Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fresh Truffles

I've had a very Quixotic sort of quest for months and months on being able to find fresh truffles. If you've never had the pleasure of having truffles, they are insanely hard to find little perigourds (similar to mushrooms) known for their sultry & musky scent and unbelievable flavor. If you want an experience pretty close to the mark (but still not quite), you can buy truffle-infused olive oil and truffle-infused salt for far less, though even that's still not the same.

My first experience with the fresh stuff was back to my all-time favorite dish, back on my honeymoon in Lake Tahoe. We ate at a haute cuisine place called Plumpjacks, and I had a dish of english pea risotto with organic chicken breast and bean sprouts. Fallen like marbled snowflakes all across the dish were wonderful paper-thin slices of Alba white truffle. That one dish turned the volume down on every single meal I've tasted in my entire life. Since then, I've vowed that if I could find an opportunity to buy them and cook with them, I would take that opportunity. Since I'm not willing to hit up ebay and to buy somebody's "truffles" that might be the bland and flavorless chinese variety, this means I really want to shop in person.

I've gone to local restaurants in Birmingham to ask where the chef sources his supply. I've gone to grocery stores. I've gone basically everywhere. Usually my best case scenario is to get a suggestion to browse the Dean & Delucca website, which sometimes sells them when they don't quickly run out. While D&D is reputable, I don't really feel comfortable spending the high price and not be able to see the exact product I order, or worse, risk spoilage when its shipped in the mail. So, I vowed to keep on looking, and my quest stretched for months and months.

Yesterday, my quest came to an end. I did a quick grocery jump over to Whole Foods to pick up some lox for my bagels. I always sort of scout the produce area and the cheese area as a rule, just in case I find something really yummy I might want. Well, I did.

One ounce of black winter truffles. These are domestically grown from Oregon, so they're not the ones from the south of France, but I could tell by the smell that I'd done the right thing. I've tried to think of a way to describe the smell, but I always fall short. In my brain, it smells like sex. That isn't to say that it smells like anything in particular, but it's a smell that wouldn't really fit anywhere without context, but in the context of making really excellent food, it's a thing that can't be faked or imitated. People left and right of you might be making delicious food with truffle oil and truffle salt, but you know by the smell that you're in something a cut above.

Dino at Alternative Vegan puzzled at me a few weeks ago on my purchase of a paring knife, and it's his opinion that you don't really need one. Fair enough, since the boy's got knife skills out his ears and he does very well with a good chef's knife alone. Now with the exception of scoring my proofed bread loves and slicing sushi, he's generally right in that the paring knife doesn't do many things that a good chef's knife or a santoku can, but I found something that I would never be able to do with my big knife, and that's slice truffles. The trick is to maximize the pleasure of these things by spreading their appearance and flavor out as much as possible. You can buy specialty equipment like truffle shavers for this, which supposedly get them very very thin, but I don't have one, so I used the paring knife. A quick quarter of a centimeter slip of the blade on the warty skin of the truffle to break it, and then just very very gently shave downwards. Are my slices as thin as a shaver? Some maybe, but not all. Then again, it's pretty damn thin. I love looking at sliced truffles, because they're so gorgeously marbled. It's like looking at a cut of meat in a microcosm.

Now, it may not be very creative of me, and it may be me falling square into my comfort zone, but I wanted these truffles in risotto. First, risotto has a wonderful taste even generally plain, and the texture you get is in my opinion the best of any cooked grain starch dish. Second, part of me wanted to see if I could capture the magic of that honeymoon meal. Since Valentine's Day is here, why not, no?

I'll gloss over the risotto prep since I make tons of it already and I have probably already explained that in another post, but I heated two quarts of chicken stock in a saucepot on medium heat, then melted two tablespoons of butter in my saute pan. In that pan, I sweated down two minced shallots and a little sea salt for about ten minutes, then added two cups of arborio rice. I stirred the rice to coat each grain with fat, and turned the heat to almost high, stirring quickly until the grains turned slightly translucent and smelled a little nutty. Then, added a half cup of pinot grigio to the hot pan, let it boil off quickly, and reduced the temp to an energetic simmer. Ladle at a time, I started to add stock to the pan, stirring very quickly to get the grains to release their starch into the liquid around them. After many ladlings, I tasted a few grains to make sure I'd gotten them al dente, then took the pan off heat and added pepper.

Now here, I would normally add some shredded parmesan (or a similar nutty-flavored cheese like romano, asiago, gruyere, or manchego), and another tablespoon of butter to stir in and thicken. With truffles, I wanted no interference in my shroomy love affair. The parm had to go. Instead, I upped the butter to two tablespoons, and took the slices of truffle and added them to a pot where the butter was melted. I let that simmer very gently to let the truffles begin to leak a little of their flavor into the butter. After about five minutes of that, I poured the butter and truffles into the mix and stirred.

Dished it up in a pre-warmed dish, had a glass of that pinot grigio (Tiefenbrunner sounds German, but the wine is from Italy. Look it up if you can find it, it's cheap and really pleasant), and just shut the world out for about thirty minutes. I'll admit that it wasn't the singular moment of bliss like the dish at Plumpjacks, but I'll be damned if I wasn't eating some of the best stuff I've ever made. The moral of the story is that nobody can make a habit out of truffles. But similarly, don't let opportunity pass you by. If you live life without ever eating this, you're missing something special.

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