In America we eat, collectively, with a glum urge for food to fill us. We are ignorant of flavour. We are as a nation taste-blind.
M.F.K. Fisher

Often time is limited. So, when mulling over ideas for a hastily drawn home meal, my thoughts invariably turn to a simple grilled steak or mixed grill on the barbeque. Involving just thirty five minutes of primarily hands off grill preparation and about 10 minutes active cooking time, steaks are fairly tough to surpass…especially if olive oil brushed veggies and baguette slices join the fray. An instant sumptuous feast.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Democritus, once remarked that when you masticate (preferably with your mouth closed), food eventually breaks into four basic shapes. Sweet morsels are “round and large in their atoms.” Salty fare land as “isosceles triangles” on your tongue. Bitter is typically “spherical, smooth, scalene and small,” while sour is “large in its atoms, but rough, angular and not spherical.”

When taste buds were microscopically “discovered” in the 19th century, tongue cells appeared as minute keyholes into which food might lodge, and it was deduced that there were only four different keyhole shapes—one for each basic taste.

However, a new taste, umami, was identified almost 100 years ago, by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University. He had sought to scientifically identify an official fifth taste, which was recognized for centuries in dashi and kombu. Dashi, meaning “boiled extract,” often forms the base for Japanese soups. So, although the concept of umami is ancient, the nomenclature is relatively recent.

In 1908, Dr. Ikeda succeeded in extracting glutamate (an amino acid) from kombu and discovering that it was the main active ingredient in this edible seaweed. He coined the term “umami” to describe the flavor with the closest English equivalent being “delicious” or “savory”—even “yummy” is used occasionally. Umami is a not so easily recognizable subtle taste that occurs naturally in many vegetables and dairy products as well as in meat, fish and seafood. Even foods without broth—such as mushrooms, tomatoes, proscuitto, anchovies and aged cheese—are loaded with glutamate and the essences of umami. This makes little mention of nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce) which simply exudes umami.

Umami results from the presence of glutamate plus five ribonucleotides including inosinate and guanylate. Glutamate is naturally present in some degree in most foods; inosinate and guanylate are present in many foods, and another nucleotide, adenylate, is abundant in fish and shellfish.

Soy sauce, a fermented sauce made from soy beans, roasted grains, water and salt is inherently rich in umami. Originating in China, soy sauce was introduced in Japan by Buddhist monks in the 7th century, where it is known as shoyu.

From childhood, I was weaned on grilled steaks bathed in soy sauce, but they were also sprinkled with seasoned salts and peppers. In the ensuing eons, I began to experiment with a variety of pre grill steak dressings, whether they be moist or dry (see Dry Rub A Dub, infra.), landing on nothing more than a bare soy sauce bath (no other seasonings) as the one truly preferred coating. At first, this may sound uninspired, but to the contrary it draws out the luscious simplicity of the meat with a rich umami touch.

GRILLED STEAK

2 1 3/4″ thick Kansas City Strip or Ribeye steaks, bone in or boneless
Premium quality soy sauce (preferably shoyu)

Have your friendly local butcher freshly cut some nicely marbled steaks. Place steaks in a single layer in a glass dish. Pour soy sauce over sparingly, turn steaks to massage and coat all over, taking care not to drown the meat. Allow to rest about 1 hour before cooking, turning a couple of times. The meat should be nearing room temperature before grilling.

Preheat charcoal grill to medium high heat. Hold your open hand about 2-3 inches above the hot grate with the coals already spread. Count how long you can keep it there before the pain demands you retract it, about 2-3 seconds for medium high.

Grill steaks to desired doneness, about 4-5 minutes per side for medium rare. Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the steaks, the size of the ‘cue and the heat of the grill. For the touch test, gently put the tip of your middle finger to the tip of your thumb. Press the fleshy area between the thumb and the base of the palm with your opposing index finger. Voilà, medium rare.

As always, let meat rest before serving so that the juices migrate throughout.

Serve with olive oil slathered grilled vegetables (such as mushrooms, peppers, Japanese eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, asparagus) and olive oil brushed grilled baguette slices and a silky red.

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Cuisine is both an art and a science: it is an art when it strives to bring about the realization of the true and the beautiful, called le bon in the order of culinary ideas. As a science, it respects chemistry, physics and natural history. Its axioms are called aphorisms, its theorems recipes, and its philosophy gastronomy.
~Lucien Tendret, from La Table au pays de Brillat-Savarin

Why has browning been such an ultimate culinary goal of so many recipes whether on the stovetop, oven or grill? Although now it seems so basic and intuitive, as with most cooking techniques, there is a chemical explanation.

Several causes of browning exist, which may act separately or in combination at various temperatures. One of the more fundamental and common reasons is the Maillard Reaction, a non-enzymatic chemical response which occurs in foods which contain both proteins and sugars. Maillard derived aromas are extremely complex and many components are formed in trace amounts by side reactions and obscure pathways. This particular phenomenon bears the name of Louis-Camille Maillard, who happened upon it when trying to ascertain how amino acids linked up to form proteins. From research undertaken in the early 20th century, he discovered that when heated sugars and amino acids were combined, the mixture slowly turned brown. Curiously, it was not until shortly after World War II that scientists associated the direct role that Maillard’s original chemical findings played in creating robust aromas and flavors in food.

The Maillard Reaction usually occurs when the denatured proteins on the surface recombine with those natural sugars present in that food. Usually the result of heat, a chemical reaction occurs between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, forming a multitude of interesting but poorly characterized molecules responsible for a broad, intricate range of scents and flavors, ultimately changing the pigmentation of food—the browning effect courtesy of Monsieur Maillard (1878-1936).