The best shave of my life...
It was 1989 and I was about 12 years late to explode on the European continent. But I was determined to make my debut memorable, if not timely. The Goddess aligned my stars, and through some sort of karmic reward for past lives lived well, I arrived in Firenze in late September. Cool nights, sunny afternoons, and all the visual, scenic and masculine delights mentioned in my initial blog. Slather this with a thick layer of the Uffizi, Il Duomo, Plaza Republica, La Acadamia, Il Bargello, and the fabulous retail therapy available; this young queer(relatively) had his eyes bitch slapped open, and had no choice but to sit back, dazed and contented.
Traveling solo was my style at the time, and I'm oh so glad it was. I had no reason not to chat to the handsome man next to me, take a bus to Fiesole with him, and wander the Roman ruins there. And then a personal guided tour after sundown through the history drenched neighborhoods of Florence.
"What do you enjoy about living in New York? Oh, by the way, this was Dante's house." .........
But fine dining alone, was another table to conquer. Happily my tour guide was the lean and hungry type, Italy by way of Shakespeare. And I'd never want to be the ugly American.
Restaurant Le Fonticine had been recommended by the executive chef whom I worked under at this time. He was my mentor, so who was I to question? The white truffle from Alba was the second notch on my passport I'd hoped to accomplish. With notch #1 in front of me, it was time to sit back, relax and mangia.
When the waiter informed us that the first truffles of the season had arrived and that the chef's fettuccini al tartufo bianchi was available that evening, it took massive self restraint to prevent myself from giggling like a schoolgirl. I'm sure the rest of the meal was exquisite, but the pasta that night was spiritual. 17 years later and I still remember how the aroma wafted up as the truffle shavings landed on the hot fettuccini. And I still laugh at my moment of naiveté, wondering if I was supposed to signal the waiter "enough" as he shaved the precious knob onto my pasta. As if he was grinding black pepper over a salad. I knew I'd have been emotionally incapable of stopping the supply.
White truffles are high on the list of precious ingredients for several reasons. Primarily because they remain one of the very few truly seasonal ingredients, available generally from mid September through December. They have so far eluded all attempts at domestication. Like caviar, the demand for truffles has far outpaced the harvest which has pushed the price far beyond most people's realm of possibility, except of those once or twice in a lifetime's exceptions.
When confronted with my young kitchen crew's open mouthed disbelief that any food could cost $2,500 a pound, AND that it could be worth it, I'm hard pressed to be able to justify it myself. When they ask me what it tastes like, I smile and say "Well, mushrooms, and the earth, and ..., and Sex. To me, it smells like flat out, sweaty, balls to the wall sex."
And you do taste truffles by smell. Somehow it passes from your mouth right up to your nose and mingles, does a little tango on your tongue and then you just have to smile.
Next I'll warm a little pasta, or scrambled eggs or potato, drizzle a little truffle oil over it and give my crew a taste. "This is as close as I can come right now. Not the same, but it'll give you an idea." Some get it, especially the ones who cook from passion, and not from paycheck. And of course, some don't get it. "This is not Sex to me!"
Back in the day when I used to cook for the wealthy and wannabees, I'd get to play with fresh white truffles every other autumn or so. But those days have passed me by, and that's not all bad. These days I need to content myself with lesser forms of the tuber, as I suspect do most of you. For me, truffle oil and truffle butter are the best ways to introduce the sexy muskiness of Tuber Magnatum Pico to your cooking. When I was in Bologna this year, I was also able to pick up a salt with black truffle that is a great product, though I haven't seen anything of its quality here in NYC. Also note that there is enormous variety of quality in truffle products. Once you have a brand you enjoy, stay loyal to it. I've always been disappointed by truffle "bargains".
Since we're going to be playing with truffle "products", we're not limited to the seasonality of truffles, but it's amazing how truffle flavor has an affinity for other autumn ingredients; wild mushrooms, nuts, duck, etc.
Here's one hors d'oeuvre idea and a soup.
Cured Duck Breast with Truffled Chevre and Fig
Clean a duck breast magret, remove and reserve the skin. In a bowl, combine equal parts sugar and salt, with any other seasonings you want, I use chopped garlic, bay leaf, thyme and crushed juniper berries. Coat both sides of the duck breast with the mixture, return scored duck skin to cover breasts and store, covered in refrigerator for 24 - 36 hours. Scrape seasonings from duck breast, cover with duck skin and roast at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes or until internal temperature is 125 degrees. Discard duck skin and set aside to cool
Stir a tablespoon or so of truffle oil into 5 oz of good Montrachet style goat cheese. Set aside
Cut 6"-8" crepes crossways into quarters. In one piece of crepe, spread a small amount of the truffled chevre near the center. Place a thin slice or two of duck breast and a sliver of fresh fig. Fold the tip of the crepe over the filling, and then roll tightly leaving the curved edge on top. Repeat.
Left over duck meat is great in salads.
Truffled Wild Mushroom and Hazelnut Soup with Madeira Foam
This is inspired by a recipe by Joyce Goldstein
Clean and roughly cut a mixture of white, wild and exotic mushrooms. Set aside. Warm olive oil and truffle butter in a small soup pot. Sauté chopped shallots. When shallots are translucent add the reserved mushrooms, some chopped fresh thyme, a bit of salt and pepper and chicken stock to cover. Reduce heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes. While soup is cooking, toast a handful or so of hazelnuts. When toasted, cool slightly and then rub in a clean kitchen towel to remove skins. Cool completely and then grind as finely as possible in a food processor. When mushrooms are completely cooked, strain, reserving liquid. In a good blender (the better the blender, the better this soup comes out), blend the mushrooms, ground hazelnuts and a few cups of the reserved broth. When the mixture is smooth, begin to add more of the stock until it is all incorporated. Season with additional salt and pepper as needed. Soup may be made 1 day in advance of serving.
When ready to serve, rewarm the soup, adding additional stock if necessary, and a few spoons full of sour cream or creme fraiche. In a separate bowl, lightly whip heavy cream with a small amount of Madeira and a few pinches of salt. It should just get foamy, beginning to hold a shape but no more.
Pour soup into bowls. Drizzle lightly with truffle oil, and garnish with Madeira foam. Garnish with fine chopped chives and serve
Hope this gives you some ideas and inspiration my pretties. Soon we'll be finishing up on autumn's flavors. What's next? You'll have to come back.