Umami: It's the bomb

Food comes in four flavors: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. And now, umami. Which means yummy.

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Food comes in four flavors: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. And now, umami. Which means yummy.

Or savory. Or, less poetically, meaty-brothy.

This news has food scientists geeked up about glutamates and nucleotides, which are apparently responsible for making umami so yummy. And it has food processors sprinkling their packaged products with umami enhancer MSG.

Fancy chefs tout "umami bombs," like Parmesan white truffle custard. The rest of us come by our umami without the bomb. That's because normal, actual foods are normally, actually rich in umami. Like roasted tomatoes. Shiitake mushrooms. Soy sauce. And anchovies.

I'm all for the umami craze. Roasted tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms and soy sauce and anchovies are delicious. They're yummy, savory, and meaty-brothy.

But I'm confounded by the five-taste spectrum. Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory seems limited. What about tangy? Spicy? Creamy? Consider the freshly baked loaf of bread. It doesn't strike me as sweet or salty or sour or bitter, or savory in the meaty-brothy sense.

I'm thinking umami doesn't complete the taste continuum. It's just the most recently named hue in a broad and delicious band of flavors.

Parmesan truffle fries

Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: About 5 minutes per batch
Makes: As many as you like

Russet potatoes
Peanut oil
White truffle oil
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
Finely chopped parsley
Finely, freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Choose large, mature potatoes. Figure about 1 per person. Peel. Use a mandolin (or knife) to cut into french-fry shape, 3/8-inch wide and thick. Rub dry with a kitchen towel.

Prep: Line one (or more) baking sheet with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. Find a slotted spoon and a pair of tongs. Keep handy.

Pour peanut oil into a deep, heavy pot to a depth of 2 inches. Clip on a candy thermometer. Heat oil to 300 degrees. Gently lower in 1 potato's worth of fries. Stir once with the spoon or tongs. Fry until fries feel crisp when nudged with tongs, but have not colored at all, about 2 minutes per batch. Scoop out with the slotted spoon and let cool on lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining fries.

Fry again:
Once all the potatoes have been cooked and cooled, heat oil to 365 degrees. Fry potatoes a second time, again in small batches, until crisp and golden, about 2-3 minutes per batch. Drain on lined baking sheets.

Tumble finished fries into a big bowl. Drizzle with 1 teaspoon truffle oil per potato. Shower with ¼ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon parsley and 1 tablespoon Parmesan per potato. Toss with tongs. Enjoy hot, wrapped in a waxed paper cone for effect.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune special contributor e-mail her at
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