Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Eat Something Sexy

Chef and contributor Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans gives us a primer on the truffle.

It’s customary to give your love a box of chocolate truffles to express your feelings, but if you really want to woo her, offer a heart-shaped box of fungus instead. I’m referring, of course, to that elusive and most coveted of mushrooms, the truffle.

A most enigmatic foodstuff, truffles are a source of mystery and lore. They boldly give forth a scent that has lured both man and pig for centuries—a unique, ethereal odor of deep woods and musk that to some is overly-pungent or even repulsive, but there is no denying our fascination with them.

Until quite recently, it was impossible to cultivate truffles with much success. Despite recent revelations in the inoculation process (filbert trees can be inoculated with truffle spores that may then produce truffle “crops”), most truffles in Oregon are still hunted by skilled foragers who search them out, with or without the aid of dogs, in the damp winter orchards and forests of the state. Their prize for hours spent digging in the dirt is the crown jewel of the mushroom world.

Truffle risotto.

Working with Springwater Farm at several farmers' markets, I've come to recognize two distinct sets of shoppers—those in the know about truffles and those that are curious but have no idea what to do with these peculiar savory-scented black and white orbs (that's KAB, excited but puzzled, in the top photo). So I offer you a very basic truffle tutorial:

First: yes, truffles are a luxury, but a more affordable one. Don’t be put off entirely by their price tag. They are lightweight, and each is powerfully perfumed. A little goes a long way. Look for truffles that are dry and have a pleasing scent. A wet truffle is a sign that it is about to go to the dark side, as has a very unpleasant, fetid odor. Truffles do grow underground, so a little earth can be expected. Just shy away from specimens that are caked with dirt – you don’t want to pay a premium for soil.

Second: protect your investment. Use them when they are at their peak. Don’t wait. Remember that dark side I mentioned? Well, they tend to head fast into it once they’ve ripened. If you aren’t ready to use them when they are ready to be used, just chop them up and add them to an amount of softened butter and season with salt. You can then put the truffle butter in the freezer where it will keep for several months.

Roger Konka of Springwater Farm as the truffle fairy.

OK, you’ve found your source, they are ripe and ready, now what the heck do you do with these things? Essentially, they are a finishing ingredient. Shave them over a mushroom risotto or add a lump of truffle butter to good quality fettuccine, then shave a little truffle over the top. Stir chopped truffle into scrambled eggs. Truffles marry well with root vegetables, too. Toss very thin slices of truffle with hot cooked potato and butter or olive oil (or roasted roots such as rutabaga or parsnips), or stir chopped truffle into a cream of sunchoke or celery root soup.

Truffled popcorn is pretty decadent—toss hot popped corn with truffle butter and truffle salt (the salt is made by Norma Cravens when truffles are in season and is available at Springwater Farm). I’ve included a couple of my favorite simple truffle recipes below. Keep in mind that the most common faux pas with these earthy gems is to overheat them. Truffles, though pungent, are delicate beings. Their scent is accentuated by gentle warming, but is quickly destroyed by intense heat.

Chef Kathryn can offer advice and chop at the same time.

Still have truffle questions? I offer sage culinary advice this winter at the Urban Farm Stand on NE 30th and Emerson, one block south of Killingsworth, Saturdays through March 13th from 10 am to 3 pm, and at the Hillsdale Farmers Market on Sundays at the Springwater Farm booth, where, incidentally, you can find amazing truffles.

Truffled Shirred Egg with Soft Herbs

A shirred egg is a gently baked egg. Truffles and soft herbs make this ordinary egg extraordinary. Serve with a slice of good quality rustic country bread, such as ciabatta.

Butter or truffle butter to coat the baking dish
1 egg
Truffle salt or kosher salt
Truffle (black or white)
A few soft herbs (small leaves of parsley, chervil, tarragon, and small sticks of chive)

Preheat an oven to 350°.

Coat a very small baking dish with butter (the dish should just accommodate the cracked egg). Crack the egg into the dish and season with truffle salt. Place the dish in the oven and bake until the egg is just set (check after 5 minutes, keeping in mind that the egg will take a bit of time to begin cooking, but will then move along quite quickly). Shave a generous amount of truffle over the egg, decorate with herbs and sprinkle with truffle salt.

Truffle Bruschetta
Adapted from Lidia Bastianich

2 thick slices rustic bread (such as ciabatta)
A black or white truffle
1/2 of an anchovy fillet (optional)
Enough butter to blend into the truffle (about 2 Tbsp.), room temperature
Truffle salt or kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350°. Lay the bread slices flat on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for about 4 minutes or so, turn the slices over and toast on the other side for about 4 minutes until they are light gold. Cool on a wire rack.

Brush the truffle clean with a kitchen towel or vegetable brush. With a sharp vegetable peeler, a mandoline or a truffle slicer, shave off about a dozen slices of truffles onto a sheet of waxed or parchment paper. Finely chop or grate the rest of the truffle (the fine holes of a box grater work well). Put the butter and anchovy in a mini-food processor and pulse until smooth. Fold in the grated truffle and season with truffle salt.

Spread the butter onto the toasted bread. Garnish with the truffle slices and serve immediately.


Norma Cravens said...

It takes a real man to be a truffle fairy!

Kathleen Bauer said...

I totally agree with you there, my friend! And Mr. Konka has it!