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Taming the beast with truffles

They can, on certain occasions, make women more tender and men more lovable …

Alexandre Dumas

They sure make me more lovable.

Give me several slices and I’ll join a men’s drumming group, strap on a beaded loincloth, engage in collective weeping and let the old anima flow through me like water.

Bring me a whole one, mature and fragrant, and I’ll wear pantyhose.

Bring ‘em on.

Truffles.

Fungus.

Rooted from the earth by pheromone-crazed female pigs or by specially trained dogs eager to get a dry biscuit as a reward.

I don’t care how they’re found, as long as I can eat them.

Show me a menu with “. . . aux truffes” (fill in the blank with whatever harmonious goodie you wish), and I am placing an order. Stat.

I am crazier yet for this rare and expensive food due to the fact it is kind of hard to come by here in Siberia With a View. Have you noticed you don’t find fresh truffles on the shelf in the produce section at the local market?

But, make a trip to the Big City (or, better yet, to Avignon or Lyon), go to a decent restaurant and there, every once in a while, on a menu, you read “ . . . aux truffes.”

Ahhhh.

There’s a couple fine choices when it comes to truffles and the argument rages as to which is superior. You’ve got your basic tuber melonosporum — the black truffle, with its penetrating, pungent flavor — and you’ve got the white, tuber magnatum, with an intensity that surpasses its dark cousin. There are some pretenders, grey and red-grained, but I’m not wearing a goofy outfit and sitting in a sweat lodge to confess my history of insensitivity to the women in my life for one of these. Nope, for me to be more lovable, it’s gotta be black or white. I’ll let the French and Italians battle it out as to which is preferable (and, boy, with their recent military histories, that’d be some kinda fight, wouldn’t it?).

Of course, if you consider the incredible cost of this fungus, (up to $1,000 a pound for the good stuff) I am not going to be more lovable very often, or for very long.

I had the opportunity some time back to indulge my love of this precious fungal knob and to consume some of my fave truffe-kissed fare.

I was in Denver, out on the town with Kathy and our oldest daughter, Aurora Borealis.

Let it be said at the outset: If the company includes me and Aurora, no restaurant is safe. The girl has eaten at incredible establishments in Europe, Asia, South America. She is a food dynamo: She has a deep familiarity with the great cuisines yet can turn on her heel (fairly slowly, to be sure) and put the most accomplished fast-food aficionado under the table. She’s comfortable at a four-star and a drive-thru. Buffets have been known to put up the closed sign when she’s spotted in the parking lot.

She like truffles, too.

So, as we scan the menu at one of our favorite French joints we see two, four-course prix fixe offerings “. . . aux truffes.” Some joints feature all-you-can-eat catfish. This place has Truffle Night, and we’ve hit the jackpot!

Aurora looks like she’s going to faint. Her face is buried in the menu. She is moving her lips as she reads. Then she reads the menu again, aloud, just in case her aging parents can no longer see well enough to scan it themselves.

“Ooooh,” she says, fanning her flushed face with one menu as she reads another. “Truffles everywhere you look. Dear heavens: Oven roasted Mahi Mahi with a beurre blanc enhanced with white truffle oil. Eeek! Risotto with white truffles and shrimp. Oh, mercy: Salade Perigordine with a truffle oil dressing and shaved black truffle. I think I’m going to pass out, Dad. And … tournedos Rossini. Dad, tournedos Rossini. You know what this means?”

Well, yes, I do: It means I am going to be more lovable.

Kathy and I go for the tournedo — one of the most sublime treatments of the tenderloin. Aurora opts for the fish. She and I select the risotto, Kathy the salade Perigordine.

In a word: Incredible.

Well, let’s add another word (if I can be allowed to create a term): Truffly.

Incredibly truffly.

The risotto is superb, creamy, topped by four perfectly cooked shrimps.

Truffly.

I help Kathy with the salad, in particular with the thin slices of black truffle scattered throughout.

Truffly.

And the tournedo? The perfect blend of flavor and fat. Aux truffes.

At first, I decide to punch the dish along with a muscular red but I switch tactics at the last moment, selecting a Provencal blend. It works well, cutting the fat, but not fighting for attention, allowing the luscious concert of flavors to play on the palate.

And there are plenty of flavors in this dish that bears the name of one of my favorite operatic composers, known perhaps more than any other for his love of food

— the Italian, Giacchino Rossini, a guy who honed his taste for wine working Mass as an altar boy. He had more dishes named after him than any other musician, including Rossini Sauce, a blend of foie gras, truffles and demi-glace. He loved food so much he  named compositions after ingredients. He traded arias for paté. One source, Lucie Renaud, writes that Rossini adored turkey stuffed with truffles and cried only three times in his life — the third time being when a turkey stuffed with truffles was lost overboard during a boat trip.

My kinda guy.

I also love Rossini for “The Barber of Seville” and “William Tell,” both of which I first saw as a mere lad. Listen to the overture to “The Barber of Seville” then listen to the opera and see if you can figure what is unusual about the overture.

Anyway, as a regular at a number of Paris restaurants (no doubt those where the words “ . . . aux truffes” appeared on the menu) Rossini was honored with a dish combining the tournedo from the tenderloin, foie gras, toasted bread, veal demi-glace and a splash or so each of Madeira, Port and brandy. Oh … and truffles.

Can life get much better?

No, it can’t.

This beauty can be duplicated at home. At least in part.

I intend to use a filet, halved. Who will argue?

First off, I’ll make a brown sauce, of sorts, reducing a bit of beef stock with a smidge of tomato paste and a substantial wad of veal demi-glace.

I’ll take a medium thick slice of crustless, white country bread and cut it to the same approximate shape as the filet. I’ll toast the slice of bread.

As does nearly any worthy recipe, this one requires butter. I’ll heat a mix of butter and olive oil in a frying pan over high heat and pop in the seasoned meat, searing it well on both sides. I’ll remove the meat to a warm plate and tent it.

I’ll also sear a slice of foie gras the approximate shape of the filet in another pan and drain it on a piece of paper towel. (I have a small can of duck foie gras in the pantry, maybe two years old. It scares me … but I’ll use it.)

Here’s the tricky part. It’s truffes time, and chances are … there ain’t gonna be no truffes hanging around the homestead.

I know I can order them on the Internet, but I can’t afford them. I’ve got a handy-dandy truffle slicer somewhere, that I’ve never used. And I am not going to use it soon.

If you have truffle, slice it thin (black, please) and braise the slices in a bit of butter and a touch of Madeira. Since I won’t have the truffle, I’ll thinly slice some mushrooms and give them the same treatment.

I’ll deglaze the pan in which I seared the meat with about a quarter cup of my brown sauce and add a teensy bit of Port and brandy. I might even throw in a bit more demi-glace, then I’ll reduce the blend a bit.

On the plate goes the round of toast. On top of the toast goes the meat, followed by the foie gras and the mushrooms and sauce.

I’ll pop “The Barber of Seville” on the CD player, break out a bottle of this incredible (and incredibly cheap) Gigondas I came by a couple weeks ago, and I’ll dig in.

But, I still need a truffle fix. And there’s a way I, and you, can get it.

Truffle oil. It has been grossly overused at any number of less-than-decent restaurants for way too long, but, in a pinch …

We’ll side with the Italians here and specify white truffle oil. This we can come by, since it is available from a variety of merchants at a relatively reasonable price.

The best place to use it, aside from a dribble in a salad dressing? With potatoes.

Try it with mashed potatoes, a bunch of Russets simmered, dried over medium heat riced and blended with heavy cream. Then, a major-league wad of unsalted butter and a tablespoon of white truffle oil. A bit of salt and freshly-ground black pepper and the dish is ready. Or, roast some small, red potatoes (halved or quartered, depending on size), greasing them up with a blend of olive oil, truffle oil, salt and pepper. When they’re done, dress them with a mix of white wine vinegar, truffle oil and thyme. Warm them back up for a few minutes and enjoy.

It’s possible to get a truffle fix, even here in Siberia With a View.

I’m ordering a small bottle of truffle oil this week.

And, I’ll think about getting fitted for a loincloth.

I’m going to be oh, so lovable.

This story was posted on December 20, 2012.