. If you don’t have that on hand, try adding ground Parmesan cheese instead, but maybe half the amount as it’s saltier.
The eggplant can be roasted in the oven, or grilled on the bbq for a deeper, charred flavor. If you have a leftover cooked quinoa, you can simply toast it with some olive oil and mashed garlic for 10 minutes on low heat, until it crisps up. It adds a nice texture and more garlicky flavor. To brighten the dish, I add a lot of chopped fresh parsley. And for an extra dash of umami – some toasted sesame seeds!
So, if I spiked your curiosity, go ahead and make this dish, and don’t forget to tell me if it’s umami enough. 😉
Since we’re at the peak of eggplant season, here are some more ideas about cooking this amazing vegetable:
Eggplant hummus wraps with smoky tomato confit
Roasted eggplant in tomato garlic sauce
Eggplant dip (no, it’s not Baba Ganoush, it’s better!)
Charred eggplant with umami sauce and toasted garlic quinoa - a fantastic, warm salad bursting with complex contrasting flavors and textures.
- 1/2 cup nutritional yeast (see notes)
- 1 1/2 Tbs soy sauce
- 2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
- 2 Tbs water
- 4 garlic cloves, pressed
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- 2 Tbs white truffle oil (or, replace with regular olive oil)
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 cup cooked quinoa (see notes)
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, pressed
- 3 Japanese eggplants
- 1/2 cup umami sauce
- 4 Tbs olive oil
- a handful of fresh parsley, chopped
- 2-3 Tbs toasted sesame seeds
Cut the eggplant in 1/2-inch (1.5 cm) thick slices. Sprinkle with salt, and leave in a colander to release its bitter juices, for 30 minutes. Rinse and dry the eggplant, brush liberally with the olive oil, and salt.
Heat a bbq grill on high. Grill the eggplant pieces for 2-3 minutes per side, or until nicely charred, and soft.
Heat 2 tbs of olive oil, and add the cooked quinoa to the pan. Reduce heat to medium-low, and cook without too much stirring, until the quinoa gets toasty, and nicely colored. Add the smashed garlic in the end, and cook some more. If needed, add more oil.
In a bowl, mix all ingredients, except the oil, then slowly drizzle both the olive and truffle oils, while whisking, until it's fully incorporated and emulsified. Makes about a cup, and will be enough for two salads.
Spread some of the toasted quinoa on the bottom of your plate. Arrange half of the eggplant pieces on top, and drizzle with 1/4 of the dressing. Top with the rest of the quinoa and eggplant, drizzle some more of the dressing, and sprinkle fresh parsley, and toasted sesame seeds on top.
* You can buy it in bulk at some health food stores, or online.
** To cook quinoa, bring 1 part dry quinoa, and 2 parts water to a boil, add a pinch of salt, and simmer for 20 minutes, covered, until the liquid is absorbed.