Irradiated by LabRat
If you are a foodie or simply very interested in what’s in your food and how it tastes, you probably already know of the concept “umami”, the fifth basic taste along with salty, bitter, sour, and sweet. In Western countries the concept is usually expressed as “savoriness”. What fewer know is that umami has a single and very direct source; as sweetness as a sensation is triggered by simple sugars and their molecular imitators, umami is triggered by glutamates. Glutamic acid, a nonessential amino acid, is the natural source, and monosodium glutamate is the manufactured one. Glutamic acid is usually bound up in a protein in its natural form, but only free glutamates provoke the strong savory taste; foods with naturally high amounts of free glutamates are the ones that provoke the strongest sensation of savoriness. Many meats have a fair amount of free glutamates, as do tomatoes, mushrooms, breads and other yeast products, and especially many varieties of cheese- thus explaining the perennial popularity of a slice of pizza*.
Since humans seem to be strongly drawn to savoriness- soy sauce is another potent source of free glutamate, and it is one of the world’s most ubiqutous condiments, with tomato sauces being just as popular in other quarters of the globe- making sure a meal has sufficient glutamic acid content is one way to guarantee that otherwise boring ingredients will be delicious. Bearing that in mind, a markedly successful recipe we tried recently that doesn’t look like it would be all that tasty unless you know this particular fun fact:
Cheesy Eggplant Bake
1 medium eggplant, peeled
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup dry bread crumbs
1 tablespoon garlic salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 egg + 2 egg whites
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large green pepper, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 (14.5 ounce) cans stewed tomatoes
6 ounces part skim mozzarella cheese, shredded
1) Slice eggplant crosswise into 1/4-inch rounds. Arrange rounds in a colander in your sink and sprinkle salt all over them. Walk away for half an hour. When finished, “rinse under cold water and pat dry with paper towels.”
2) While eggplant is sitting, combine bread crumbs, garlic salt, and pepper in a shallow bowl or on a plate. In a separate shallow bowl, whisk eggs. When eggplant is done, douse each slice in the egg mixture. Then dip in the bread crumb mixture to coat. Shake off any excess and/or drippy-ness.
3) In a large skillet, heat 1/2 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Cook a few rounds until browned, about 2 minutes per side. When finished, arrange in 13×9-inch baking dish. Repeat for second batch.
4) Preheat oven to 350°F.
5) Heat last 1 tablespoon oil in same skillet over medium-high heat. Add green pepper, onion, and mushrooms. Cook until onion is softening and pepper is crisp/tender, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Top eggplant with mixture. Add tomatoes on top of that, spreading evenly.
6) Cover with tin foil and bake 25 minutes. Remove from oven and take off tin foil. Sprinkle cheese on top and bake another 25 or 30 minutes, until cheese is melted and a little brown. Serve to applause.
We substituted zucchini for the peppers since I don’t care overmuch for peppers but I do like squash quite a lot.
High-scoring sources of glutamates in this dish: Mushrooms, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, eggs, bread crumbs. Medium-scoring: eggplants and peppers, both nightshades and relatives of tomatoes, and zucchini as well if you use that. Delicious content: high to match. Meat necessary to create sufficient umami for deliciousness: none whatsoever. Much to our surprise, given that neither of us had ever had eggplant or an eggplant-containing dish before and were moved to rate it higher than “meh”, but there you go.
*If you think you are sensitive to MSG and a meal at a Chinese restaurant bothers you but pizza doesn’t… the MSG is not your problem.