by Douglas Abrams
The most contentious and groundbreaking change to hit the culinary world in the past hundred years (and trust me, there haven’t been many), has been the discovery of a fifth taste: umami—which means “delicious” in Japanese.
Umami is found in any foods that are rich in glutamates, the amino acids that create the elusive fifth taste. These foods include red meats, long-aged cheeses, and mushrooms, which are probably my favorite source of umami goodness.
And probably my favorite dish that involves mushrooms is mushroom risotto. I’ve written about risotto once before and I gave this disclaimer and I’ll give it again: it takes a good half an hour to make and you have to be willing to stand by the stove the whole time and stir continuously. But it’s so worth it.
Start the risotto by making an umami-rich broth. Bring a whole package of chicken or beef stock to a boil. Meanwhile, rehydrate a package of dried porcini mushrooms in about a half a cup of the warm stock in a bowl and wait until the mushrooms are soft to the touch. Then, remove the mushrooms and add the stock that the mushrooms soaked in back to the main pot of beef or chicken stock. Make sure that you don’t add the last tablespoon or so of mushroom stock at the bottom of the bowl, it might have sand or grit from the mushrooms in it.
Next, take the softened porcinis and grind them in a food processor until they form a thick paste. Saute the mushrooms in a tablespoon of olive oil with a whole spanish onion that is roughly chopped, a pound of crimini mushrooms that are diced, and one minced clove of garlic. Keep the heat low and cook slow. You want to extract the flavors and juices from the vegetables to build a flavor base for the dish. You don’t want any burning, or any dark caramelization.
After about five minutes, or until the onions are soft, add a cup of arborio rice. This is critical—risotto only works when its made with a high starch rice, and arborio is the easiest to find and the most classic rice of this variety. By using a high starch rice, as opposed to a lower starch rice like jasmine or basmati which has a dry texture, the risotto gets a creamy texture.
Saute the rice with no liquid for just a minute; this gives the rice a head-start on cooking and imparts a nutty flavor that boosts up the umami.
The next step, which is the most labor intensive, is to cook the rice. Add the mushroom-meat-umami-goodness stock to the rice one ladle at a time. After each ladleful, let the rice cook for a couple minutes until the rice has absorbed all the water and the pot is getting dry. Repeat this process until the rice is fully cooked. This usually takes 20-30 minutes—it varies, I don’t know why. Also, make sure that you don’t overcook the rice. There’s nothing worse than mushy risotto.
Finish the dish with a half-cup of grated parmesan cheese and chopped parsley for a bright zing to cut through all the umami.
This is one of my favorite dishes. It packs a double hit of mushroom umami and has a really complex, developed flavor.