Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Food Rambling: Vegetable Umami

So I've started reading Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, by Melanie Joy. It brings me back to a frequently-felt conflict between guilt and greed: I don't like the idea of eating animals. But I love fried chicken. And well-done bacon. And crispy duck skin. And steak fat...

.... pause for fatty crispy dreams ....

OK, I'm back now.

What I'm craving, I realize, is umami - savoriness. That fifth taste, beyond the sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. What I want, in an ideal world, is meat-free unami, delicious enough to make me forget bacon. Or at least to make me eat less of it.

So I thought I'd consider that problem, and create a list of foods worth exploring in the quest:
  • Sesame oil. Toasted sesame oil. A non-animal fat with a flavor that, to my tastebuds, can sometimes compete with the glorious flavor of animal fats. And what about other nut and vegetable oils? I find olive oil only pleasant, not gloriously gluttonous. But I'm sure there's a world beyond olive oil - what wonderful oils might I be missing?
  • Aioli. Greasy, creamy, garlicky aioli. Well, and other related things, like homemade mayonnaise. Yes, it's got eggs, but I'm not excluding eggs - as far as I know, it's possible to raise eggs in a cruelty-free way.
  • Artichokes. Split artichokes grilled with plenty of oil and salt and herbs. Dipped in that aioli. Mmmm.
  • While we're dipping things in things, let's also dip itty bitty skinny double-fried French fries.
  • Roasted garlic, roasted in plenty of oil.
  • Caramelized onions, cooked slowly until they collapse utterly, give up all their moisture, and make all their sugar available.
  • Grilled asparagus. And that aioli again.
  • Greasy brown potato things. Fried potatoes. Roasted potatoes. Grilled potatoes. Potato chips. Now, I admit that they're better with, say, lard or duck fat. But have I given olive oil and sesame oil a really good thorough try?
  • Croutons. Greasy baked-through garlicky or sesame or nutty or herbal bits of crisp toast. With salt, of course. Tossed on your salad or your soup or directly into your mouth.
  • Plain old fat-fried bread crumbs, tossed on things. Preferably with some garlic or chives or sesame oil or sesame seeds or nuts or all of the above.
  • Mushrooms. Now, I usually don't like mushrooms, but I remember a restaurant dish of some sort of dark mushroom, and some sort of pepper, and garlic and onions and a ton of oil, slow cooked in an earthenware dish. It was amazing. Mushrooms have possibilities.
  • Of course, there's a whole world of fried-dough foods. Fried bread with garlic, slicked with a little toasted sesame oil?
I pause to wonder, is cruelty-free milk possible? If it is, then we get butter and cheese and cream back. Brown butter and all of the things that you can fry in it. Umami-rich parmesan. The infinity of things that you can do with melted and fried and toasted cheese.

I haven't eaten my last piece of bacon, and I certainly haven't fried my last chicken. I'm not ready to declare a prohibition - if I do, I'll break it and afterward I'll just avert my eyes from the whole issue. So I'll edge up on the issue, by exploring the vegetable world's potential for satisfying gluttony.

Excuse me while I go fry something that isn't a chicken.

Photo: By Marshall Astor. Wikimedia Commons.

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