Complementary Cast

I want foods to taste like themselves, but I also enjoy dishes that are a synthesis of many ingredients, some of which are not readily identifiable. Often it is those supporting elements that round out and enrich the principal ingredient in a dish.

Take, for example, crawfish étouffée, which usually contains a small amount of celery. If you can taste the celery, the cook has used too much. But if there’s no celery at all, the sauce will be the poorer for it, though many probably could not say what was missing.

The importance of the role supporting ingredients play in a dish is most obvious in sauces, soups, stews, gumbos and one-pot dishes that create a synthesis of flavors. That’s one reason why those kinds of dishes are often the most fun to make. There’s a little bit of alchemy or the mad scientist involved in their composition: Add a bit of this, a bit of that, and “hocus pocus!” Look what we’ve created!

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion in the food world about certain ingredients that can be added to food, both homemade and processed, to enhance flavor appeal. The four basic tastes –– sweet, salty, sour and bitter –– have been joined by a fifth taste, called umami, a Japanese word that is variously rendered in English as “deliciousness,” “savory,” “tasty” or “yummy,” though only a Rachael Ray clone would prefer the last description.

The idea of umami (pronounced “ooh-mommy”) has been around for a century, ever since a Japanese scientist discovered the naturally occurring presence of glutamates in food and went on synthesize and patent MSG as an additive that would boost a food’s flavor appeal. But widespread acceptance of the theory has occurred only in recent years, with the identification of specific umami taste receptors on the human tongue.

Now that umami has gone mainstream, chefs and food processors are experimenting with ways to increase the deliciousness of their food without using MSG, which has acquired a bad rap in the United States, though it is present in far more processed foods and seasoning blends than many people realize.

Achieving the same umami effect as adding MSG to food without actually doing so turns out not to be terribly difficult. Meat, poultry, fish and vegetables all contain glutamates, but some ingredients contain particularly high levels of the substance, and they can be used to achieve the desired effect. Glutamate-rich foods include, among others, tomatoes and tomato products; mushrooms (particularly shiitakes); dried seafood; fermented or cured products, such as ham and cheese; soy sauce and fish sauces; Worcestershire sauce; and anchovies.

Adding small amounts of one or more ingredients high in glutamates can give food a flavor boost without dramatically changing the essential taste of the dish. The truth is that we’ve been doing that for a long time without knowing anything about umami. The popularity of ketchup as a condiment comes immediately to mind. So, too, do our incorporation of tomatoes in various dishes –– such as sauce piquante, court bouillon, red jambalaya and okra and tomato gumbos –– and the use of ham, cheeses and Worcestershire sauce.

The concentration of glutamates in dried shrimp explains why they are often added to seafood gumbos in addition to fresh shrimp: for added flavor. Dried cod isn’t much used in Louisiana cookery these days, but a century ago it was, judging from recipes in New Orleans cookbooks of the period. I’ve used dried cod in soups and fish cakes, and it does add a depth of flavor that you don’t get with fresh fish. In my last column, I had a recipe for duck gumbo that included shiitake mushrooms among the ingredients that went into the stock for additional flavor –– the flavor of umami, as it turns out, though I didn’t know it at the time. I sometimes add small amounts of   Worcestershire and soy sauces to a gumbo, and this seems to enhance the taste of the broth. I’m sure that most of us have added a bit of this or that to a dish and found that it rounded out the overall flavor, even if we didn’t know why.

The following recipes contain several umami-boosting ingredients. The crawfish gravy includes both tomato paste and crushed tomatoes in puree, as well as chicken broth and Worcestershire and soy sauces, all of which contribute to the final flavor. The small amount of cane syrup takes the place of sugar that many cooks add to tomato sauces to cut the acidity. It’s a trick I read in a printed recipe from a lady in Abbeville, and I think it’s a winner, though I’m not sure that it’s an umami ingredient.

The linguine with crawfish, which is a variation on linguine with white clam sauce, gets a boost from chicken broth that is reduced by half to concentrate its flavor and from Parmesan cheese. Spring for the more expensive Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, the authentic Parmesan that has no equal and is one of the most umami-laden foods on the planet.

Crawfish and Grits
For the crawfish gravy:
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons prepared roux
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup crushed tomatoes in puree
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon Steen’s cane syrup
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne to taste
TABASCO to taste
1 pound crawfish tails with fat
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped green onion tops
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

For the grits:
Grits, preferably stone-ground or old-fashioned
4 tablespoons butter

Cook onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic in olive oil over low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 15 minutes. Add tomato paste and roux, stir to combine, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add chicken broth, crushed tomatoes, bay leaf, thyme, Worcestershire and soy sauces and cane syrup, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat; season with salt, black and cayenne peppers and TABASCO; and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Add crawfish and lemon juice, and simmer for another 30 minutes. Adjust seasonings.

Meanwhile, cook enough grits for 4 servings according to package instructions, and stir in butter at the end.

Serve crawfish gravy over grits in wide shallow bowls, and garnish with onion tops and parsley. Serves 4.

Linguine with Crawfish
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 pound crawfish tails with fat
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
1/2 pound linguine
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Grated Parmesan to taste

Slowly simmer garlic in oil and butter until softened, about 5 minutes. Add wine and broth, increase heat to high, and reduce by half. Add crawfish and lemon juice, and simmer about 30 minutes. Season with salt and black and cayenne peppers.

Meanwhile, cook linguine according to package instructions. Drain, and toss with crawfish, parsley and Parmesan. Serves 4.