Just before the New Year, a frantic call goes out for fresh, exotic truffles. Chefs and home cooks alike scramble to source this rare, aromatic, and elegant ingredient. Specialty food stores stock up on this highly perishable item. Upscale farmers markets can’t resist the urge to bring in truffle oils, butters, and pastes. Internet stores sell truffles – some of dubious quality and origin, others fresh off the plane.
Both Black and White Truffles are splashed across holiday menus. Truffles are lavished over pastas, swirled into pan sauces, whipped into potatoes, melted on a just-grilled steak. A flurry of truffles, shaved over pasta with an elegant flourish, gets the party going. There’s no foodie celebration more exciting than a menu dotted with this bewitching ingredient.
Truffles are perched at the pinnacle of the wild mushroom pyramid. Small, round, and barely yielding to the tooth, they are unearthed by truffle pigs or trained dogs. Truffles grow on the roots of specific trees, mostly in Europe. They are buried a few inches underground, so the pigs’ keen sense of smell is essential to the harvest. Hunters conceal their spots by sneaking into the forest when no one is around, and leaving no traces. At times they even carry weapons to deter interlopers! Just last week, a death resulted from a clash between a French property owner and an unfortunate would-be harvester.
While there are over 40 varieties of truffles, just a handful make their way to our tables. The two types most of us are familiar with are the Black Winter Truffle and the White Truffle. Part 1 of this article features the Black Truffle. The White Truffle is harvested in Alba, Italy, as well as in neighboring countries. It has a dusty beige exterior, pocked with crevices. It can measure anywhere from an inch to several inches in diameter. Its pungent aroma is redolent of earth, with a strong garlicky overtone.
Once a truffle makes its way into the truffle hunter’s basket, it is hidden, coddled, and watched every step of its road to the table. Whites, in particular, carry such a hefty price tag that shipping is urgent, guaranteed, and shrouded in mystery. The white variety is usually priced around $1,000-2,000 per pound. White truffle season runs from September to the end of the year, with the very last ones arriving just in time for New Year’s menus.
Cooking with White Truffles
Use your white truffle immediately-it has been out of the earth at least 3 days by the time you buy it. Keep it in the refrigerator loosely covered in a paper bag. It will permeate the refrigerator – and everything in it. Place in a jar with some un-cracked eggs, and the next day your eggs will be full of flavor. The truffle is used as an aromat, in the same way as a vanilla bean or spice. It takes over any dish, beginning with its bewitching aroma and carrying through to the last bite. It is not cooked, but used raw. The white truffle, unlike the black, loses its awesome characteristics when frozen. If you really can’t finish your truffle, chop it fine, mix into your best quality butter, and freeze (see below).
The all time favorite recipe for white truffles is the simplest, most captivating dish you can think of – fresh fettuccine lightly tossed with extra virgin olive oil, with white truffles shaved over each dish as it is set down in front of the guest. Other Italian-inspired repasts follow – risotto, polenta, bruschetta. White truffle complements broiled or poached fish, fresh scallops, veal chops, steak, eggs any style. Whip it into mashed or baked potatoes, squash, or other puree. Top a creamy soup, and add to your favorite penne al vodka recipe. Since the white truffle has a garlicky profile, think about using it in your favorite garlic-centric recipes.
Truffle Butter multiplies the amazing qualities of both white and black truffles . Blended into our favorite fat, the butter combines ethereal flavor with sensual pleasure. It is added to a dish at the last minute, so that the steam traps the aroma and butter melts into the potato or steak. Swirl into a pan sauce, tuck between the leaves of artichoke, rub on corn on the cob, and drizzle over popcorn. An advantage over fresh truffle is that the butter can be frozen indefinitely, and used bit by bit. If you are shopping for truffle butters, compare the product by looking closely under the label. A good quality butter will have a lot of truffle specks and a lighter yellow butter (indicating it is high fat). The brand we make is Aux Delices des Bois, found online and in upscale supermarkets across the country.
Truffle oils are flavored with artificial aromas, yet can provide an exciting element to your menus. Some are over-flavored, unpleasant and nose-wrinkling. A balanced oil will use extra virgin olive oil and be subtly nuanced. Add drops to vinaigrette and sauce. Rub on fish, and on the skin of roasting chicken.