The Truffle Enigma, Part Two, The Feasting

25 05 2010

White truffles and Gouda

I posted a couple of weeks ago about my trip to Portland, and the fab local truffles that I tasted at an in-depth truffle class with Jack Czernecki.

Well, the story didn’t end there. I had lamented the fact that I had found a new truffle to love, but alas, Portland may as well be Italy, when it comes to buying its truffles. In a tremendous act of generosity, Mr Czernecki reached out to relieve my distress. Within days, a package arrived at my doorstep, packed with four precious white truffles and a bottle of Oregon white truffle oil.

You’ve gotta love this job.

So, I began the process of ripening the truffles, and infusing a couple of wedges of gouda with their scent. Jack had advised me to keep them in a paper towel, and to change the paper as it became damp.

In honor of the truffles, the beginning of summer, and the completion of a huge recipe development project, I decided to invite the recipe testers who had pitched in to help over for a party. Then I began to ponder, what to serve with the truffles?

While I have catered many a party with passed appetizers and plated multi-course meals, when I entertain, I like to be able to enjoy myself. So, stirring risotto and forming gnocchi were out- I needed something easy that would hold in the chafer. I settled on mac and cheese. The richest mac and cheese I could make, with mild but tasty cheese that would form the perfect rich, warm base to release the scent of thinly shaved truffles.

The morning of the party, I went to my farmers market and picked up the best seasonal, local foods around. Organic asparagus and spinach just plucked from the soil, Italian and Shiitake Mushrooms from Birch River Farm, Mary Falk’s handmade cheeses, Whole wheat baguette and walnut whole wheat sour bread from the New French Bakery, and for the pescetarians, some natural, pond-raised smoked trout.From my garden, rhubarb, sorrel, parsley, mint and thyme.

With food like that, you really just stand back and let it speak. That and serve champagne.

It was fun to use my Italian truffle shaver and share the story of the truffle with my guests. We all had a great time, but I don’t know if the reputed aphrodisiac effect of truffles affected any of them. The Oregon whites are very similar to Italian whites, but not as intense. It takes a little bit more to get the full face-ful of truffle smell, and it is an experience I recommend highly!

For more on the food and the party, check out the excellent blog of party-goer Crystal Grobe.

Here is the basic recipe for the truffle mac and cheese.

4 Tbs Butter

2 bay leaves

1 cup caramelized onions ( I did them ahead and kept them in the freezer)

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 cup unbleached flour

1 quart half and half

1 cup cream

1 pound goat gouda, shredded

1 pound fontina, shredded

salt, pepper, and generous pinch cayenne

2 pounds curly cavatappi

2 fresh white truffles, real white truffle oil

1. Put on a big pot of water for the pasta. In a 6 quart pot, melt the butter and add the caramelized onions. Saute over medium heat until warm and almost dry. Sprinkle over the flour, stirring and scraping. Cook for about five minutes, lowering the heat to keep it from sticking. Take off the heat and gradually add half and half, using your spatula to work it in a little at a time. Switch to a whisk as you add. Whisk in the cream. Over medium heat, bring to a bare simmer, whisking. Don’t boil. Let it bubble a bit, it should thicken a little. Take off the heat and whisk in the cheeses. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Hold in a warm spot.

2. Cook the pasta, drain well, and mix with the sauce. This made almost two half-pans for a chafer. To serve later, chill, covered, then bake covered just to warm. To serve, drizzle truffle oil over the dish, then thinly shave truffles over each serving.

truffle mac and cheese

My honored guests, Deanne Klevander, Crystal Grobe (of cafe cyan blog fame), (me) Kris Vick, and Marge Porter


Meatless Mondays, Or Meatless Eight Days a Week

21 05 2010

Simple, Tasty, Meatless

You may have heard the news, just a week or so ago the Meatless Monday movement got a big boost from yet another celebrity endorsement. Mario Batali climbed on the meatless-once-a-week wagon, and it now offering vegetarian food on Mondays at all 15 of his restaurants.

The growth of Meatless Mondays is a wonderful thing. The movement officially started in 2003, but people have been eating meat-free meals forever.

Batali is just the latest big name to join the group, with Michael Pollan, Al Gore, Sir Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Simon Cowell and Gwyneth Paltrow among their supporters.

The meatless day has been adopted by the Baltimore Public School System, and about 30 college campuses. Rumor has it that Manhattan schools are moving toward a city-wide meatless Monday program, as well.

These days, the folks who are going to go all the way vegan or vegetarian know who they are. It’s the massive, undecided majority that needs a little nudge. Just skip one meat a week, that sort of thing. Sure, chefs like me have been in the front lines of spreading the word about vegetarian goodness, but when a celeb like Mario Batali starts suggesting that you try his meat-free pasta, people will do it.

So in honor of Mr Batali, I think we should serve a meat-free Italian dish to our next gathering of family or friends. Italian food is the most popular cuisine on Earth, if our massive pizza habit is any indication. Pizza sans carne is absolutely traditional and delicious. Pasta with veg-based sauces and cheese couldn’t be more love-able. Or to go vegan, try the bean-cuisine of Tuscany, with plant-based minestrones, white bean crostini or a simple herbed bean salad with lots of extra virgin olive oil.

It’s springtime, and a great time to do a simple roast of the best local asparagus. Just snap off the bottoms of the spears, put them on a sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil, and roast at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. When the tips get brown and crisp and the stalks look slightly shriveled, they are ready. A sprinkling of sea salt and you are good to go. These can also be added to a plate of pasta-just cook angelhair while the stalks roast, then toss it with chopped parsley, garlic, lemon zest and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes, then add the asparagus when it is ready. A topping of your tangiest local grass fed cheese or a handful of minced toasted walnuts will complete the meal.

I don’t see anything missing, do you?
Veggie Pasta With Gremolata Sauce

We Are The Champions! Americans Consume the Most Packaged Food

10 05 2010

Is it the Chopping, is a Little Slicing Too Much Work?

The surveys are in. We are the champions.

According to Euromonitor International and the USDA, US consumers top out the charts by consuming the most packaged food per capita. In fact, our packaged purchases outnumber our fresh ones by 31%. Yes, we are truly excellent at buying and consuming 787 pounds per year of frozen dinners, packaged snacks, and other convenient but usually unhealthy foods. Compare that with China, with the Spartan total of 116 pounds per person, not including bulk rice. India kept it lowest with only 39 pounds.

That breaks down to 2.15 pounds of packaged food per day, on average. It’s possible that could be wholesome whole grain cereal and milk, canned vegetable soup, and frozen vegetables for dinner. That would not be so bad. But if it’s sugar bombs for breakfast, frozen pizza for lunch, bags of potato chips and big plastic bottles of soda for snacks, we are looking at the paradox of wealth in this country. We have food everywhere, and cheap, packaged food is ubiquitous.

Vegetarians are not immune to this syndrome. Witness the proliferation of fake meats, weird burgers and frozen vegetarian meals. Making the switch to a meatless diet should mean eating more vegetables, at least. Don’t be a junk food vegetarian-chips and bars are not for daily meals.

On the other side of the equation, The US consumer bought 602 pounds of fresh food, 194 of that in vegetables. Compare that with China again, where consumers consumed 1,034 lbs of fresh food, 609 of those pounds in vegetables. That means the average Chinese citizen ate 415 more pounds of vegetables in a year than the average American.

That is alot of stir-fry.

Looking at this data, I know that it can be misleading. We do buy plenty of wholesome food in packages. Americans like clean and tidy, sanitary plastic bags and boxes of stuff. Our grocery stores are set up to stock the dried beans in plastic bags on the bottom shelf, not in bulk bins. Oats come in boxes with resealable tops.

It’s the junk food that is over the top. We make it just too easy to live on grease, salt and sugar, right out of the package.

Just for today, take a look at what you are buying and consuming. Ask yourself if it would really take that much more effort to cut up some vegetables and put them in a pan. Frozen pizza takes at least 30 minutes, if you pre-heat the oven. In that time you can cook quinoa and saute some veggies.

Is there really no time to cook? Is there anything that you are spending time on that might be less important than making sure that you eat real food?

Walk away from twitter, turn off the email, go ahead and cook with the TV on, if it pleases you. Just cook for your self and your family.

You will never look back on your deathbed and say, I wish I had spent less time cooking. I promise.

The Enigmatic Oregon Truffle on National Truffle Day

2 05 2010

Can't you just smell it?

I first had real, full on fresh and fragrant truffles in Tuscany. It was life-altering, entering restaurants during truffle season, where an intoxicating scent seemed to hover in the air. Ordering a plateful of gnocchi with white truffles was like participating in a bacchanal that dated back into the ancient Roman days. The warm, pillowy dumplings were brought to the table, where a sturdy Italian man would unwrap a knobby white truffle from a length of cloth, then thinly shave it over the steaming gnocchi until the plate was covered. The heat from the dumplings and their creamy sauce warmed the paper-thin truffles, releasing their intense, mushroomy magic, forming a plume of the most intriguing smell.

It was especially gratifying to have such a decadent, gourmet food that was totally vegetarian. No prosciutto, no foie gras-these little fungi are sought after the world over for their plant-based allure.

We were hooked. I brought back jars of truffle paste, truffle oils, and a craving for truffles. I was soon to find out, truffles are an expensive and often disappointing addiction. A fresh Italian truffle in season can set you back a few hundred dollars, and if you aren’t careful, it might have already lost its powers by the time you get it. Truffle oils were exposed some years ago as fakes- chemists figured out the one compound needed to mimic the truffle, and they manufacture it by the tanker load. I heard rumors of domestic truffles, but had never seen one, and wondered if they were some kind of myth.

So when I had a chance to take a class on Oregon truffles, while I was in Portland for the IACP conference, I signed up. The instructor, Jack Czarnecki is a scientist, chef, and truffle maniac, who shared his knowledge and some tasty samples. I now know that the fake truffle oil is made by adding 2.4-dithiapentane, a gas that occurs in real truffles. It is not listed on any label, and often called “truffle flavor” or “truffle aroma” to make you think you are buying the real thing. Using olive oil or adding tiny shavings of real, dried truffle are ways the manufacturer camouflages the ruse. Jack was of the opinion that most people like the fake just fine, but it’s not the same.

And the Oregon truffles?

Cousins to the European varieties we love, the Oregon truffles have their own unique needs to grow, and they are quite different, and lovely, to smell and eat.

We always hear of truffle pigs and dogs, used to find the truffle in Europe, where the truffle grows under a few inches of dirt, at the base of certain trees. Oregon truffles grow near Fir trees, and nestle just under the “duff” of fallen needles and leaves. Jack says a dog is unnecessary, just watch for squirrels, who are drawn to the smell of the ripening truffles. A small rake is all that is needed to harvest the stash. According to Jack, one of the problems with these truffles is that they can be harvested too soon, before the scent is in full flower, and sold to unsuspecting buyers.

After examining the truffles, we were treated to a tasting of white and black Oregon truffles, a French white truffle oil, and a fake. We also indulged in a hunk of gouda that had been infused with black truffle scent by storing the two in a bag.

My truffle sampling, I couldn't wait to eat the cheese

So did they stack up? The Oregon white truffle is similar to the white truffle of Italy, but less intense. It has floral and herbal scents that add depth and complexity that is subtly enticing. My favorite were the black, which has an intense bouquet, with all the funk of truffle plus mango, chocolate and an earthy note. Jack’s infused oils were a good way to taste them, but I wished I could have had them scattered on a hot plate of gnocchi.

Of course we could all tell which one was the fake, with a single, strong scent that hit you over the head.

Still, I am very pleased that I got to experience such a taste of place, a unique food that grows nowhere else in exactly the same way. I recommend trying them if you can get them.

Or ordering Jack’s oil from

So Different from European