Friday, December 9, 2011

In the Kitchen | Mushrooms & White Truffles

So this little undertaking all began when Gilt Taste had an unexpected sale on white truffles (of course, applicable only to the tiny pieces at 70% off) that Lisa stumbled upon. She brought it to my attention, debating whether or not she should even try to get some. It was pretty hard to pass up -- I mean, 1 ounce (28 grams total) came out to be a total of $78 as a result of the sale. When we came to the mutual decision to go for it (we decided to have a very intimate pasta party for which to use these said truffles -- that is, just the two of us, haha), we should have known we had dawdled for too long. They were sold out on the sale! It didn't discourage us, though. With white truffles on the noggin, we decided to splurge. Lisa knew Eataly would have them, so she sent me on a mission to get an ounce's worth of white truffles.

{1} Eataly, the home of fine Italian food! I normally wouldn't really go here, especially now during the holidays, because it's a madhouse laden with so many people and tourists which makes it difficult to maneuver around and shop for whatever it is I may need. But with getting white truffles, I had to make an exception! {2} I was directed to the freshly made pasta counter, where I could find these nuggets of fragrant beauty. At Eataly, they were going for $9.25 per gram (!) and were imported from the famed Piedmont region of Italy. Sitting right next to the white truffles were the black ones, which were going for a fraction of that at $1.50 per gram. The price differential is due to the increased rarity of the white truffles in comparison to the black ones (more on this later). {3} Once the pieces (two, to be exact) that I selected to purchase were finalized with the gentleman behind the counter, he gave me a slip of parchment paper with the product description and the calculated cost written in white wax pencil (also a huge fan of those!). He told me to bring this paper to check-out as I had to pay for the truffles before he could give it to me to take home. Wow, talk about really intense security measures -- they don't mess around when it comes to these truffles (and rightfully so)!

I left the store with this small little package wrapping the two white truffle nuggets inside. Their (pleasantly, depending on who you ask) pungent smell wafted through my shopping bag all the way home. Following the instructions I was given about storage, I put it in my refrigerator in a cold and dry area. The refrigerator now gives off grand whiffs of white truffles every time I open it. Some may not like that, but I'm not complaining here :D!

Just wanted to interject with a little history lesson about white truffles. The white truffle, also referred to as Alba madonna, almost exclusively (there are other places, but very few and far between) from the Piedmont region of northern Italy, most famously in the countryside around the cities of Alba (from where Alba madonna originates) and Asti. White truffles grow symbiotically with oak, hazel, poplar, and beech trees with a peak fruiting period in the fall season (very fleeting period, it seems). An ideal harvest of white truffles (size, flavor, and aroma) is contingent on environmental factors, such as moisture, weather, tree species and age, soil type, proximity to the roots and tree trunk, and area insects. The right combination of these factors will yield a flesh that is pale cream or brown with white marbling. There are pigs, and in recent years, dogs, who forage for them when they are in their prime season.

However, over the last fifteen years, "there are fewer of them, and of lesser quality, every year" thanks to "global warming and the leeching of fungicides into the soil, among other things." John Magazino of Primizie Fine Foods, one of the leading truffle importers in the country, has talked about this general decline, emphasizing that "the market just has to live with that, because truffles can't be faked or formulated." Which brings me to why they are priced so steeply and hard to find. Unlike the white truffle, the "inferior" black (Périgord) truffle can be cultivated, which explains the price differential that I saw at Eataly ($9.25 versus $1.50 per gram!). As such, "there is no other way to get white ones except to set pigs and dogs loose on the hills of Piedmont, snorting with pleasure and excitement at the thought of finding precious fungi that their owners won't allow them to eat." Even French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin called these truffles the "diamond of the kitchen" in his writings.
So what did we make so that we could enjoy our white truffles to their highest potential? Lisa and I went a little crazy on the mushrooms involved -- after all, truffles are "underground mushrooms" and very much related to the beloved fungi.

We decided to go with Buitoni's pre-made wild mushroom agnolotti (thanks to Linda for this wonderful recommendation) paired with the mushroom gravy base from Williams-Sonoma to be mixed in with some mushroom broth. This was to be followed with a porcini mushroom risotto, the course of which Lisa took ownership during our mini-cooking party. I got the dried porcinis and arborio rice from Whole Foods.

While I was at Eataly, I picked up two bottles of wine -- one for each pasta dish we were going to make. This first bottle (a half bottle, actually) was a Moscato d'Asti produced by La Spinetta from Asti of the Piedmont region in Italy with a 2011 vintage. Moscato d'Asti is a semi-sweet, semi-sparkling wine made from the muscat grape. I thought since this wine (a nice one to start out our meal) is from the Piedmont region, just like our white truffles, that they'd be a good pairing. After doing some subsequent research, I found out that the wine has a floral notes and a grape-y aroma that should mellow the pungent aromatic from the truffle itself, creating a sensation on the tongue that is only made better with the sparkle from the bubbles. So glad that my instincts worked in my favor there (well, maybe except for the possibility of wine pairing better with the porcini mushroom risotto, as the article directly cites and includes that very recipe)!

So I decided we should start with the wild mushroom agnolotti because it is the least time-consuming. Four to six minutes in boiling water with a little extra virgin olive oil until tender and soft. The accompanying sauce I made using the recipe included with the mushroom gravy base -- mix one part gravy base and one part mushroom stock in a small sauce pan until thoroughly combined and to your desired consistency. It was a bit on the watery side, so we added one to two tablespoons of butter for a slightly creamier consistency.

The time finally came -- it was finally time to unwrap the white truffles. Sound the trumpets! Unveil the curtain! Lo and behold -- the "Pearl of Alba" in its earthy and marbled glory!

Yup, there's Lisa nearly giving me a heart attack by jokingly attempting to eat the whole white truffle. That would've been a Benjamin down the drain! :P

When I was at Eataly, I asked the person behind the fresh pasta counter how the white truffles should be served and if he had any recommendations for kitchen tools I could pick up in store. He said that they sell a truffle shaver that runs about $30 to $40, but that a cheese grater should be sufficient enough to get the desired texture and taste. The graters they had at Eataly were either too pricey or not to my liking. So when I was at Whole Foods, I saw this red fold-flat grater by Joseph Joseph for sale in the kitchen tool section. It was exactly what I had in mind, plus it's storage-savvy for a city-sized kitchen. It was about $20, which was on the pricier side, but I was willing to pay a premium for it due to its collapsing feature.

Lisa, delicately grating our first white truffle over the wild mushroom agnolotti with a portabella-porcini mushroom gravy sauce. The aroma was making us hungrier by the second, for sure!

Getting every last shaving in -- nothing will go to waste at $9.25 per gram!

And voilà! Freshly grated white truffle over wild mushroom agnolotti in portabella-porcini mushroom gravy sauce! Talk about mushroom overload, but we didn't care -- we were all for the fungi-filled experience. It was my first time ever making the Buitoni wild mushroom agnolotti, and I was delightfully surprised at how great it tasted given that it was pre-made, pre-packaged pasta! It was bursting with mushrooms in its starchy pillows only with a little cheese for texture and taste. I liked how there wasn't more cheese than there were mushrooms, giving the opportunity for the agnolotti to boast its richly-filled center of mushrooms. The gravy sauce had the ideal consistency -- not overly watery, but not overly thick -- primarily because the mushroom broth leveled out the otherwise creamy thickness, while the butter was a nice addition to give it slightly more depth. The shaved white truffles were explosive with the mushroom-happiness of our starter course -- umami coming at you from all sides and angles! The wine pairing was pretty spot-on as well -- the light, crisp sweetness balanced out the heartiness and richness of the agnolotti.
So yay for truffled mushroom success!

For the risotto, we soaked half the bottle of dried porcinis -- so fragrantly earthy -- in hot water for about 20 minutes, until they became soft and expanded. We saved the mushroom-soaked water to use for risotto absorption liquid. The porcinis then were chopped into small pieces and set aside.

Lisa minced a bunch of garlic cloves and a medium-sized shallot to start the risotto. In a small stockpot, Lisa poured about 2/3 of a carton of low-sodium chicken broth and kept it on medium-low heat, simmering. The minced garlic and chopped shallots were then sautéed together with extra virgin olive oil and a tablespoon of butter in a deep pan/skillet until soft and translucent, followed by adding the chopped porcinis. Once mushrooms were mostly cooked, she added a cup of arborio rice and sautéed until the grains were translucent, about 3 minutes. Next, add in chicken stock 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly between each addition and waiting until all chicken stock is absorbed before adding next 1/2 cup. During one addition of stock, instead of using chicken stock, we used 1/2 cup of porcini soaking water for some more flavor. For seasonings throughout, she used chives, a little oregano, basil, parsley, a little lemon pepper, Kosher salt, and freshly ground pepper. When all the chicken stock has been added and the rice is cooked through, she removed the pot off the heat and added a tablespoon of butter.

Here's the finished porcini mushroom risotto, pre-shaved white truffles. Look at those tiny, brown morsels!

The second bottle of wine I picked up from Eataly was a Barolo produced by Casa E di Mirafiore, also from the Piedmont region of Italy, with a 2007 vintage. After doing some initial research, I found that old Barolos are favorable to pair with white truffles. White truffles (particularly the ones we purchased at Eataly) and Barolos share the same soil, or better put, terroir. Terroir is essentially the combination of factors -- including soil, climate, and environment -- that gives a wine its distinctive character. It should be no surprise, then, that Barolos are typically paired with white truffles. From bottles of Barolo that I've seen in wine stores that I frequent often, this one seemed to be reasonably priced around $38, so I figured if we were gonna go all the way with the truffles, we should probably go all the way with the pairing, too -- reasonably, that is.

Shaving our second (and last) white truffle over the porcini mushroom risotto.

Grating in action!

And voilà once more -- porcini mushroom risotto with freshly shaved white truffle. Lisa did a great job with the risotto -- it had an al dente texture with a creamy finish. The mushrooms certainly enriched the dish very much, allowing for the white truffle to mesh well with the existing familial, earthy flavors. The aroma and taste of the white truffle was more concentrated this time around primarily due to the larger size of the second white truffle, and the Barolo did a great job accenting those flavors with a bold, velvety finish and subtle tannins. Smashing success for the risotto, too!

Findings: Given our love of white truffles (Lisa got me hooked!) and our resulting delicious success, we have officially dubbed this to become an annual affair (which I will refer to as the Annual Truffle Supper) during white truffle season! Though it was quite the splurge on the two precious white truffles we used in our two pasta courses, Lisa and I both had a great time together, cooking and enjoying the aromatics and earthy taste of the shaved white truffles -- something we haven't got to do much at all until recently -- making the splurge totally worth it! The Italian wine pairings for our Truffle Supper were also lovely, too, which encourages me to be more attentive when it comes to wine pairings as opposed to just going with the oversimplified rule of thumb (i.e., reds with meats, whites with fish and poultry, etc.). As you can see, the cooking techniques involved and the pairings I made aren't very complex at all -- it's all something feasible in any kitchen as my city kitchen was just fine for us.

Yes, we're crazy -- we're already thinking about next year's Annual Truffle Supper. Lisa and I are planning to do a variation on mac 'n cheese, perhaps with wild mushrooms, topped with shaved white truffles (mmm!). The other course is still up in the air (maybe a raviolo or egg dish), but hey, we have another three seasons to think about it!

Much thanks to Lisa for contributing the glorious white truffles to our dinner! Looking forward to next year already!

Price point: $222 for approximately 24 grams / 1 oz. white truffles, $10.50-$38.50 for each bottle of Italian wine, $10.95 for Williams-Sonoma mushroom gravy base, $4.99 for one package of Buitoni wild mushroom agnolotti (via or Food Emporium), $6.99 for 1.25 oz. of dried porcinis.

--December 5, 2011

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New York, NY 10010

Whole Foods Market
10 Columbus Circle
New York, NY 10019


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