If ever you needed proof of the connection between olfaction and taste, consider the truffle.
I’ve done a lot of truffle hunting since moving to Oregon six years ago, and I can’t get past how they turn me into Gargamel every time, unleashing in me an energy and a drive that can keep me digging in the woods for hours on end. Every meal seems a little more special, a little more hard-won when you cook with truffles. It’s not the market price — though Oregon truffles can fetch over $300 a lb. It’s the way they take the feeling that you get from walking through a cathedral of an Oregon forest and transport that feeling to whatever you are eating.
But the thing you are actual cooking with is not taste at all, but the truffle’s scent, a come-hither perfume that smells like sex and earth and rot and musk.
This was my motivation behind my 7 Days of Oregon Truffles. My goal? To experiment with various dishes to see what harnesses the magic of the Oregon truffle most completely. In short, to find a dish worthy of the truffle.
I started this little truffle experiment as a way to interpret an Oregon ingredient in my own household — a kind of meet-and-great of Oregon’s best kitchens with my own. I hope you enjoy these little stories about cooking with Oregon truffles.
Tips: Cooking with Truffles
When you cook with truffles, your mind is challenged to artistry. Your jeans? Challenged to accommodate your zest for life. If you dare to eat truffles for a week, you, too might find the truffle can take over. Your greatest fear becomes nothing from the world outside — news of torture and war and suffering and poverty. The greatest worry of all is that this truffle will go bad and you will have stolen a treasure and let it molder away right under your nose.
Here’s a few generalities about cooking with truffles:
- Keep it simple — too many flavors can overpower with the truffle.
- Make it all about the truffle.
- Use very fat-laden preparations like creams and cheeses.
- Very often, truffle oil is a better alternative to using truffles directly.
- Do not cook with truffles or truffle oil. They are a finishing product.
- Use the truffle at the height of its aromatic powers, when it is ripe.
Day 1: Mushroom Risotto with Truffles
The plates were on the table. The forks were in the hand. Truffles sliced on top.
This is the point when my dear neighbor arrived and got into a heated conversation with my husband about the scientific merits of the film What the Bleep Do We Know. That film is a major intellectual wormhole — pretty much the last thing you’d want to start talking about when you’re preparing to devote all of your attention to your tongue.
I was done with my risotto before my husband even touched his. It wasn’t long before I had drifted into a state of complete and utter bliss — until I got to thinking that maybe these truffles weren’t really truffles at all, but magic mushrooms. Within minutes, I had spaced out completely and was moved, as if ordered by remote control, to take more from the pot.
My husband had a similar, if muted, reaction. Sadly, he has a pretty bad sense of smell because of his allergies, which does affect his truffle experience.
Lesson: Truffles make everything taste better.
They are like little umami catalysts. They are little symphony conductors that force all of the Parmesan, arborio rice, white wine, garlic, onions and mushrooms to play exactly as loud as they should. They are music to my tongue.
Day 2: Asparagus with Truffles
Roasted asparagus, with just a little olive oil — and if you have some on hand, sliced truffles. I generally roast a pound of asparagus (and that’s for two people!), drizzled with a little olive oil, at 375 for about 18 minutes. Last night, I added the sliced truffles with about one minute to go.
They make the asparagus taste like it has just been pulled out of the earth and walked on a plate through the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles . Or, thinking about it another way, this is absolutely the most decadent and charming version of ants on a log that I’ve ever encountered.
Lesson: Not a first choice for truffle use, but if you happen to have too many truffles, go for it.
Day 3: Potato Leek Soup with Truffle Oil
Soups are the great matchmakers of the world. Given time, and the right characteristic properties, they can take two otherwise curmudgeonly ingredients, introduce them, let them mingle, and within a day, they are married and living happily ever after.
For this Truffle Week challenge — a challenge that has been hampered these last few days by some unexpected interruptions — I set out to discover how Oregon Spring black truffles would affect the love-making properties of a French-style potato leek soup.
In a word: Felicity.
Potato leek soup is already a winner without the truffles. Its richness doesn’t overwhelm, but surprises, lingers, and then spreads to throughout the body into an overall sense of well-being.
Lesson: A wholly good use of truffles.
Day 4: Truffle Butter
By now, my jeans were fitting a little tighter, my lap feels a little smaller, and my arteries — if you can feel arteries –are packed. I wasn’t sure I could keep up this exercise. Even if I tempered my truffle-infused, cream-based dishes with a side salad, I’ve been leaving the table feeling like I never want to eat again.
And though I had given away five of the twelve truffles I pulled out of the Oregon forest floor, I was finding that these babies go very, very far and just keep changing with my whims. They are power-packed. They are long distance runners.
To be honest, they are starting to get a little annoying. Truffle Week should probably have been Truffle Night.
On Day 4, I pulled out my old Bayerisches Kochbuch and flipped to the pages for Kartoffelpuffer — potato pancakes, latkes, whatever you want to call them, whatever your culture, these are much-loved street food in Germany and are often served with applesauce. I like mine with sour cream and chives. With a side of pork schnitzel. And a thin smear of truffle butter on top.
I used one of the remaining truffles to make a little canister of truffle butter. Not too difficult, just chopped really small and mixed in soft butter. I’ve been eyeing this French butter dish, or something similar to it, at the Portland Saturday Market. Seems like a better choice than a custard cup.
Lesson: Truffle butter goes great on, well, just about anything.
I’m not sure that I’d try it on sweeter dishes, but I’m sure it can be spread across any manner of baked goods — brownies, savory muffins, whatever.
We should all be happy that no one has come up with truffle potato chips.
Whoops. Too late.
Day 5: Truffle with Pizza
A word about truffle and pizza. If you sprinkle truffles on anything acidic, say, a red sauce on a pizza, you are wasting the truffle Just don’t do it. Epic fail.
Day 6: Spaghetti in a Mushroom Cream Sauce with Truffles
All this sauce took was a little garlic, a lot of butter, a lot of cream, some less-than-worthy button mushrooms from Olympia, WA. The taste, when jazzed up with a tablespoon of Oregon black truffles, is just about enough to bowl me over. It is certainly enough to make me regret eating so much.
I added these truffle shavings at the last moment, after the sauce had boiled to a proper thickness and cooled a bit off the burner. Then I stirred in the truffles and gave them a minute or two to work their truffle magic — you know, the meet and greet I’ve talked about above, which allows the truffles to coax out the right flavors and scents in the other ingredients.
Lesson: This was by far my favorite use of the truffle in my household this week. It got me to shut up and eat.
Day 7: Black Truffle Ice Cream
Ice cream and mushrooms are two mutually exclusive tastes in my book. Luckily, truffles aren’t really mushrooms. They are tubers — but not in the sense of a potato. They are the fruiting body of a species of fungi that propagates itself much like fungi do. Nor are they particularly closerly related to what we normally think of as fungi.
They are really in a class all of their own.
And while I am not one who believes that all strange tastes lend themselves to good ice creams, I can say that truffle ice cream, when made with Oregon spring black truffles, is delicate and interesting enough to be worth the expense of a single truffle.
The recipe I used is from the FOOD Network and calls for “honey cream.” If anyone knows what that is, please enlighten me. I had no idea, and couldn’t find it online, so I just added some honey to some cream.
Truffle ice cream hits the tongue cool and earthy, but then mellows out as the tongue picks up the cream, sugar and honey. The lingering flavor at the end is sweet truffle, which tastes something like mushroomy chocolate that’s been sifted through peat moss.
I must have underestimated myself, because the truffle ice cream grew on me. I ate two bowls. They were small. Still, if given a choice, I’d take a baci gelato or a maracuya sorbet over truffle ice cream any day of the week.
Lesson: Try it, but don’t repeat.
If You Can’t Dig for Truffles: Oregon White Truffle Oil
Assuming you don’t live in Oregon — sorry! — and assuming you don’t live in one of the great truffle-producing regions of the world, you might consider finding other ways to harness the olfactory magic of the truffle.
My favorite is Oregon White Truffle Oil, an artisan product by my adoptive Oregon father Jack Czarnecki and he is the owner and former chef of the Joel Palmer House, the Dayton, Ore. restaurant that arguably uses more domestic truffles than any other in the United States.
Several years ago, Czarnecki passed his toque blanche at the Joel Palmer House to his son Chris, an Iraq War veteran who has been shaking things up and introducing some new dishes to the JPH menu. You can find a recipe of one of his new masterpieces, Angel Hair Pasta with Dungeness Crab, here.
Jack is crazy in the forest. He digs in the dirt with a zeal that can last for hours at a stretch. It is back-breaking labor that never gets old for him — not when he doesn’t find a truffle for two hours, not when the patch he is digging in doesn’t yield. He’s exactly the kind of person I like to attach all of my Oregon dreaming to — a little nuts about what he does, very smart man doing very physical work, a visionary in overalls.
You’ve probably had it on French fries or drizzled on risotto in upscale restaurants. But it wasn’t necessarily the real deal. There’s been a truffle oil backlash of late based on the revelation that most of the oils being used in America are synthetic.
In other words, most people are faking it.
And while I admit that it seems completely ridiculous to get caught up in most foodie rows over authenticity, truffle oil is something I am happy to get angry about.
Jack’s not a faker. He’s developed a system to capture the organic essence of the truffle in an oil in a safe way and is now selling bottles of it for $29.99 for Oregon White Truffles and $34.99 for Oregon Black Truffles from his website.
I hope you enjoyed my week of experimenting with Oregon Truffles. Have you tried them or seen them around? How do you like to use your oil?