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Finding Umami

October 24, 2009

One of our two must-stop stalls at the farmer’s market we frequent on Saturday mornings, aside from the lady we get our magnificent fresh eggs from, is the guy who seems to grow nothing but mushrooms, but grows them like a maniac. It’s an orgy of fungi pouring out of the back of his truck: portobellos, shiitakes, criminis, morels, oysters, chanterelles, hen of the woods. I admit I barely knew the difference between many of these at the beginning of the summer, but a dedicated sampling schedule each week allowed a peek at what distinguishes each of them, and why anyone should care (verdict: you don’t need to care, but it’s a ton of fun to).

Then, one day there was a wee little basket of mushrooms we’d never seen before. In size and shape they were a little like swollen wine corks. We were informed that they were the highly prized Japanese matsutake, and went for a sobering price of $40 a pound (I’d soon find out that this was actually a screaming deal, as they can easily go for upwards of $100 a pound). Having a wife in grad school and a me in the nonprofit sector, spending this kind of money on mushrooms seems like a inexcusable luxury, but we’d been scared off of buying morels and hen of the woods earlier in the summer because of price, and I was tired of our self-imposed fungus pauperhood. So we went nuts and bought four pieces, which probably cost about seven or eight bucks all together. Here they are:

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The mushroom folks are full of great ideas on how to use their product. In fact, the week the guy opened my eyes to using the big-as-your-face portobellos as a base for pizza effectively ended my quest for the perfect pizza crust–just scoop out the gills, smear on some sauce, sprinkle with cheese and whatever toppings you’ve got around, and bake at 400 for about twenty minutes or so–oh hell, here’s a pic:

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I”m just now realizing that I can’t believe I haven’t topped the portobello pizzas with more mushrooms. Chopped olives and salami are another killer topping set.

Anyway, we didn’t really have a clue what to do with our four little pieces of matsutake mushroom, but the mushroom guy claimed that their flavor was so intense that just a few dropped into a stew was the way to go. So, I stopped into the Japanese market down the street and came home with a bunch of product that I can only vaguely identify:

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I will admit that this is the first time in my entire life that I’ve personally purchased tofu. I’m not sure if there’s a word for how I felt about this, but it’s some uneasy mix of pride (that, you know, my horizons are expanding and I’m maturing enough to buy tofu) and shame (that I willingly bought tofu).

As I sliced open the first matsutake, I was a little surprised to find that it looked kind of like a sponge on the inside, lined by little tunnels and dotted with holes. No wonder they’re so light, thought I as I peered closer at the curious texture. And that’s when I noticed the itty bitty corpse-pale maggotish worm squirming around, chomping away at my $40 a pound mushroom without a care in the world. Sonofa!

I immediately showed it to Lauren and we jumped around a bit, shuddering with revulsion and making little huffing barfy sounds which made the dog go nuts and start barking and jumping around with us wondering what all the fuss was about which made us dance around even more frantically because that dog of ours can be downright dangerous when she gets all wound up, which is pretty much always. I threw the infested mushroom in the trash with the force usually reserved for spiking a football, and bravely sliced open the next. This one had a pure, untouched inside, unmarred by evil little squirmy grub-trenches. Phew. The next one also had a little worm citizen, but by this point I was no longer revolted, just pissed. Now, I realize that pesticides are ruining the world and all that, but you know what’s worse than pesticides? Maggots in your exorbitantly priced mushrooms, that’s what. The last mushroom was fine, so I was down to two pieces. Four-dollar-a-pop mushrooms the size of my thumb had damn well better be fantastic.

Wouldn’t you know it, they were. I made an udon soup, or, as I call it when Lauren orders it when out for dinner, “spaghetti water,” which never ceases to amuse me, yet somehow never manages to amuse her. Women are such a mystery! I started by frying the sliced matsutakes in a bit of sesame oil, then boiled down some mirin (a sugary rice wine) in the pan:

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The matsutakes were almost candied at this point, swimming in a thick and incredible smelling syrup, so I slid the whole concoction into some dashi (fish stock), added some reconstituted dried shiitakes (I was hoping that the two different mushrooms wouldn’t compete against each other too much, but being down to two itty bitty matsutakes kind of forced my hand), seaweed, udon noodles, and yes, cubed tofu. Five-ten minutes of boiling and it was ready to go.

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The matsutakes were really unlike anything I’d had before, and imparted a markedly distinct flavor than what the shiitakes brought. I’ve read about it because I’m a dork and read about food, but I’ve never really completely grasped the concept of the fifth taste (after sweet, sour, bitter, and salty) called umami. And while I still don’t have the intellectual grasp of umami in the way I might for bitter, I do know that I can now recognize it because this broth most definitely had it. Deep, earthy, meaty, irresistible. We slurped up that spaghetti water till we were groaningly full–from soup, which isn’t easy. Yes yes, stupid expensive, but I guess that’s the cost of stupid good. I’m willing to pay.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Renee permalink
    October 24, 2009 11:26 pm

    I am amazed that a post on making soup with mushrooms could keep me so interested. I love your writing. You do have a way with words.

  2. Dan Magaziner permalink
    October 25, 2009 12:43 am

    Ian,

    This blog is excellent!! Thanks for posting the link to fb so I can follow along.

    My mother will be ashamed if she ever learns that her Jewish son is going to use your brisket recipe.

    Dan

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