Winter Abundance: Umami Bowls

Umami bowl with brown rice, roasted brussels sprouts and butternut squash, diced tomato, avocado, poached egg, parmesan, and a sprinkle of olive oil.

I am my mama’s daughter, so when the Chickpea of us started grooving on the trend of Abundance Bowls as a way of feeding ourselves, I picked up right along. (Sarah Britton of My New Roots especially does them up seasonally in a way we love.) It really is a good way to go about food, like foraging within the confines of your refrigerator: What goodies can I mix up today?

My bowls have a definite trend, though: as we head into winter, I want a big dose of umami flavor in all of my food. I’m guessing you’ve heard of umami by now given that it was officially accepted as a fifth flavor back in 1985, but it’s a funny one because its perception is a little less definable than sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. If a newly-arrived alien knocked on your door and asked you to show it what human taste is like, you could give it a sampling of white sugar, lemon juice, black coffee, and pure salt, respectively, to teach it about the classic four. But to present umami, you might have to give it a try at a few different foods. Beef, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, a few slivers of Parmesan cheese: give these to your alien, and tell him that umami is the taste that all of them have in common. It coats your tongue, almost more a feeling of fullness than a taste.

I guess when I think about it umami has always been my favorite flavor: I have much more of an umami tooth than a sweet one. Rather than cereal for my breakfasts, I crave mushrooms and mashed potatoes. The funny thing is that a sense of umami is your tongue and brain reacting to a chemical presence of glutamate, the salt of an amino acid present in many of our favorite savory foods. Our lives are just reactions to sensory information about the world, which all comes down to chemistry anyway, and taste is no different; but it does strike me as funny that a taste so many of us associate with comfort (a feeling that probably began with our first sips of glutamate-rich human milk) is, like everything else, simply the brain reacting to a chemical.

Better living through chemistry: It’s snowing outside for the first time this year, and we all should eat things that comfort us. To me, that means lots of umami. I make it a point to separately prep lots of umami-rich foods and have them in my fridge, ready for bowls; despite umami’s rep for being a “meaty” taste, many of my favorite umami-bombs are vegetables. Here are a few of my favorite variations from the past month:

Brown rice, arugula, tomato, kalamata olives, parmesan, and a poached egg.
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Brown rice, sautéed kale, tomato, avocado, kalamatas, parmesan, poached egg.
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Yellow quinoa, sautéed onions and bell pepper, roasted kale, kalamatas, and goat cheese, alongside a Baltimore-local can of Resurrection Ale!
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This morning’s variant: Yellow quinoa, roasted kale, sautéed rosemary button mushrooms, tomato, avocado, shaved BellaVitano cheese.

I’m sure you can sense the form by now. Here’s what usually goes into my umami bowl:

Grain: For bulk. Brown rice is good, but I’m mad for yellow quinoa that’s been cooked with a soffrito of half a diced yellow onion to start. Orzo would be good. White rice is the classic bowl of my childhood, especially with butter, tomato, and mushrooms.

Green: I am a kale addict (subject of a future post), so I usually have some baked or sautéed ready in the fridge. Arugula is a another favorite. Use what you like.

Cooked Veg: Roasted squash and other roots, baked brussels sprouts, sautéed peppers, onions, or mushrooms—go wild. Whatever’s in your fridge.

Raw Veg: For me, this is usually one glutamate-rich additive: tomatoes. Technically a fruit. Raw red cabbage would not go amiss here to balance out the heavy denseness of these bowls.

Healthy Fat: Avocado. Extra virgin olive oil. A foolproof poached egg is dynamite because it provides a sauce. A fried or soft-boiled egg would do the same.

Dairy: Usually some grated or shredded hard cheese like Parmesan, Gruyere, or sharp cheddar, or feta or goat—but if you’re having a Julia Child kind of winter day, straight-up melted butter or cream has its place in an umami bowl. The idea is to get tons of nutrition but to also indulge.

Pickled Stuff: This is a wobbly category for me that, for the most part, means kalamata olives because I love them. But if you have, say, artisanal kimchi in your fridge, then 1) you’re a total hipster, and 2) put it in your umami bowl. It will add a note of sharpness that will balance out rich umami flavors. Lemon or lime juice would accomplish the same thing.

Whatever’s in your bowl at this point, it’s gonna be more comforting than a bowl of hot soup, much quicker, and totally personalized to you. So curl up to watch the snow fall out your window, and happy thanksgiving!

~Rutabaga

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4 thoughts on “Winter Abundance: Umami Bowls

    1. Hi Traci!! So cool to have you checking in here! Chickpea told me that you guys had a photo coaching session, that’s so swell! Thank you for all of your generosity ❤ ~ Rutabaga

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