I admit, I was skeptical when I saw the silver tube. It looked like the wacky love child of astronaut food and Chanel No. 5 perfume. But Taste No.5 Umami Paste is actually a lot closer to tomato paste -- only much more fun and satisfying.
In case you haven't heard the "umami" drums beating lately, umami is the "5th flavor" after sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. First identified by the Japanese, it's that rich, savory taste you get from foods like beef, cheese, and mushrooms -- or from MSG, alas. It's for that very taste sensation that MSG was created.
Wouldn't you love it if there were an alternative to MSG -- something made from real food, not from chemicals? Something that didn't give you a headache or make you yell in public? Read on.
The brainchild of British food writer Laura Santtiini, Taste No.5 Umami Paste is made from real food, including tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and porcini mushrooms. You don't eat it straight from the tube -- seriously, don't do that or you'll be sorry. Instead, you use a couple teaspoons or tablespoons as an ingredient in sauces, soups, or dressings.
Here's how I used it.
1. Sauce for roast chicken: After I roasted a chicken, I poured out most of the fat from the roasting pan and deglazed it with about 1/3 cup of vermouth (this means you pour in a liquid and scrape up the meaty bits stuck to the bottom of the pan). Then I whisked in about 2 teaspoons of No.5 and let it all reduce to a sauce.
Result: Rich, complex sauce that tasted like I'd chopped up 100 different ingredients and cooked them forever.
2. Beefing up stew: Over the long, hot summer I'd kind of forgotten that the slow cooker is, you know, a slow cooker, and I tried to use it to make a stew in under two hours. By dinnertime I had sad, watery soup. I had to pull out the veggies, chop them smaller, and throw them into a pan to cook more thoroughly, but meanwhile I added a tablespoon of No.5 to my sad soup.
Result: My stew was saved and had a little extra something that made it taste different from my usual stews.
3. Sauce for gnocchi: I was planning to drizzle some browned butter over some gnocchi, which would have been good. But for an extra kick, I added about a tablespoon of No.5 to the melted butter.
Result: Another tasty sauce much more rich and complex-tasting than I deserved, given how much time I'd spent making it. I poured a little on my steamed broccoli, too.
Conclusion: At the risk of sounding like I'm shilling for this stuff, I'll tell you why I like it so much -- it delivers a quick reward to busy home cooks. Too many people are intimidated by cooking or feel like they don't have the time to do it "right." The truth is, most home cooks are just throwing something simple together night after night. If you know there's some fun, real-food-based ingredient that makes a simple meal taste a little special, wouldn't that encourage you to cook more often?
I also think this paste can help support a more plant-based diet. If you're trying to cut down on meat but you still want that taste sensation, Taste No.5 can enhance a soup, a salad dressing, or a sauce for vegetables.
Caveats: This is a one-hit wonder. Taste No.5 has a distinct flavor that you can change slightly by combining with other ingredients, but if you start using it every day, your food is going to start tasting all the same. (Um, remember when you first discovered Trader Joe's truffle oil? Yeah ...) It also seems to work best with Western/Mediterranean food, especially Italian, less so with Asian food.
Where to get it: Yeah, that's a good question, actually. You can buy it in England but that's kind of a long drive for most of us. It's supposed to be available at Amazon.com but it seems they've run out. You can sign up and they'll let you know when they have more. Meanwhile you can read all about how you could use Taste No.5 in Santtini's new cookbook, Easy Tasty Italian.