Monday, November 14, 2011

Broccoli and the Cascade of Umami

Over here at the Broke Not Poor kitchen laboratories, where we develop recipes for the 99%, of which we are a charter member, our skills are being tested to the max these days. My book still hasn't sold, an annual magazine that usually takes a piece from me and pays nicely passed me over this year, and there doesn't seem to be any other work out there. This weekend, the cash-on-hand was €.52. Fortunately, during the orgy of spending which followed my €82 royalty check a couple of weeks ago, I laid in some supplies, so daily outlay is at a minimum. It's always important to do this when you have the resources, so that when you don't you can eat well.

That's why I was looking forward to last night's dinner. The first broccoli has come into the markets, which means that fall is on its way out, but I like the stuff so much, with its bitter/sweet ratio so easily tweaked by the flavor the Japanese call umami, that I'm looking forward to reacquainting myself with it and maybe finding one or two more things to do with it. (Umami isn't translatable exactly, which is why it's entered the vocabulary unchanged, but "savory" almost gets it. It's more than just "salty," in any event, and the variety of soy sauces found in East Asian cooking, as well as Thai fish sauce, are major sources of it. For further discussion, of course, there's Eric Gower, the chef who made me aware of it first.)

At any rate, the local supermarket had a recent sale on broccoli, with 500g (one pound) going for €.90, so I picked up a hunk and brought it home. Half of it got steamed as a side-dish for something else, but I also knew I'd be making an old winter standby for the first time, broccoli and pasta. For that, I assembled some ingredients.

Okay, here's all there is to it. Got your spaghetti, parmesan, garlic, olive oil, anchovies, optional red chiles, and the broccoli. (The garlic's sprouting a long stem because I buy it by the braid when I find good stuff: I don't like running out.) There's also a 1/2 cup measure there, for reasons we'll soon see. 

The expensive items here are the olive oil (€7.50 for a liter, locally grown and processed in Aniane), and the anchovies. I get salt-cured anchovies, which are nuttier and far less bitter than oil-cured ones, which is what most Americans can get. The ones pictured haven't been split and boned yet, an easy enough process, but the fact that each one gives two halves means that if you're using oil-cured ones, you should use four, not two. And salt-cured anchovies are becoming more findable in America, too. You can even get them from Amazon, believe it or not. 

The first thing to do is to cut up the broccoli. First, trim the florets from the stalk -- but keep the stalk, although the bottom half of this one is kind of funky and got tossed. 

Next, peel the florets as best you can. The more unpleasant, sulphurous tastes in broccoli are in the skin, and in this partially-peelsed floret, you can see the good stuff where the skin's been peeled away. 

Then, cut the florets into smaller florets and peel and matchstick as much of the stem as you like. 

Now heat some olive oil in a pan and toss in some garlic. 

I took that up close so you could smell it. When the garlic's sauteed for a minute (not much more: you definitely don't want to brown it) take the pan off the heat and add the anchovies, chopped roughly, and, optionally, the chile peppers, cut up. 

Stir them vigorously, and the anchovies will start to dissolve. The oil will look a little dirty. There's your umami starting to happen. Return the pan to the heat and throw in the broccoli, stems first, followed by the cut-up florets. Don't "stir" so much as put your spoon underneath this and lift, incorporating the pan's contents to the broccoli and letting it sautee just a little. 

Then, take that 1/2 cup of water and toss it in, and cover the pan for two minutes or so. When you re-open it, you'll notice that the broccoli's turned a darker green. It'll also be steaming, which is good: you'll want to boil off as much water, stirring occasionally, as you can. This is a good time to start your pasta, incidentally. 

Once most of the water is boiled off, take the mixture off the heat, and lower the heat. When the pasta is done, put the pan back on the low heat and introduce just enough olive oil to make it like a sauce. This helps it mix with the pasta. 

When the pasta's done, drain it and put the broccoli mixture into the pasta pot, return the drained pasta, and, once again, incorporate the broccoli mixture by lifting it from the bottom. Sprinkle some parsley and lots of Parmesan as you do so, then dump it into your pasta bowl, sprinkle some more umami-laden Parmesan onto it, and serve. 

I forgot to put the parsley in until the last minute, so it's kind of clumped up there in the photo. I should also admit that there was too much broccoli in this to balance the anchovies and Parmesan with perfect success, but it was far from a disaster, and the photos turned out pretty well. Maybe this is because I spent a little time cleaning up the work area for the photo shoot. 

As for notes, yes, you can do the exact same thing with cauliflower, if you'd like. And yes, you can use other pasta shapes: I'd say penne would work, as would farfalle. 

Tonight, I have some leftovers which have likely gotten better since I made them, so that's taken care of. Tomorrow, as always, is another day. Don't forget, you can help keep me alive until the book sells by donating via PayPal with the button right over there on the right underneath the "Broke, Not Poor"  label, your clickthroughs via Amazon on any of the cookbooks make me money (as will that link to the anchovies, above, and although 800g is a hell of a lot of anchovies, they'll keep, refrigerated, until you're out -- and really, they're vastly superior to the oil-cured ones) and my Kindle publications, too, pay off each month. 

And now, I think I'll step outside into this glorious fall weather we're enjoying, because stepping outside isn't going to be enjoyable that much longer as the winds come howling out of the Cévennes and winter comes to the Languedoc. 


  1. That looks a very tasty pasta sauce.

  2. Fabulous. Now it's kale season and you can do the same thing with kale. For added excitement, whiz a whole head of garlic (peeled & roughly chopped) w 1/4c olive oil and pour some of that on greens and or pasta near the end.

    Another genius cheap thing is minced ginger and thinly sliced scallions---tons of them. Some canola oil, salt, some light soy, a little white balsamic (good in everything). It can sit for a bit. It gets onion-y. fab.


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