When I first saw my long-awaited order of fresh Oregon black truffles, my heart sank.
I can't explain this without being a little gross, so if you're sensitive, you might just want to click past the next paragraph now.
Four little soft, lumpy, brownish-black orbs about the size of gumdrops, nestled in a bed of arborio rice in a small plastic sandwich bag, they bore a suspicious resemblance to something out of the cat's litter box. I opened the bag, took a deep sniff, and ... eeeuuuwww. There was something funky in there, something like ... sweat. Earthy, organic aromas that did not evoke images of cleanliness. But wait ... there was something pleasantly aromatic behind it ... something resinous like pine needles ... something pungent like raw garlic ... and something caramelized and sweet, like roasted nut butter on golden-brown toast. It was, um, interesting, I'll give it that. And complex.
I tried to keep my emotions off my face, so my buddy Don - who had discovered a source of Oregon truffles on the Internet and proposed that we share an order - wouldn't sense my lack of enthusiasm. He had E-mailed me a couple of weeks earlier, full of excitement, eager to try this cultivated New World variation on the "black gold" fungus beloved in Italy and France, a mushroomy nugget so rare and prized that enthusiasts willingly pay hundreds of dollars an ounce for the best white truffles from Alba and black from Perigord.
But the Albanese harvest had reportedly been a disaster this year, and the Oregon version was "only" $80 for 4 ounces, plenty for two enthusiasts to share. If we kept expectations within bounds and didn't count on them being a match for Alba's best, it would be a foodie experiment worth the toll.
There were still a few bumps between the starting gate and the finish line. The vendor was out of white truffles, but offered Oregon Black (Leucangium carthusiana) as an equally tasty alternative. Then the shipping company failed to deliver the package as promised on the day before Thanksgiving, showing up at Don's place two days late with an ugly specimen weeping an unpleasant fluid. The vendor cheerfully replaced them without charge, but then vacation time and holiday chores intervened, and it was a couple of more weeks before the replacement package finally came, and I dropped by Don's office to retrieve my share of the prize.
Despite my initial reaction, I took the package home, tightly sealed, and transferred the fungi and their nest of rice into a glass jar with an airtight top. There was extra room in the jar, so I threw in a couple of fresh free-range eggs, curious to see if they would pick up truffle aromas in storage. I left them in the refrigerator for a couple of days, vaguely reluctant to touch them. Eventually, though, realizing that it would be really stupid to let $40 worth of truffles rot, I geared up, opened the jar and got to work.
As it turned out, an Oregon black truffle looks much better inside than it does from without. Patted dry and shaved paper thin, it makes dime-size rounds of an attractive dark-tan color, accented with a pretty, lacy network of white veins. Those funky, sweaty flavors that emerge in concentration from the whole truffles don't show up in the shavings or in finished dishes. In fact, the overall "truffly" effect was extremely subtle, so much so that my wife likened it to the Emperor's New Clothes.
I think she exaggerates. You don't want to use truffles in bold, strong-flavored recipes that would overwhelm their delicacy. But against backdrops of pure, simple flavors of butter and cream, eggs and pasta, even free-range chicken breast, they added an element that I found seductive ... and that went very well indeed with appropriately chosen wines.
I made four small black truffles, about 1/2 ounce (15g) each, last through four meals, keeping the preparations so simple that they don't really need full recipes. Let's just summarize the four procedures in today's column, and if you want more specific advice, please feel free to join in our Food Lovers' forum discussion or contact me by E-mail. (Links below)
TRUFFLED PASTA: In my first experiment, I chose a starkly simple pasta dish. While spaghetti for two was boiling in salted water, I cut one truffle into tiny dice and measured out 2 tablespoons of French butter. I drained the finished pasta, tossed it with the butter and minced truffles over low heat just until the butter melted, then added salt to taste and served. The all but neutral background of pasta and butter showcased the truffle's subtly earthy flavors beautifully, and it made a natural match with Mountain Dome 2001 "Pleasant Prairie" Crystal Pheasant Vineyard Pinot Noir from Washington State.
TRUFFLED OMELET: For my second truffle outing, I went with eggs, which are considered a classic accompaniment. Again keeping things very simple so as to avoid upstaging the truffles, I used four eggs - including the two that had been stored for several days in the truffle jar - to make a very simple, classic French omelet flavored only with salt and pepper and a tablespoon of crème fraïche, stirring one finely minced truffle into the lightly whisked eggs and cooking it quickly in fresh butter over high heat. It was delicious, and would have made a fine match with a drisp, dry white or fruity red; we had a dessert-wine tasting scheduled, so passed on wine with dinner.
ROAST CHICKEN: On the next night I tried using the truffles as a flavor accent in a more substantial dish, "butterflying" a free-range chicken to roast under high heat (starting at 450F and throttling back to 350F when the smoke detectors went off). Before roasting, I sliced a truffle into about a dozen paper-thin rounds and carefully, neatly tucked them under the breast skin on both sides. After roasting, the truffle rounds themselves were delicately earthy and delicious and gave a hint of their subtle aromas to the adjacent breast meat and skin, although I can't claim that the whole bird was suffused with truffle flavor. The chicken and truffles were stunning with both of two good Pinot-based sparkling wines being tasted for future columns, a pricey rosé Brut Champagne and the good-value Gruet Blanc de Noirs Brut from New Mexico.
TRUFFLED RISOTTO MILANESE: One truffle remained on the fourth night, and its fate was obvious: A truffle-scented risotto, made using the rice in which the truffles had nested for the past week. At first I thought about making the simplest possible version, made with stock, butter and rice and no other flavoring but truffle. On second thought, though, I decided that the truffle ought to march in perfect time with the more nuanced but still delicate flavors of a classic risotto Milanese, enhanced with a bit of sweet onion, a dash of saffron, an ounce of grated Parmigiano and plenty of butter, with the finely minced truffle stirred in to cook for only the last minute or two. It was a truly great risotto, and it made a fine match with the leftover Champagne, which had lost none of its fizz after a night in the fridge. (More about that in another column soon.)
My conclusion? My experience with truffles remains so limited that I'm hardly a competent judge, although I do recall a couple of outstanding white-truffle experiences from visits to Piemonte, and some memorable, if tiny, tastes of truffled dishes in France and, rarely, fine restaurants in the U.S., although the latter were likely based on canned product or truffle oil. The Oregon truffles - in contrast with my initial impression - were just subtle enough to justify my wife's jokes about the emperor and his raiment. But she exaggerates, of course. In a delicate but complex "white-on-white" way, they made four memorable dishes and an intriguing kitchen experiment that was worth the price of admission, even if I might not decide to repeat it again any time soon.
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Thursday, Dec. 23, 2004
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