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Culinary term of the day – miso

Miso. A simple thing, this aged, pureed soybean paste. And yet, it is quite complex in its own way.

According to the book, “How To Cook With Miso” by Aveline Tomoko Kushi (©1978, Japan Publications, INC, ISBN 0-87040-450-4), miso “contains living enzimes which aid digestion, and provides a nutritious balance of natural carbohydrates, essential oils, vitamins, minerals, and protein”.

Miso is also in integral part of Japanese culture. Not only is it seemingly ubiquitous, it also plays an important role in the harmony that the Japanese follow in food preparation and consumption. It is an important ingredient in the concept of yin and yang in food (that is a subject that is beyond the purview of this article; if you are interested, I suggest that you do some Googling). It also has impact on health, as it can be used as a healing paste, or as a tonic to counteract the effects of too much alcohol or tobacco use.

But we in the West seem to only encounter it as the broth in starter soups at sushi restaurants.

I predict that miso will become a “buzz ingredient” in the near future. We’re already seeing some forward-thinking Western chefs incorporating it in more and more dishes. We’re seeing it incorporated in salad dressings and fish broths. It’s a flavor that hs been recognized as a great carrier for “umami”, the famous “fifth flavor profile” of savoriness. When miso broth is augmented with kombu (a specific type of dried seaweed) and dashi (dried bonito flakes), umami is allowed to bloom, especially when you add mushrooms, another ingredient with massive umami characteristics. Addionally, miso has its own umami flavor components.

This is the form that we see it in the sushi restaurant starter soup, that cloudy, rich broth with a couple of slivers of shiitake mushroom and scallions. This soup usually starts with a kombu and dashi stock, and miso is added to give it body.

But miso is more than just a great addition to soup. In the sushi restaurant, we often see it as a major component of the dressing that tops the simple starter salad that accompanies many meals. Restaurants as mainstream as California Pizza Kitchen and Applebees and high-end places like The French Laundry and Nobu have incorporated miso into their menus. Many mainstream restaurants have an “Asian salad”, and it’s almost a certainty that miso is used in the dressing. It gives that slightly earthy quality that one prizes in Asian dressing. And  Nobu Matsuhisa, chef-owner of famed restaurant Nobu, has a signature black cod and miso dish that has become famous.

So, how do you encounter miso in the wild? It’s normally found in plastic wrapped bricks. It almost has the feel of fresh mozzarella; a sort of sensuous pliability. It’s both soft and firm.

What kinds of miso are there?

First of all, it doesn’t have to be fermented soybean, although that’s the most common type that we encounter. It can be made from fermented rice or barley or several other grains, and any of these grains can augment soybean miso. The two most common types of miso that we find in the US are red and white miso. However, as I’ve said, there are several versions of miso. Miso is often made in Japan according to family traditions and each family has their own way of making miso. Here are the different kinds:

Kome miso (rice miso), mugi miso (barley miso), misozuke (miso with pickled vegetables), name miso (salt and eggplant or melon), Tyougou miso, (mixed miso, or miso made from multiple sources), red miso (aged miso), and white miso (normal miso). Occasionally, you come across yellow and black miso as well.

Each miso has its own flavor characteristics. Most of the time, US chefs and cooks will choose between red and white miso. However, don’t be misled, “white” miso isn’t usually white. It’s a lighter shade of “red”. Actually both kinds of miso usually appear to be red-brown. White miso usually looks more beige than white while red miso is more brick-red. And there are variations in all colors, depending on the type of processing and aging involved. white miso is usually sweeter, while red miso has the earthier flavor and lasts longer in storage. white miso usually has a higher proportion of white rice and is better suited for dressings, while red miso has more soybean content, is aged longer and has a more robust and complex flavor perfectly suited for hearty soups and can be used in sauces and braises.

And I think that it’s in main dishes that miso will become a star performer in the future as Western chefs learn its unique properties. Here’s a good example of miso being used as a glaze for halibut:

http://www.grouprecipes.com/46666/citrus-red-miso-ginger-glazed-halibut.html

How is miso made?

It starts with koji, a “starter” of fermented barley, rich, wheat or soybean. Koji is roughly akin to sourdough starter, or the yeast/grain/carbohydrate combo in alcoholic products. The ingredient that koji is made from determines the type of tofu because soybeans usually comprise the bulk of the miso. Koji is then combined with soaked and steamed soybeans and salt. Depending on the type of miso being made, the levels of the various types of koji are adjusted up or down. All miso is aged to a certain degree because additional fermentation is required. For white miso, fermentation is limited to a few weeks, while red miso can be aged up to 18 months.

So, what is the takeaway from all of this?

Miso is an ingredient that will become increasingly prominent in Western cooking and more and more of the general public become exposed to it in mainstream restaurants. We’re already seeing it happen. As a waiter, you should at least know what it is, what its flavor profile is, how you can use it tableside to market dishes that include it. Many of your guests have heard the name but have no clue what it is. It’s your job to gently educate them.

And I hope that more and more of you home cooks incorporate this lovely and nutritious ingredient in your own cooking.

Top Chef Episode 7 – Umami yomami

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Image courtesy of http://www.umamithefifthtaste.com/

OK, chefs – how bizarre is it that nobody seems to know the definition of umami. “Earthy”? C’mon, Eli (hey, that’s almost a song). “It’s not salty, it’s not spicy, it’s not sweet, it’s not sour – it’s…umami”. Bzzzzt! Sorry Mikey, almost doesn’t cut it. Our judges would have accepted “savory” or even just “yummy”, plus, it’s bitter, not spicy as one of the 5 basic tastes since you’re Greek, not Asian. You lose 500 points. But everyone seems to know that mushrooms are one of the classic umami producers (hence Eli’s apparent conflating earthy with savory – sometimes they happen to intersect if you use fuzzy logic, I suppose).

Tyler Florence is approaching Florentine proportions – hey dude, time to lay off the butter sauces.

Poor Jen is under the weather. Slamming doors, looking baleful, puttin’ on the ole game face in the QF.

Slot machine! Didn’t see that one coming.

Mike Isabella proceeds to list off every type of cuisine that he’s cooked, which is most of the famous cooking styles, adding “I’ve never really cooked Asian food before”. Dude, how do you not have cooked Asian food before? Really? Icelandic I can see. Asian? Not so much. And Kevin, same thing. How does a modern chef not have any experience with Asian?

Ashley used sumac for her Middle Eastern dish! You go girlfriend! Sumac is one of my favorite little-known spices (at least little known by many Americans). Glad to see someone make a culinary connection on the fly.

So Mike, even though he can’t define it, does a good job with his umami, while Eli killed the umami…but let’s not confused that with “He killed”. He didn’t. And Kevin pulls through cooking something that he’s not familiar with (so he says, at least).

So we get the Macy’s Desert Day Parade of Chefs. The chefs, all loving that they got a free trip to Vegas, are holding bags of ingredients for a family style pot luck dinner under the desert sky.

And it turns out that Isabella is even more of a dickwad than he’s previously indicated. Not only does he take charge of a cuisine that he knows nothing about, he sulks and pouts and is just generally creepy. No way is this guy going to go all the way. And the elves are cutting it so that it looks like he and Robin will be on the chopping block (I’m typing this in real time with the help of DVR pause). there are two ways that this could go – Robin could go home because she didn’t stand up to him, or Mike could go home for being a prick. The former is more likely, but equally likely is that he accidentally lets her help enough to save his and his team’s butt. Hell, he didn’t have a clue about any of the ingredients (a bag that would have made me jump up and down for joy – it’s umami heaven!

Enter Tom. “Prawns over gnocchi”? I had the same quizzical expression on my face that he had. Just what I want, take a prawn and scoop some gnocchi with it. Huh?

Oh Mike, did you just hang yourself with Tom? I think he’s got your number. That won’t save Robin if she wilts under his “I can cook and I’ll pull it out” attitude. Of course, the fact that it ‘smells good” is an encouraging sign. Wouldn’t it be choice if they happened to be on top and he chose Robin as the winner because of something that she did? Hee.

“Ever prepped over a glass table before”? I was hoping that Ash would say, “Well, I’ve chopped some coke on one before”. Sadly, that doesn’t happen.

Cooking, cooking, bitching, real estate grabbing, fuses blowing (literally and figuratively), chopping, kvetching.

Turns out that Mike and Robin pulled out the one scenario that I didn’t outline. Middle of the pack.

The winners were obvious, the losers were too. Jennifer wins by some sick cooking (literally). Some nice attributions from fellow cheftestants.

Brother gets testy when discussing his brother’s predicament. Testy is as testy does.

Ash takes the high road, which wins him some style points. Ashley also takes the high road, which doesn’t win her anything at all.

In fact, Ashley gets the axe.

Ashley, take your Mr. Ripley good looks and go.

Ashley

 

Foodie guilty pleasures

Yep, foodies also enjoy things that are either bad for them, overly processed, filled with preservatives, bad on the waistline, the heart, the stomach and skin, and they are loathe to share these things so not to be stoned by a judgmental foodie public and set off into the culinary wilderness.

But I am of stout heart and unafraid.

So, without further ado, here are some of my “guilty pleasures”. They aren’t ranked in any particular order.

Papa John’s “Special Garlic Sauce”. I put it in quotations because calling it a sauce is a bit of a stretch. Let’s face it, it’s an herbed”butter”. And I put butter in quotations because, let’s face it, it’s not butter either. The ingredients are, as best as I can see without getting out my microscope because the print is tiny: liquid and partially hydrogenated soybean oil, water, salt, garlic* (* means dehydrated),  vegetable mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, natural garlic flavor, artificial flavor, sodium benzoate (a preservative), lactic acid, calcium disodium EDTA added to protect flavor, citric acid, beta carotene (color), vitamin A palmitate added. Oh yeah, says “contains soybeans”. Well, duh.

Having said all of that, I love this stuff. I might be putting my body through shock therapy by dipping perfectly good pizza and bread into this, but, what the hay? Tasty. I’m sure that I could create a great and slightly healthier alternative by melting down some ghee and adding some garlic powder, but then I wouldn’t have the handy little disposable bowl, right? Oh dear, need to make sure that it hits the recycling bin…

papjohnfree

Honey bun. Especially Little Debbie’s 50¢ little sugar bomb. Here’s the procedure. Buy a “cappuccino” (a guilty pleasure itself since it’s hard to say what’s actually in the instant powder from which it originates) from some place like MAPCO or 7-11 or other quick-stop type market. Make sure that I mix all of the flavors together until the cup is about 2/3rd full and then top off with coffee. Take Little Debbie’s honey bun and place in microwave. Set timer for 20 seconds. Remove warmed, soft and gooey package and eat it as a side to the cappuccino. Plan on an instant extra 3 lbs on the hips and a jittery, slightly speedy buzz. Thank the stars that I’m not diabetic like my mom was (yet). A caveat – avoid the “frosted” versions at all costs.

lildebbiehoney

SunChips. I like to fool myself that this is very healthy for me. After all, you need to get your fiber, right? One can ignore the salt levels if one concentrates on the fiber aspect. Sadly, this is getting ready to go by the wayside. Why is that, you ask? Well, they had the perfect size ($1.29 bag) for someone who uses it sometimes with the above mentioned cappuccino for a “breakfast” that gets one through the lean and hungry times. Now, they’ve decided to raise the price by paradoxically going to a .99 size and reducing the quantity so that it seems like you’re paying less, but you’re actually paying more. Now that wouldn’t bother me so much, but the $1.29 size was perfect as a “single serving” (I would of course ignore the actual “suggested serving size”, which is “about 4.5”). A “breakfast” of that and a cappuccino would get you through a lunchless day because of the filling nature of the chips, while possibly killing you softly with its crunch. The flavor is really good. I prefer the orange colored “Harvest Cheddar” over the green “French Onion” but I’ll eat either, at least up to now. Unfortunately, the .99 size is not quite enough. So, this might very well be a “former guilty pleasure”.  Sadly, it’s one of the only packaged chips worth consuming. But all good things must come to an end, I suppose.

sun%20chips%20harvest%20cheddar%2011_5oz 

Jack In the Box bacon, egg and cheese biscuit. Yum. A decent biscuit with good flavor, texture and size and the requisite BEC. Simple, inexpensive and even a little buttery. And if you haven’t had your share of trans fats for the week, this will bring your quotient up.

jack-biscuit

And, speaking of biscuits, how about them Church’s honey brushed biscuits? Oddly not available until lunch, these are some of the tastiest biscuits available. Rough-hewn and slightly crunchy on the top, the honey brushed on the top makes this an almost dessert. You can buy them singly or in boxes of 4.

biscuits4-6677

Finally, a “buttery” toasted sandwich from Sonic – the Bacon, Egg and Cheese Toaster. It’s the Jack in the Box breakfast sandwich on steroids. Loaded with trans fat, this Texas toast sandwich comes in a foil pack and has what I guess is deep fried bacon. Who cares if the egg is only an egg product? This thing will set your butter gene off, despite the fact that it’s likely to have as much butter as Papa John’s Special Garlic Sauce. Don’t be fooled though – the sandwich won’t look like that. The Texas Toast is quite a bit thinner and it’s sometimes quite saturated with mystery oil.

BKFSTC026 

Oh yeah, that just made me think of Sonic’s Creme Slush. Damn. Talk about hitting the sweet spot. I order the blue coconut and pineapple mixed together to get a bizarrely colored variation of a virgin piña colada (I’m a sucker for both pineapple and coconut) or the Dreamsicle-esque Orange Cream Slush. Basically, this is a mix of a slush and ice cream and whatever flavors you choose (the strawberry is good as well since it has bits of real strawberry that get hung up in the straw). Creamy goodness in a cup. And they’ve thought of everything. they give you an extra-wide straw so that you don’t end up killing yourself trying to get enough suction to get it into your mouth. They give you a wide-mouth domed top that allows the generous drink maker to give you more than the cup will hold (not all of them do this though). And then there’s the little mint that comes in each bag. It’s their version of the chocolate mint on the pillow at a 5 star hotel.

cream_slush

Now that I’ve completely destroyed my foodie street cred, I’d advise you that you enjoy these items at your own risk. Please don’t sic your doctor after me when it turns out that you’ve either developed adult-onset diabetes, hypertension, blocked arteries, acne, obesity or strange allergies. Obviously, if you are sensitive to gluten, soy, animal products or preservatives, you’ll want to avoid these like the plague.

These are all products that I would call trailer park umami. For those of you who don’t know what umami is, google it. Where have you been – in a trailer park?

Oh yeah, all tradenames are trademarked and owned by their respective owners.

Cookbook of the day – A Taste Of Persia

 

TOP_cover_180w

A Taste Of Persia

by Najmieh K. Batmanglij

Publisher: Mage Publishers; 2nd edition (December 20, 2006)

ISBN10: 1933823135

ISBN-13: 978-1933823133

As you are probably becoming aware, I’m a sucker for a good history lesson with my cookbooks. This one has a crackerjack one that opens the book.

Westerners normally have a very minor acquaintance with the history of the region.  They kept a little from the Old Testament and then, the next 2000+ years is basically non-existent. And boy, how that’s worked out for us recently, eh? Little do we realize that the word Shiraz is actually a town in Iran where the grape gets its name. We don’t associate such an arid region as the source for diverse things as oranges (a word actually derived from Persian origins, which is likely the reason that there’s no word in English that thymes with it), walnuts, almonds, sugar cane, basil, coriander, saffron, and other luxuries like spinach and alfalfa. Some of these items were indigenous to the region and some brought in and out in trade with India and China.

This book even has a photograph of a 4000 mortar and pestle! Yes, they were grinding pomegranate seeds millinnia before thirsty housewives discovered the Pomegranate Martini (I was going to say Cosmopolitans but many Cosmos have never seen a pomegranate due to the increasing use of artificial ingredients in grenadine.

Persia has at times included Iraq and a couple of the Russian “-stans”. It has conquered states and been pillaged by the likes of Ghengis Khan of the Mongols. There is an account in this book of the plunderer Ashurnasirpal II throwing down for 10 days with a feast for “47,074 persons, men and women, who were bid to come from across my entire country”. The book goes on to say, “plus thousands more foreign and local guests. The menu included thousands of cattle, calves,sheeps, lambs, duck geese, doves, stags and gazelles”. This was 9th century BC, btw. A feast of truly biblical proportions that never made the final King James cut.

But back to this cookbook. The cuisine of Persia (Iran) is one of fruit  and/or vegetable-laced meats stews (khoreshes), kabobs of spicy succulence, fluffy jeweled pilafs, cooling Indian-esque cucumber and yoghurt salads,  eggplants in various forms, roasted meats like lamb and casseroles.

But if you get this book for one reason only, it’s the recipe and procedure for Chelow, which is a crusty dome of basmatic rice served family style. A yoghurt/water/rice and saffron mix is used to coat the bottom of the original rice pot after the bulk of the rice has been removed and drained. After starting with this layer, the remaining rice is carefully spooned into the pot in a pyramid shape. It’s cooked under cover for 10 minutes and then cold water and oil or ghee is poured on top, a little more saffron water is added and the pot is then cooked under a cover layered with a dishtowel for 50 minutes over low heat. The pot is then carefully inverted over a plate and this is the result (courtesy of www.chubbypanda.com):

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This is one of of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. The tah dig (the crusty top) is marvelous with a crunch that elevates ordinary rice to something texturally interesting. The inside is golden and scented from the saffron (the normal perfumed quality of basmati doesn’t hurt either) of and the use of ghee makes it wonderfully buttery and just chock-full of umami, the Japanese concept for “mouthfeel” that has become the buzzword of the culinary world. It’s an impressive dish to serve – impressive in appearance and its simplicity. You can actually stuff it with various meats and fruits as well. There’s a procedure that you have to follow to get a great result and this book outlines it to a tee and it’s not only easy to follow, but it’s easy to execute and remember without having to use the book once you’ve done it a time or two.

The book is a slender volume – not at all like the huge tomes that I usually recommend. It has a nice coated stock for paper, full-page color shots of most of the recipes, and is well laid-out and attractive. For such a “small book” there’s an astounding overview of a history and culture of a region.

Now go forth and make chelow.