Pairings: Fungus Among Us

Gourmands across America look forward to fresh truffle season and the inventive, always mouthwatering ways in which the nation's top chefs showcase the prized fungus.


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Fungus Among Us

On a warm October evening, the air of Alba in northwestern Italy is saturated with the intoxicating perfume of the season. The city's famous festival, a celebration of the white truffle, begins in a few days. Ridgely Evers, an Internet executive and olive farmer from Healdsburg, California, and his bride, chef Colleen McGlynn, slip down an alleyway near the center of town. In a tiny store, its name long forgotten, they purchase a single white truffle, slightly bigger than a golf ball. They run to their car, race across northern Italy to Venice, check into the Pensione Academia, and then stroll to Al Covo, where they hand over the fungus. Soon, customers' heads turn enviously as the chef delivers an earthy masterpiece, tender pasta with fresh porcini and every last bit of that white truffle.

Wild Thing
Truffles. Of all the wild gifts nature offers—fiddleheads, King salmon, black chanterelles, caviar, morels—few are as treasured as the truffle. The truffle is a kind of fungus that grows underground, its vast web of mycelium, the plant from which fungi fruit, entwining with the roots of host trees in an essential but little-understood relationship. (Attempts to inoculate trees in Europe and the United States have either failed or produced such a small crop of inferior truffles that it's hardly been worth the effort, at least so far.)

Truffles send up few telltale signs, nothing more than a barren ring around a tree and a primal, narcotic aroma that is so intense you can smell it if you get anywhere near an underground cache. Humans can't navigate hunched over, noses down, of course, so we use quadrupeds to hunt our truffles. Female pigs hunt with gusto, following the truffle's musk-like scent, released by a chemical also found in a male pig's saliva. Many truffle hunters today use trained dogs who don't share the sow's passion for the pungent truffle. They hunt for the little rewards offered by their masters. A few dogs are so good at this kind of hunting that they have international reputations.

A Truffle for All Seasons
There are three distinct truffle seasons. One type of black truffle, the least fragrant, is available in the summer, generally from the middle of May through early September; its taste is often described as mushroomy, its aroma as subtle. It sells for around $450 a pound.

The black truffle that is available in the winter is more flavorful, more aromatic and more valuable than the summer truffle. It grows throughout southern France, as well as in Spain, Italy and Yugoslavia. The French call it "the black diamond," the queen of truffles, and insist that it is the finest truffle in the world. Last year, wholesale prices ranged from $450 to $850 a pound. This truffle needs heat to release its volatile oils.

The white truffle is harvested only in northern Italy. Though it is generally available from October through the end of December, it is at its peak in the fall. White truffles fetch the highest prices—from $800 to $1500 a pound wholesale last season—and are generally considered the most prized truffles.

These seasons overlap, making one truffle or another available almost year round. For the lean times, there are a number of truffle-related products. Only a small amount of fresh truffles ever make it to the fresh market; most are processed. The best products—truffle butter and truffle oils made with high-quality extra-virgin olive oil—are excellent, contributing true truffle flavor and satisfying all but the most tenacious truffle jones. Most aficionados find canned truffles disappointing, and truffle flour doesn't approach the real thing in taste or aroma.

The Nose Knows
Truffles don't look like much. They range in size from smaller than a hazelnut to as big as a melon, though the largest ones are extraordinarily rare. The white ones resemble a nubby potato, the black ones appear to be covered in tiny warts. Their seductive aromas make up for what they lack in visual appeal. In addition to their infamous scent, truffles also are high in glutamic acid, a natural form of monosodium glutamate (MSG), which accounts for why they intensify the flavors of other ingredients.

Truffles have long dazzled anyone who encounters them. Plutarch believed they grew where lightning struck; in the Dark Ages they were shunned as the fruit of Satan. The Renaissance embraced them. Over the centuries, we have sprinkled them with Cognac, wrapped them in salt pork and baked them buried in hot ashes. We have paired them with foie gras in countless variations, fried them with potatoes in goose fat and folded them into fluffy scrambled eggs and omelets. We have grated the white ones over pasta, risotto and polenta, stirred them into bagna cauda and fonduta and filled tarts with a paste of butter, fontina, and ground truffle. We tuck them under the skin of all types of poultry, and even season ice cream with them.

The only problem with truffles is getting them—and the expense isn't the only obstacle. Unscrupulous dealers trick the public, filling small holes with clay or lead to increase their weight, dying grey ones and selling them as black. And in perhaps the worse abuse, traders in Holland and the United States once made what they called fantasy truffles, black balls of blood, starch, egg yolk and synthetic truffle flavoring.

Doing It Yourself
Today's best chefs are every bit as enamored with truffles as their forebears were. From coast to coast, restaurants offer truffle menus that feature the fungus in every course. From Elizabeth Daniel, Masa's, One Market and Campton Place in San Francisco and the Sonoma Mission Inn and the French Laundry in the California wine country,
to Le Cirque 2000, 21, March and dozens of others in New York City, tasting menus offer indulgent —and pricey—feasts that celebrate the truffle. Truffles have become so popular—"People are fixated on them," Marco Maccioni of Le Cirque says—that many restaurants always keep at least one truffle dish on the menu.

A truffle extravaganza at a top restaurant can be a delightful indulgence, but it's also possible to put together a private feast at your own table. If you have an excellent gourmet shop near you, ask the manager to help you get some truffles. If not, Urbani Truffles and Caviar, one of the country's best truffle importers, offers fresh truffles through their web site (www.urbani.com).

Although you will rarely be in the position to rifle through a bin of truffles looking for the best ones, a fresh truffle should be firm and solid, with a powerful and earthy fragrance. If it is soft or if it smells of ammonia, it is past its prime and should be returned to its source for a refund. If you have a choice, choose larger rather than smaller truffles—they will have more flavor. You'll need to keep your truffle dry and protect other foods from its penetrating aroma; the best method is to put rice in a glass jar, bury your truffle in the rice, close the jar with its lid, and store in the refrigerator. Use the truffle within a few days, and be sure to use the rice, too, which will be perfumed by the truffle.

At $1,500 a pound wholesale, white truffles seem wildly expensive. Yet only top chefs buy truffles by the pound; most chefs buy them by the ounce, home cooks by the gram. The general rule is to buy as much as you can comfortably afford, using a recipe's quantity as a guideline but not an absolute rule. If a chef calls for an ounce of white truffle, for example—that's about $300 worth—you can make a great dish using half that amount, or even a little less. With white truffles, a little goes a long way.

Black truffles are both less powerful and less expensive, but are still sold by the gram. Twenty-five dollars will usually get you at least 25 grams, nearly an ounce, plenty to infuse a recipe with good truffle flavor. It is important to keep in mind, however, that black and white truffles cannot be used interchangeably. Black truffles need heat to release their flavor, which is never as intense as that of white truffles. White truffles do not need heat, and are best added to a dish shortly before serving.

To shave or slice a truffle, all you need is a sharp paring knife or a good blade grater. Those nifty truffle slicers are sexy, but are best as a gift to a friend who has everything; they are not essential.

Once you have your precious truffle tucked into its jar in the fridge, you can read restaurant menus (see sidebar) and peruse cookbooks for ideas that appeal to you and that don't seem too difficult. Wayne Nish of March Restaurant believes, as many chefs do, that it is the simplest recipes that most flatter the beguiling truffle. The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (1984) includes a recipe for risotto that begins with the instruction to bury a fresh white truffle in arborio rice for three days. For scrambled eggs, break a dozen eggs into a large bowl, drop in a black truffle, and refrigerate overnight. How hard is that?

Erik Blauberg's Carpaccio of Venison with Truffle Mustard Vinaigrette

Chef Erik Blauberg, an avid truffle hunter, often includes this simple, provocative dish on the menu at 21 in New York City. The combination of tête de Moine, a boldly flavored, semihard cow's milk cheese from Switzerland, and white truffles is stunning. Try pairing this dish with a bright Barbera or Dolcetto, which will allow the earthy truffle flavors to shine.

Truffle Mustard Vinaigrette

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 3 teaspoons Champagne vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons white truffle oil
  • 1 teaspoon (2 to 3 grams) minced white truffles
  • Sea salt to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Put the mustard into a small bowl and whisk in the vinegar. Slowly add the truffle oil, whisking all the while. Fold in the truffles and season with salt and pepper. Makes 1/2 cup.

Venison

  • 8 ounces boneless saddle of venison, sliced paper thin
  • 4 tablespoons Truffle Mustard
  • Vinaigrette
  • Sea salt to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small white truffle, sliced very thin
  • 8 shavings of Tête de Moine cheese

Arrange the venison artfully on 4 chilled plates. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle each portion with some of the dressing. Garnish with truffle slices and cheese shavings and serve immediately. Serves 4.

 

Wayne Nish's White Truffle Napoleon with Taleggio and Sweet Onion Marmalade
Wayne Nish, chef at New York City's March Restaurant, shares the belief that the best white truffle dishes are the simplest ones. This one is featured on his New Year's Eve menu. White wines from Piedmont, like Gavi or Arneis, provide a subtle counterpoint to the earthy flavors of truffle, cheese and onion.
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
  • 1 large sweet onion, such as Vidalia, very thinly sliced
  • Sea salt
  • 3 sheets phyllo dough
  • 1/4 cup clarified butter
  • 1/4 pound ripe Taleggio cheese
  • 1/2 to 1 ounce fresh white truffle
  • Fresh chervil sprigs, for garnish

Preheat an oven to 325F. Pour the olive oil into a small saucepan set over very low heat, add the onion, and season with sea salt. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is very soft and translucent, 25 to 30 minutes. Do not let the onion burn. Remove from heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, unroll the phyllo dough and place one sheet on a flat surface. Brush with some clarified butter, top with a second sheet, brush it with butter, and top with a third sheet. Brush the top layer with butter and using a cookie cuttler or the lid of a jar cut out six 2 1/2-inch rounds. Set the layered phyllo rounds on a sheet pan and bake for 10 minutes, or until crisp and lightly browned. Set aside to cool slightly.

To assemble the Napoleons, spread 1 tablespoon of onion marmalade on 2 of the rounds and cover each with a phyllo round. Spread each with a generous quantity of cheese, top with the remaining rounds and spread onion marmalade on top. Warm Napoleons in the oven for 1 minute. Set the Napoleons on individual plates and shave white truffle over both of them, using the entire truffle.

Drizzle a little olive oil over the Napoleons, season lightly with sea salt, and garnish with chervil. Serve immediately. Serves 2.

 

Scott Cutaneo's White Truffle Risotto with Porcinis and White Truffles

Chef Scott Cutaneo of Le Petit Chateau, widely praised as the best French restaurant in New Jersey, offers a traditional risotto as one of the finest ways to enjoy white truffles. If you serve it as an appetizer, stick with Barbera or Dolcetto so as to leave room for a bigger Piedmont wine such as a Barolo with the main course. If the risotto is the main course, pull out all the stops with a cru Barolo from your favorite producer.

  • 8 ounces fresh porcini, pan-seared (optional, see note below)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 shallots, minced
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • 6 to 7 cups hot chicken stock
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground white pepper
  • 3 to 4 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
  • 4 teaspoons white truffle oil
  • 1 small (6 to 8 grams) fresh white truffle, finely grated
  • Small white truffle, for garnish

If using, prepare the porcini and set them aside.

Put the olive oil and butter in a medium saucepan set over low heat and when the butter is melted add the shallots. Cook the shallots slowly until they are very soft, about 15 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-low, add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until each grain turns milky white, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup chicken stock and stir until the liquid is absorbed. Continue adding stock, 1/2 cup at a time, until the rice is tender but not mushy, about 18 to 22 minutes. After about 14 minutes, season with salt and lots of white pepper.

After the final addition of stock, fold in the cheese and porcini and remove the risotto from heat. Taste and correct the seasoning. Fold in the truffle oil and grated white truffle, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest 2 minutes. Spoon the risotto into warmed soup plates, grate a little white truffle over each portion, and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Note: When excellent fresh porcini are available—those without worms, mites, or dirt—brush them lightly, cut them lengthwise into thick slices, as you would cut foie gras, dust lightly with Wondra flour, and cook them in clarified butter in a hot sauté pan. They should be slightly crispy on the outside, and creamy and tender on the inside.

 

A Note About Wine
When it comes to wine, consider geography first. Marco Maccioni of Le Cirque 2000 prefers the wines of Piedmont—the Arneis, Dolcetto and Barbera that are typically served with white truffles in Italy. Look for lean white wines with earthy elements, and when it comes to reds, choose wines without big tannins that might compete with the starring truffle. With black truffles, most of which come from the south of France, look first to the high-acid dry rosés of Provence. But with any dish that includes truffles, you must consider the major ingredients, not just the truffle itself, when selecting a wine.

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