Umami dearest, or, Marmite makes right

When I was growing up, science textbooks explained to us that there were four basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty and bitter. There were different taste buds attuned to each one, and anything we could taste with our tongues was made up of some combination of the four.

Even during my childhood, however, this was out-of-date information. As long ago as 1904, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda had discovered a fifth taste, which he identified with a Japanese word meaning “pleasant savory taste,” umami. It took until 1985 for the term to be scientifically recognized worldwide, however.

Umami is often described as a “meaty” taste, and it’s present in things like meat, mushrooms, tomato and beans. Scientifically, it represents a famiily of chemicals called glutamates. Umami-rich ingredients like soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce pair well with things like meat because they complement the natural umami flavor in the meat itself.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the pleasure of interviewing my favorite food writer, Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats, to promote his new book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. The story will run in this Wednesday’sThursday’s T-G. To go along with the interview, I picked out a few of Kenji’s representative recipes from Serious Eats. Most used pretty standard ingredients – which is a good thing when you’re writing for a rural community – but the meatloaf recipe called for Marmite as an umami booster.

I have long been curious about Marmite (a British condiment) and its Australian cousin Vegemite. Lately, I had been thinking that on my next drive into Murfreesboro, I might try to buy a jar of Marmite from World Market at The Avenue.

But over the weekend, I happened on a whim to look for Marmite on Amazon and ended up ordering a jar. Because it’s actually being shipped from the UK, it won’t get here until next month, but the cost was quite reasonable for a specialty condiment. (I saw honey and hot sauce selling for much higher prices at the Webb craft fair last weekend in Bell Buckle.)

Vegemite and Marmite, as I understand it, are cousins but not identical. Both are made from spent brewer’s yeast, and both are quite salty and have very polarizing, love-them-or-hate-them flavors. Marmite is more syrupy, Vegemite more pasty. Either, and again all this is by reputation because I’ve never tried them, is best enjoyed in small quantities – spread very, very thinly on a piece of bread or toast. I have read that the reason non-Australians find Vegemite so disgusting is that they sample it by tasting a spoonful – and that’s not the way it’s meant to be eaten.

Most of my generation, of course, knows Vegemite from the lyrics to Men At Work’s “Down Under”: “He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.”

Many chefs on Food Network and Cooking Channel will use anchovies as an umami booster in dishes like pasta sauce. They always fall over themselves reassuring you that the finished dish won’t smell or taste like anchovies – you’re just using a little bit, chopping it finely and letting it melt into the dish. You wouldn’t want to eat a big spoonful of dried basil or down a shot of pure vanilla extract, but either of those things can be great when added to a recipe. Anchovies, by the way, are an ingredient in many brands of Worcestershire sauce, one of the things which give that sauce its umami. (Check the label if you don’t believe me.)

Anyway, Marmite is supposed to be marginally friendlier than Vegemite, but it, too, is meant to be enjoyed in very small quantities – spread thinly on bread.

I can’t wait for my Marmite to arrive some time next month. I actually think I may like it, especially spread thinly on bread. I tend to like flavors like soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, and I like salty things more than average.

Dippin’ time

I love creamy dips – ranch, onion, and so on – but they’re horrible for you, and I have lousy self-control when I start noshing and dip is available. Fortunately, I have had good success in recent years preparing dips using Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. No, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s quite good on its own terms, and light years better for you.

Greek-Yogurt-DipsI’ve used various commercially-available dip mixes this way, just substituting yogurt for sour cream in the instructions, but today I bought something different. Hidden Valley Ranch now has a special version of its ranch dip mix specially-formulated for use with Greek yogurt.

Well, I’m assuming it’s specially-formulated. The cynic in me has long held that the envelope of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix and the envelope of Hidden Valley Ranch dip mix are the exact same product in a different wrapper. But I really do think in this case, they have adjusted the seasoning and consistency to work with nonfat Greek yogurt. It makes a tasty dip, and yet one I can indulge in without guilt.

The company also makes a salad dressing mix for use with Greek yogurt.

The one question I have – and I’ve never been able to get an answer for this – is whether the salt in savory dips kills the live yogurt culture.

two great tastes that taste great together

A few weeks ago, I did an interview with a nutritionist for the newspaper, and she brought along some recipes from a dairy promotion group, a few of which I included in the article.

One of them particularly caught my attention: Creamy avocado hummus, a sort of hybrid of guacamole and hummus bound together by Greek yogurt.

For the Times-Gazette’s annual National Newspaper Week coffee, employees sign up to bring homemade dishes, and I thought that avocado hummus, with pita chips to dip, would fit the bill just fine, and give me a chance to see if the recipe was as good as it sounded.

I think it turned out quite well. It has the grainy texture of hummus (and the fiber and nutrition from those garbanzo beans) but the bright flavor of avocado and citrus. I was a little worried because I did not seed the jalapenos as the recipe called for, and so the dish had a little kick – not too bad, but some of the people who come to this event might not be spicy food fans. So I made a little tag marking the dish as medium-hot.

Anyway, if you’d like the recipe I’ll include it below. This reflects a couple of little additions I made. It may not be exact; I actually made about 1 1/2 times this recipe, and a couple of ingredents were eyeballed rather than measured.

1 large avocado, about 9 ounces, with pit and peel removed, cut into chunks.

1 cup canned chickpeas a/k/a garbanzo beans, drained

1 cup fat-free Greek yogurt

1/3 cup cilantro leaves

1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lime juice

zest from the lime (I always hate to let citrus zest go to waste)

1/2 t. minced garlic (I had some on hand and thought it would go well)

1 large (1 oz) jalapeno, roughly chopped, seeded if desired – but I didn’t. If you’re not sure, cut the jalapeno in half lengthwise and seed one half but not the other.

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor; blend until smooth. The dish may be made in advance and kept in the refrigerator, but according to the notes from the original recipe the whey from the yogurt may separate and need to be stirred back in.

back to school time

Yes, I know, school started two months ago. But for me, it started today.

WP_20151005_09_50_31_ProFor the past three years, I’ve been a volunteer with Raise Your Hand Tennessee, a United Way-coordinated program which places volunteers in elementary schools to help with reading for an hour a week – either through one-on-one tutoring or working with groups.

I am a volunteer at Learning Way Elementary, in the class of looping first-and-second grade teacher Regan Aymett. “Looping” means she has a class of first-graders, then stays with that same group of kids the next year as their second grade teacher, then loops back and starts all over again with a new class of first graders.

I volunteer on Monday mornings. When I first signed up for the program, I chose to work with groups rather than one-on-one (it’s completely up to you when you sign up). When I get to Regan’s class, she will generally break the class up into small groups, and I’ll work with one of the groups. The groups will rotate every few minutes, so by the end of the hour I’ll usually have worked with all of the kids. Today, I was listening to the kids at my table read from a little booklet. It was a fairy tale of sorts about three princes whose father, the king, turned them into bunny rabbits for misbehaving. One of the bunny princes escapes and falls in love with a beautiful princess, sort of a twist on the old Frog-and-Princess story. I would have two or three kids at a time, and each child would read a page at a time. We would rotate around the table. I was there to help with big or hard-to-pronounce words or names, of course, but the kids would also sometimes correct or help each other.

One things I noticed with several different groups today was that a child who would struggle while reading herself (or himself) would sometimes seem to do much better when correcting the child next to them! I’m not sure exactly how to explain this except that maybe they feel more pressure when it’s their turn to read. Regan, an NEA Master Teacher, could probably explain it to me, but obviously I never get a chance to ask her stuff like that when I’m in the classroom.

Because this is the second-grade year for Regan, most of her students this fall are the same students she had last year, and so I didn’t have to be introduced. The kids knew me. Because of the way the groups worked today, I didn’t get to see everyone, and Regan apologized to the kids who “didn’t get to work with Mr. Carney,” as if that were some sort of special treat.

New United Way of Bedford County executive director (and my former T-G co-worker) Pam Fisher, like Dawn Holley before her, waited to let school get started and things to settle in before calling the schools to place volunteers. When I ran into Pam at a news event last week, she told me that I could go ahead and start back for this school year whenever it was convenient for me and Regan.

New Learning Way principal Mary Pitner, whom I’ve known for years, happened to be in the front office when I signed in and got my visitor badge this morning and thanked me warmly for volunteering. But I told her it was my pleasure – every fall, I’m chomping at the bit to start up again.

If you’re in Tennessee, you can go to the Raise Your Hand website and find out more about how to volunteer. They’re very flexible, at least here in Bedford County, and can find a school and a schedule that fits you. You can, as I already noted, decide whether you want to work with a child one-on-one or with groups. United Way does a background check on each volunteer before placing them in the schools.

the body of christ, broken for you

I had all but forgotten that it was my turn to be a greeter at Sunday School today, but my phone beeped helpfully at me, and I was able to get to church a few minutes before I needed to be there. We were standing there chatting with Rev. Lanita Monroe when she asked me – apologizing for the short notice – if I would assist in Communion.

I was delighted. I don’t do it that often, and I consider it a privilege. I was thinking about this just a week ago while listening to this excellent episode of The Liturgists Podcast, featuring Rachel Held Evans talking about her book “Searching For Sunday,” which I’m reading right now. Both Rachel and one of the regular hosts – I can’t remember whether it was Michael Gungor or “Science Mike” McHargue – told the stories of what it meant to them to serve communion for the first time. (By the way: Check out The Liturgists Podcast. It’s excellent.)

And today was actually World Communion Sunday. I’ll let Chuck tell you about it:

So, I assisted. As a lay speaker, I find it’s amazing how many little details you don’t think about in worship until you happen to find yourself responsible for them. I wasn’t sure which direction to go, or when to move. Was I going to fast? Was I holding the tray too high for people to reach comfortably?

It all worked, and it’s wonderful to watch the variety of people in church – young and old, men and women, what have you – receiving the sacrament. We have two different people at church who are in wheelchairs with severe mobility or muscular issues, and in both cases a family member has to gently put the little piece of bread in their mouth and gently hold the little glass cup up to their lips. It’s a powerful thing to see up close – the body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you.

Next Sunday, First UMC will play host to 13 other churches for their charge conferences – an annual meeting at which various church reports are turned over to the district superintendent for approval, and at which each church approves various committees and leadership positions for the coming year. In the past, each church would host its own charge conference, but this year they’re being done in county-wide batches at central locations, and at each such location there will be a combined worship service following the separate business meetings.

Anyway, the district director of lay speaking/lay servant ministries, Ruthan Patient, has asked me to help her next Sunday in greeting and guiding the various church members as they arrive. We’ll have someplace for each church to wait until it’s time for that church to meet with the D.S. I always enjoy working with Ruthan, and so it should be a fun afternoon.

round round get around, I get eye of round

UGO had a small eye of round – only a pound and a half – on manager’s special tonight. Usually, when I see an eye of round on sale I think jerky – when you can get it cheaper than normal, it’s a great cut for jerky because the grain runs lengthwise and there’s little marbling, only an easily-removed fat cap. For jerky, you want as little fat as possible; fat goes rancid.

But this was a very small roast – not quite as much meat as I would normally use for a big batch of jerky. Plus, I knew I was out of both Worcestershire and soy sauce, neither of which UGO had tonight, and I didn’t want to make another stop. So my mind went to the other great use for eye of round. It’s a recipe that America’s Test Kitchen had on their show years ago. Unfortunately, that means I can’t link to it here, since only the current season’s recipes are available for free online, and even then you have to register.

Eye of round is sort of a transitional roast – it’s not as cheap and doesn’t have the connective tissue of a good, slow-cooking pot roast, but it’s not naturally as tender as the pricey oven roast cuts. However, it can still be an oven roast – cooked in dry heat to your preferred doneness (I’m going to tell you that your preferred doneness is medium rare). You just have to pay a little attention to it first. ATK has a recipe where the roast is coated generously with kosher salt and wrapped up tightly in plastic wrap for 18-24 hours. The salt works like a brine or marinade – it penetrates and tenderizes the meat a little. It looks like it would be too salty, but it’s not, since the salt distributes itself deep into the meat during that time. My roast is now all wrapped up in the fridge and will be ready for dinner tomorrow night.

Then, you brown the roast in a dutch oven or skillet before cooking it very slowly in the oven over low heat. At one point, you are supposed to cut the oven off without opening it and let the residual heat cook it the rest of the way. The end result is a tender medium-rare roast which you can slice thinly across the grain. I’ve made it in the past, and it tastes like a much more expensive roast.

This recipe works best if you have one of those remote probe thermometers, so you can check the roast’s temperature without opening the oven door. I can never afford a nice one; I’ve bought the cheap ones from Walmart two or three times, and they tear up pretty easily. Plus, the recipe as I have it from ATK is for a much larger roast than the little one I have. But I’m going to do the best I can tomorrow night and check it with my little instant-read thermometer.

Spontanean Nation! Nation!

I listen to several different comedy podcasts. Most, but not all, normally use a studio-based format, while others use a live-audience format, recorded at some sort of comedy club.

Sometimes, a studio-based podcast will do a special episode in a live-audience format. They usually present this as if it were a special treat, but I often don’t like the live episodes as much as I do the studio episodes, because the live episode usually has a different and unfamiliar rhythm. (And yet, I have no problem with the podcasts that use a live audience as their regular, week-in week-out format.)

The comedian Paul F. Tompkins is involved with several different podcasts of his own and is also a frequent guest on other podcasts. Tompkins created and plays H.G. Wells on the hilarious Dead Authors Podcast, in which he interviews other deceased authors (as played by various Wikipedia-crammed comics and actors).

But one of Tompkins’ newest efforts is Spontaneanation, a unique podcast with a two-part format. In the first part, Tompkins interviews a podcast guest, usually a wide-ranging conversation which brings up funny stories from the subject’s past and childhood. Then, in the second half, Tompkins and a team of improv comics create a sketch which takes place in a setting which has been suggested by the interview guest. They try to be as funny as possible and also to work in callbacks to funny moments or anecdotes from the interview segment. My description probably isn’t doing the show justice; it needs to be heard to be appreciated.

Anyway, Spontaneanation is normally studio-based but this week has a live episode. In spite of the reservations cited above, I thought this was one of the funniest they’ve ever done. The reason is Tompkins’ guest, Scott Aukerman, who hosts “Comedy Bang! Bang!” both as an audio podcast and an IFC television show. (Aukerman is also one of the proprietors of the Earwolf podcast network, which distributes “Spontaneanation.”) Aukerman is hilarious as an interview guest – subverting the normal interview process with weird diversions and character moments. Tompkins (who must have been absolutely delighted) keeps making remarks about how far the interview has gone off track.

Usually, the guest isn’t part of the improv sketch, but in this case Aukerman stays on for the improv segment, and deservedly so. The result is just hilarious – although not necessarily safe for work or young children. You can listen to it here:


With the play over, I finished up reading Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden, which I bought on sale for Kindle a while back. I started reading it, then had to set it aside because a library book for which I’d been on the waiting list became available, then came back to it, then set it aside again while I was so busy with the play.

It’s a terrific book. As the title suggests, it is not a comprehensive biography of the great author but a look at the last four years of his life. Many readers and scholars over the years, picking up on a certain bitter edge to his writing following the death of his beloved wife Olivia, have painted a portrait of Twain as a completely embittered man during this period, an impression Shelden seeks to moderate, pointing out some of the joys and successes of this period, a period when he was held in great esteem as a beloved national and international figure.

The title, of course, refers to the white suit. If you close your eyes and imagine Mark Twain, you envision him wearing a white suit. But he didn’t begin wearing one (at least not as a year-round trademark) until the winter of 1906, when he appeared before a copyright hearing at the Library of Congress. He wanted to call attention to himself, and believed arriving out of season in white would do the trick. It did. Twain’s purpose at the hearing was to endorse the idea of extending the term of copyright protection. His two surviving children, Clara and Jean, were unmarried, and he hoped that ongoing royalties from his works would help to support them once he was gone.

The book is, in many ways, not only about Twain himself but about his relationships with Clara, Jean and another important woman in Twain’s circle, his assistant Isabel Lyon. Clara was a vocalist who yearned for a career in which she wouldn’t automatically be introduced as Mark Twain’s daughter but would be recognized on her own merits. Jean was an epileptic at a time when treatment for epilepsy was primitive. For much of the period covered in the book she was cared for in an institution, much to her aggravation and her father’s sadness. She longed for independence.

Lyon, the other major character in the book, is unique. She became Twain’s right hand, and personally supervised the construction of the Connecticut home, Stormfield, which Twain dreamed of sharing with Clara and Jean. But in some ways, their professional relationship was not as well-defined as it should have been, and she presumed a personal connection and a responsibility for protecting Twain which got her into trouble. She interfered with Jean’s treatment out of a selfish desire to keep her from being allowed to join her father at Stormfield; having Clara and Jean too close by would have interfered with what she saw as her role as Twain’s protector. Early on, she was driven by a real, intense affection for the beloved author, but she eventually fell in with Twain’s greedy business manager, Ralph Ashcroft, who had designs on Twain’s money.

I can imagine a prestige HBO movie centering around Lyon and her somewhat sad character arc.

Anyway, despite all of the soap-opera machinations, there were joys and triumphs in Twain’s life during his final years – such as an honorary degree from Oxford, a close friendship with a controversial business tycoon, and the joy of trips to Bermuda, where Twain found both physical and emotional rejuvenation. Twain was both working on his own autobiography (some parts of which were sealed up at Twain’s request and not to be published for many decades after his death) and cooperating with his authorized biographer, Albert Paine. He enjoyed encounters with Rudyard Kipling and Helen Keller, among others.

This is a great book, and Shelden has done a terrific job of research while telling the story in a readable and compelling way. I can highly recommend the book.

The final curtain

Well, the play is over, which is simultaneously the best and worst feeling in the world.

For weeks, I worked on my lines every day, worried that I’d never get all 300 lines memorized. Two rehearsals a week eventually turned into three a week, and then four rehearsals during “hell week” before we opened on the 18th.

And now it’s all over. I can delete the audio files from my phone, and go back to listening to music, or nothing at all, during my daily walk rather than listening to my lines. My schedule has suddenly gotten more open.

I’m tired; in some ways, I’m ready for it to be over. I won’t be auditioning for the Christmas play tomorrow afternoon; it’s hard for me to go straight from one production into another, although I know a lot of theatre people who do just that.

But I will miss it. This was a great role – the favorite role I’ve ever played, and it was the lead, which is always fun (but also adds some pressure). There’s nothing like being the last person out for curtain call. Even more important, this was a great cast and crew – I’d worked with most of them before. As most of us sat at Chili’s just now, unwinding from a week of performances, you could feel the mutual affection and admiration. I will miss spending time with these people – Martin and Dianne and Morgan and Amanda and Keith and Meridith and April and Joe and Cliff and Mary Ann and Randy and Anne.

And in a two-weekend production, there’s always the sense during that second weekend that we’ve just now gotten it right. You wish you had a few more opportunities to show the production off now that it’s been sharpened. But it’s got to come to an end.

I won’t know what to do with myself this week. I plan to get back to work on the book of sermons, devotions and essays that I’ve been compiling. Depending on how that goes, I may or may not decide to jump into National Novel Writing Month in November.

I’ll probably feel a little more lonely than usual this week. But I’ll get over it.

Cup o’ stoopid

The day did not begin well — I overslept — but I’m not sure whether to blame myself or Procter & Gamble for this latest bit of foolishness.

I had sneezed a few times and had a little stuffy nose but was out of tissue on my desk. I decided to walk across the street to the convenience store and buy some. My first trip was cut short when I discovered it was raining, and I had to roll up the windows to my car, getting wet in the process. I made a second trip a few minutes later.

I looked, and looked, and looked, for five minutes (it seemed longer) and did not see any facial tissues, Kleenex or otherwise. I finally got in line (it was unusually busy) and asked the clerk if they carried any. He took me directly to these:

car-cup I had looked at this package at least twice, and had no idea what i was looking at. All I noticed was the words “Car Cup,” and since the box wasn’t far from the napkins and paper plates, I just thought it contained paper or plastic cups. I did not notice the tiny Puffs logo on the front or the only-slightly-larger one on the top.

It’s not a bad idea for a product — a tissue dispenser designed to sit in a cupholder — but I think the manufacturer either needs to alter the name or put a photo of the open package on the front to make it a little more noticeable as a package of tissues and not, as I’d assumed, a package of cups.

Even so, I felt pretty stupid.