If you've been out to eat at any trendy restaurant during the past five years or have watched any food competition show, you probably have heard of umami. Umami is the pleasant savory flavor resulting from the interaction of certain amino acids with receptors on the human tongue. (It's a wonder we don't get into this level of detail on TV, no?)
Translation: Dishes higher in these specific amino acids taste better to us, balanced and complex, even in low-salt dishes, which is good to know if you are watching sodium. Foods with umami have a meatiness or pleasant earthiness that can feel rich and satisfying. Anchovies, soy sauce, mushrooms, aged cheeses, yeasts and fermented foods all are rich in umami.
This week's mushroom-miso pasta is a tad indulgent, but tastes far richer, creamier and more sinful than it actually is. Using nutty browned butter underscores the earthy mushroom's umami flavors. Miso paste, or fermented soybean paste, is the real hero here, though, adding surprising depth to this easy weeknight dish, as well as a buttery, almost creamy taste to the sauce that brings all the flavors together.
Miso paste, available in various strengths in most grocery stores — mild white, medium yellow and stronger red and brown — is a staple in my kitchen, as it brings flavor and richness to dishes without adding fat and calories (but note that it does have salt).
Adding even more umami to this dish is the nutritional yeast. It's an optional ingredient, but I think well worth seeking out if you aren't familiar with it. It adds a wonderful aged-cheese-like flavor that turns this simple mushroom-miso pasta dish into a veritable "umami bomb," which is a good thing in the food world.
Food Network star Melissa d'Arabian is an expert on healthy eating on a budget. She is the author of the cookbook "Supermarket Healthy."