Of all the different tastes that we experience, one stands out above the rest as the most unusual and difficult to describe. Savory, sometimes referred to as “umami” (which is Japanese for “delicious”), is the flavor that rules our taste buds. The right combination of ingredients can bring about a flavor explosion in your mouth that is somewhere between salty and meaty, but does not encapsulate one extreme. It’s hard to describe in specific terms, but you know it when you taste it. Umami is usually called the fifth taste, as it was discovered much more recently than the traditional four we usually think of. It’s what gives certain foods that hard-to-pin-down, satisfying deliciousness that lights up the pleasure center of your brain.
Foods like mushrooms, tomatoes, shellfish, meat, parmesan cheese, soy sauce and many vegetables are said to represent the elements of umami. No one knows why exactly, but we are biologically wired to react positively to these flavors. For thousands of years, experts were unaware that umami even existed as a separate taste, but now we know that humans actually have specific taste receptors designed to be stimulated by umami flavors. Somewhere in the past, there may have been an evolutionary purpose for our inability to resist the taste of savory foods.
Soup, ketchup, pizza, cured meat, sushi and anything fermented or fried sends pleasure signals through our tongues straight to our brains. You know the dreaded food additive MSG, that people like to claim causes headaches? That is pure, concentrated umami flavor, (and despite the urban legends, it has no proven negative health effects).
These savory foods contain specific amino acids called glutamates that bring out serious flavor and make us feel good. It’s why Liz Lemon was so committed to her night cheese. It’s why George Costanza tried to combine sex with sandwich eating. And, it’s why you’ve probably picked eating pizza at home alone over going out on Friday night. Savory foods represent pleasure and comfort to so many of us. Think back to your childhood and the meals your mother made that you looked forward to the most. It was probably something warm and savory. Food can bring back a lot of good feelings and nostalgia for the way things were.
Speaking of nostalgia and comfort, have you ever been to the Ortega area of Jacksonville? It’s small, and it’s tucked away next to the St. Johns River on the west side of town, somewhere between Orange Park and the Riverside/Avondale district. You might not know this, but it’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in town. The families that populate the area have been there for generations. Long-time local resident and restaurateur Sara Mangham told me, “We think of this area as being kind of the heart of the South. It’s almost like a small town within a big city.”
While she may not agree with the designation, Mangham is what you might call an expert on both Ortega and savory comfort foods. She runs the local favorite restaurant Simply Sara’s, which specializes in simple, classic Southern dishes. She makes food that she describes as, “hearty and savory without being heavy or salty.” Hidden in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood, Simply Sara’s is bustling with local residents who come to enjoy their savory favorites, like chicken and dumplings, pot roast and sausage gravy with biscuits.
She likes to make the recipes that have stood the test of time. She doesn’t like to do anything too complex, preferring to allow the natural flavors of her fresh ingredients to speak for themselves. It’s this simplicity that she believes has made her food such a hit. The ingredients you’ll find in her kitchen are about as basic as can be. No fancy herbs, nothing you can’t pronounce, nothing that comes off a food delivery truck. It’s not much more than chicken, pork, seasonal vegetables, eggs, milk — all things you probably have in your own kitchen at home, and all keys to savory deliciousness.
Sara’s philosophy on cooking is dead simple, and people are often surprised when they ask for her secrets.
“Salt, pepper and garlic powder. That’s the holy trinity of spices. Food doesn’t need anything else, really,” she explained.
MSG is delicious, but you don’t necessarily need to add it to your recipes to make food irresistible. When cooked, meat and vegetables release their own umami-making glutamates that excite your taste buds. A little salt and pepper can help enhance the natural flavor that’s already there.
The older residents of Ortega especially enjoy dining at Simply Sara’s because it’s the same food they grew up eating.
“We do old-fashioned food, which is completely in touch with the area of town that we’re in, and with the age of the neighborhood,” she said. “This is familiar food to them, this is the way their mothers and grandmothers cooked.”
She wants people that taste her food to be transported back in time to their grandmother’s house. With a little umami magic, that’s totally possible.
Garlic Lemon Chicken with Pasta
Simple sautéed chicken dish with a pan sauce that’s ready in minutes. Fresh and flavorful without a lot of fuss. This recipe serves 4.
- 1lb pasta noodles, cooked as directed (linguine, fettucine, angel hair…whatever you choose)
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 5 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1-2 teaspoons minced garlic (depending on your preference)
- 1 cup white wine
- ¾ cup chicken broth
- 2 lemons
- ¾ cup heavy cream
- Salt & pepper to taste
- Chopped parsley (just for garnish)
Cook pasta according to directions on box. If your chicken breasts are really thick, pound them until flattened slightly (this helps with cooking time as well as not having dry chicken when finished)
Heat 2 tablespoons butter with 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Dredge chicken breasts, which have been seasoned with salt and pepper, in flour and cook two at a time until golden brown about 3 minutes per side (if they are thick you may have to cook a little longer on each side). After first chicken is cooked and removed to a plate, add an additional 2 tablespoons butter and oil and cook the remaining two breasts. You may need to adjust your heat during the cooking process so everything doesn’t get too brown.
Once you are finished with chicken, adjust the heat to a medium to medium low and add the garlic and saute for just a minute (be careful not to burn it), then add the white wine and chicken broth, along the juice of the two lemons. Scrape up all the bits left on the bottom of the pan from frying and simmer that sauce until it is thickened and about half of the amount it originally was. Sprinkle in a little salt and pepper, if needed, to taste. Reduce to low and add in the cream.
At this point, taste and adjust the seasonings to your liking….if the lemon is too strong for you, just add a little chicken stock. Add the chicken breasts to the sauce or you can spoon it over the meat and pasta, your choice. Sprinkle with parsley and enjoy!