Francisco and I were party to a conversation last week about umami. “Umami”, a loanword from Japanese umami (うま味) –meaning “delicious taste”, is something you hear people like Heston Blumenthal or Tom Colicchio use in the latest Food Network show du jour without much explanation or elaboration. It’s often described vaguely as “the fifth taste”, and is followed by a list of seemingly-unrelated foods rich in it. Francisco and I concluded we knew what foods were allegedly rich in umami but that none of them tasted alike, so we both regarded the term with a bit of skepticism.
I came home and did some research about umami. It turns out we were both wrong; the human tongue has receptors for L-Glutamate (an amino acid), positioning it as a fundamental flavor for us. Since we can taste glutamic acid, it follows that foods that are rich in this stuff can be said to have glutamic acid–or umami–flavor. There are lots of foods that contain glutamic acid: ripe tomatoes, cured meats, shellfish, and most fermented things (including soy and Worcestershire sauce). Maillard reactions in browned protein release glutamic acid, contributing to the taste of umami. Seaweed is extremely rich in glutamic acid, which is why Japanese dashi (broth, typically made with kombu and dried bonito flakes) typically represents the most idealistically-pure example of the flavor.
Umami is interesting in it’s frustrating elusiveness of being described or articulated. Most resources I found try to call it “brothy” or “meaty”, both of which seem obviously rooted in the abundance of glutamic acid found in browned meats and dashi and neither of which are terribly helpful in painting a picture of the flavor. Its qualities are often grasped at with phrases like “mouthwatering”, “coats the tongue”, “long-lasting”.
In 1907, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University isolated crystals of glutamic acid left behind after evaporating a large quantity of seaweed broth; these crystals exactly encapsulated the ineffable but undeniable flavor of umami. The professor went on to patent a method of mass-producing these glutamic acid salt crystals, known as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). MSG, then, is pure distilled umami.
Learning this of course led me down the road of reading about why MSG has a bad rap. Based mostly on anecdotal evidence, MSG is reputed to cause ill reactions in some with self-proclaimed MSG sensitivities. Various double-blind tests trying to isolate and confirm the existence of MSG-induced illness has failed, and research into the matter is muddled by most accounts revolving around feeling ill after eating American-Chinese food, in which MSG is but one of many ingredients (there are suggestions that heavy use of wine and salt can also lead, either independently or in conjunction with MSG, to feelings of “headache, numbness/tingling, flushing, muscle tightness, and generalised weakness”).
MSG is interesting in that it typically doesn’t taste pleasant in and of itself; it usually requires an aroma component to be found tasty. It also rapidly becomes unpleasant in concentrations of more than 1%. It’s been found to be a useful flavor booster in low-salt foods.
If it’s not obvious already, my curiosity about umami was piqued while making this dish, which is lousy with it. This is due primarily to the use of 2 (!) bottles of Worcestershire sauce in the making of various components, which is enhanced by lots of other rich, meaty, brothy, mouth-watering, long-lasting, tongue-coating flavors.
This dish is listed in the Summer section of the cookbook, but I chose to do it now because I’ve learned that springtime in the Bay Area carries with it a bounty of ramps–one of the hero ingredients here. Ramps are part of the Allium family (think onions, garlic, leeks, etc.); they have a garlicy smell and an onion-like flavor. I learned they’re pretty popular in Southern food, but even though I’m from Kentucky originally I’d never tasted them before now.
The ramps in this dish are cut down to just the bulb and a short bit of burgundy stem, then pickled in a mixture of white wine, white wine vinegar, sugar, and salt. I was in a bit of a hurry my first time through with this recipe; I was meant to simmer the pickling liquid, pour it over the (presumably room-temperature) ramps, then let them slowly cool before refrigerating for at least a day. In my hurry, I dumped simmering liquid over refrigerated ramps, and immediately refrigerated them. When I tasted them the next day, they tasted ‘pickley’ and sweet-vinegary, but were very, very crunchy–unpleasantly so. They had a raw quality and were a bit aggressive, sort of like biting a raw onion dipped in vinegar. I knew that I’d made a wrong move with the fast temperature drop I’d enforced on them; they needed time to sit in hot liquid to sort-of cook and tenderize a bit, and also to allow the liquid to leech out some of the harsh, raw notes. To remedy this, I took out the ramps from their liquid, let them come to room temp, re-simmered the liquid, and poured it back over the ramps (effectively double-cooking them, kinda), then let them sit at room temperature for a few hours. The longer thermal differential led to them having more time to tenderize, and the second time through worked pretty well. The ramps turned out tender and piquantly bright.
The main ingredient here are the pork cheeks themselves. These are more or less considered offal (swoon), though high-end restaurants have been popularizing them enough that they’re not as dirt-cheap as they might otherwise be. Pork cheek is a pretty esoteric thing to find in markets; I needed to special-order them from a butcher to get my hands on some. I have two favorite butchers in the Bay Area: Ver Brugge and Marin Sun Farms, both within a few blocks from each other in Rockridge. Of the two, I want to like Ver Brugge more; Jerry (the owner) is rough around the edges, has an east coast accent, and seems to respect me a little for repeatedly coming in asking for odd items. When I made veal stock for the root beer dish, he seemed mildly excited when I asked him for 10 lbs of veal bones.
I called both Jerry and Marin Sun Farms the Tuesday before making this dish to inquire about ordering pork cheeks. Ver Brugge told me they needed to special-order them by the pound, and asked me how many I needed. I told them between 4 and 8; if I can get at least 3 platings I’m good. Marin Sun Farms said they often get pig heads in for the weekend and would be happy to take out the cheeks for me, though the girl I spoke with added with a hint of disaffected cynicism “we don’t have the best track record for getting customer orders taken over the phone in, but come in Friday to check anyway.” I hedged my bets and placed orders at both shops, then went to visit both on Friday afternoon after work.
Jerry at Ver Brugge offered me a large plastic bag filed with inscrutable and obviously-unbutchered ‘stuff’, saying “Here are the jowls you asked for” (a comment I thought innocuous at the time, so romanced was I at Jerry’s bad-assedness). They charged me $3.99/lb, a total of about $22 for the lot, and Jerry said “Yeah there’s maybe 4-5 pieces in there”.
I then headed a few blocks down to Marin Sun Farms. I want to dislike these guys just a little; all the butchers are young hipsters with very fashionable glasses, and they offer a vaguely uncertain vibe every time I ask a question of them. I always suspect that there’s a dude like Jerry actually running the business behind the scenes, and these guys are pawns meant to style up the butchery front of house.
I approached the counter and mentioned I’d placed an order on Tuesday for some pork cheeks; the bespectacled 20-something behind the counter hunted around a bit before producing a small, tidily-sealed pouch of bright pink meat. Because the bag was sealed, I couldn’t really see what was in it, but I did notice the price: $9/lb. “This is kind of a rough price” I winced to the guy, who regarded me a hair above apathy.
“Yeah? Where have you seen a better price?”
“Ver Brugge, right up the road. They’ve got cheeks for $4/lb.”
“Never heard of them. Are they organic?”
Ugh. Damn you, hipster, of course you’ve heard of Ver Brugge. But I’m 99% sure this bag I had in my hand from them wasn’t organic, so I shook my head in the negative.
“Well. Yeah. We’re all organic and pasture-raised.”
“That costs over twice as much?” I asked.
“Well. Yeah.” he shrugged.
“Just gimme the bag.” I felt like I was being ripped off, but I also was DOING SCIENCE, and we all know you can’t put a price on science.
When I got home, I unwrapped the two parcels of meat. The Marin Sun Farms parcel immediately threw me into regretful territory; for nearly the same price I’d paid for whatever was in the Ver Brugge bag, they’d sold me 8 extremely-beautifully-butchered pork cheeks.
I mean, look at these!
Then I opened the Ver Brugge parcel. It was…aptly-labeled.
I thought my butchery skills were reasonable, but this was a pretty big kick in the nuts. I have no idea what this stuff is, nor do I know how to butcher it into anything that looks like what Marin Sun Farms sold me. I thought back to Jerry referring to them as “jowls”, and wondered if he’d just given me random offcuts rather than actual pork-cheek-containing bits. I poked at them idly for a few minutes before deciding to admit defeat.
Point: hipster butchers.
The pork cheeks were marinated overnight in a mixture of Worcestershire and white wine that was cooked with carrot, leek, and onion. This marinade was vacuum-sealed and cooked en sous vide for several hours; the book specified 5 hours for the cheeks, but the portions from Marin Sun Farms were fairly large, so I ended up letting them go for close to 8 hours (I poked at the bag every half hour or so to test for tenderness).
While the cheeks were cooking, I worked on a raisin-onion ragout. This involved cooking some dried raisins in another bottle of Worcestershire with some caramelized onion for a half hour or so–until the raisins were plump. The mixture took on a sweet-tart taste, and I was surprised how soft and rounded the Worcestershire became after this. I reserved some of this mixture to make a ragout, and pureed the remaining into a smooth onion-raisin sauce. The ragout was finished with some beurre monte and diced green garlic tops.
This recipe calls for whole green garlic bulbs; these were at Berkeley Bowl a few weeks ago but weren’t there when I was shopping for this dish. They do still stock something called “green garlic chives”–presumably the shoots (or tops) of fresh green garlic–so I bought a bunch and just decided to roll with them and do the best I could. These tasted like a bit of a cross between spring onion and garlic; they have an oniony flavor at the beginning, and leave behind the burn of garlic at the end. The tops worked fine for the raisin ragout, but an iconic component of this dish is a green ‘chimney’ of green garlic bulb poking up out of the final assembly, so I needed to improvise a bit.
I decided to hedge my bets again in a few ways. I cut the thickest parts of the green garlic chives into small batons, and blanched these quickly in salted water. I chilled them and held them in the refrigerator on a damp paper towel until time to plate.
At the same time, I blanched some heart of leek, figuring the gentle onion-garlic “allium-y” taste of them might be substituted reasonably this way. I held the leek hearts with the green garlic batons.
Lastly, since I had a lot of green garlic chives, I tried blanching a big fistful of them, then blending them into a puree. This didn’t really work; the chives were very fibrous and just sort of turned into a bright green version of something you might need to fish out of your bathroom drain (sorry). I strained what I could through a chinois to yield a very nice bright-green garlic-onion liquid, which I combined with some salt and spread on an acetate sheet and dehydrated for a few hours. After the moisture was gone, I was left with green garlic ‘chips’.
The pork cheeks are topped (hidden, even) by a mound of gruyere cheese and crispy pumpernickel chips. The former is made by grating gruyere into long, thin strands with a microplane onto some parchment and left to dry for a day. I ended up with hard, crisp little curls of gruyere (which apparently is exactly what I was after. They were admittedly kinda neat).
For the pumpernickel chips, I was meant to shave frozen pumpernickel bread on a meat slicer into very thin slivers to bake in the oven, but my borrowed meat slicer from a few weeks ago had been returned so I was left to do this with a knife. It sucks; you just can’t do it right. The best I could do was chip off reasonably-thin (but uneven) slivers that I baked in an over until all their moisture was gone (you bake it at just over 212F, so the water evaporates but little ‘cooking’ is done). I mixed these chips with the gruyere and stored them in a container until service; they tasted great but didn’t quite have the impossibly-delicate crispiness they’re meant to.
The powder we can see plated apart from the main assembly is onion-caraway powder. This is made with lots of love and patience. I first caramelized some finely-diced onions (this takes about an hour if you do it properly and don’t cheat by adding sugar). The caramelized onions are spread on a dehydrator tray and dehydrated for 3 days, until crispy. They’re then ground to a powder with some toasted caraway seeds; part of this mixture is combined with salt to yield caramelized onion-caraway salt.
I found the recipe used more oil than entirely necessary; the dehydrated onions were still a little ‘bendy’ from the oil (which doesn’t dehydrate), and when I ground them the powder was pretty wet. I tried cutting this with some maltodextrin–which binds with oil–to help dry things out a bit and make the powder more ‘powdery’. This worked, though it also sort of lightened the color of the powder and made it look a little less interesting to me. In the future I’d cut the oil used to caramelize the onions to avoid this.
When the pork cheeks were tender, I drained them and dredged one side of each in flour, then cream, then panko. I fried these in some oil in a skillet for a few minutes to give a nice golden-brown crust, then flipped them and finished them in a hot oven.
To plate, I first put down a small spoonful of the onion-raisin sauce, followed by a spoonful of the onion-raisin-garlic ragout. This was topped with the warm, crispy pork cheek portion and one of the leek hearts, then covered completely with the dried, crispy gruyere-pumpernickel mixture. I played a bit with the leek hearts vs the small green garlic batons; they both tasted nice, but the leek heart was more fun to eat and I also thought it looked more striking, so I went with that version to photograph.
I topped the pumpernickel-gruyere pile with chive spears and batons of pickled ramps, and added a sprig of broccoli rabe that’s going a bit nuts in our garden at the moment.
You might notice a complete absence of the nifty green garlic chip. This is because I’m an idiot. When I plate these things, the first few attempts are always a little frantic because I rarely know how well food will hold its shape and form, and I need to get used to how the ingredients behave when plated. There’s not a lot of room to shift around stuff…it starts to look untidy because some of the food sticks to other food, or I get sauce on something and can’t wipe it off, or things start to weep or wilt, etc. I usually have a big array of components and ingredients spread around the countertop in front of me, the stove is going and some things are hot and/or timely, and in general I need to kinda have my shit together for everything to work. In this case I’d stored the green garlic chips in a container and set them aside, then totally forgot about them. It wasn’t until I’d broken everything down and started cleaning up that it hit me I’d completely overlooked them.
But! Things turned out pretty ok nevertheless! You can probably imagine the flavors going on here; the sweet-tart brightness of the ramps, the richness of gruyere and the molasses of the pumpernickel, and then a mouthful of sweet Worcestershire-y umami. The caramelized onion and caraway powder is extremely sweet and fragrant. The whole dish screams to be eaten with a really huge red wine. It’s a set of flavors that are super-punchy and only really 100% awesome in small doses; I don’t think I could have eaten more than the (ahem) three platings I went through for myself while taking photos.
I’m also really happy (and surprised) at how much I liked photographing it! I pictured in my head a lot of beige and brown and thought it might look rather boring, but I found the bright burgundy of the ramps and the splashes of green from the chives, broccoli, and leek very springlike and arresting. I might like these photos as much as I like the avocado/lime ones (which to date I think might be my overall favorites).