Life has been mean lately… but I’ve found ways to soften it just a bit. This week, I received a pound of black truffles. Not the ganache-filled chocolate kind – I’m talking about the fungus (why does this word seem offensive even when it’s something wonderful?).
I’ll never forget my first encounter with truffles. The smell made me sit up in my chair – my eyes dilated, nose perked, heart rate sped up, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
What was it??? An indescribable aroma that was just… wonderful. Black truffles have a stronger taste whereas white truffles, the famous tartufo bianco di Alba, are much more pungent than they are in taste.
There’s a considerable cost difference between the two. Black truffles, depending on where they’re from (the most prized come from the Perigord region of France and also northern Italy) can cost as little as $100/lb. White truffles can, and often do, fetch more than four times as much. Last November (2006), a Hong Kong tycoon made headlines by paying over $160,000 for one white truffle.
Although truffles grow all year, they require a very particular climate and are mostly known for the fall-winter harvest when they are most mature and fragrant). Truffle season usually begins in early October and can last until March. I won’t bore you with other information – you can read all about them here.
I put the pound of truffles, which I’ve kept buried in a jar of arborio rice (helps keep the truffles dry), to good use. Last night, two foodie friends, Sophie and Jack, who had just returned from a short holiday in the desert, joined me in feasting. We shaved the truffles over everything. It was a simple, but decadent meal.
I literally threw together dinner over a short email correspondence with Francis the day before. Having the truffle-infused arborio rice handy, naturally, I thought of making risotto. It’s extremely labor intensive, but I hadn’t made it in a while; and that arborio rice wasn’t going to get any better just sitting in my pantry after the truffles are gone. Also, my friends wanted to learn how to make risotto – perfect.
What kind of risotto? Details.
Scallops popped to mind. I love how the delicate flavor of a well-prepared sea scallop tastes with truffles. Working off of that, I decided a simple risotto with leeks would be ideal (I dearly wanted add fresh shelled peas too, but being the middle of January, I refuse to use tasteless green pellets from what I call “the robot farmers.” And, frozen is out of the question for this risotto dish. Mushy on mushy is not my idea of good eating.). (I’ll be posting the recipe for this leek risotto in the near future.)
I wanted a vegetable. Cold salads and truffles just don’t work, so I had to come up with something warm. An image of Jean Georges’s gorgeous asparagus starter tugged at me – and I caved pretty easily after I mentally added a poached egg to the mix – with truffles shaved all over, of course. I finished the mental dinner-making when I remembered a recipe I had earmarked as an easy must-try in Michel Richard’s cookbook, Happy in the Kitchen (read more about this cookbooks in this previous post) – “Asparagus on Asparagus.”
We started the evening with a bottle of 2005 Crane Lake Chardonnay and sipped it throughout the laborious hour of patient risotto stirring. The work paid off in a creamy and perfectly al dente risotto. We seared the scallops leaving the centers near-raw and finished the plates tableside with a good dose of freshly shaved Parmesan cheese and, of course, truffles.
The star of the dinner, however, was the asparagus and poached egg. It was sauced with Richard’s asparagus vinaigrette and topped with more shaved black truffles. The asparagus were crisp yet cooked, the sauce (made out of asparagus) was fresh and light, the egg oozed perfectly, and the truffles added the perfect hint of earthy beefiness.
My friends enjoyed the dish so much that I promised them I would post the recipe. So, Sophie, here you are: Michel Richard’s “Asparagus on Asparagus” from Happy in the Kitchen. Oh, and just don’t forget to add the poached egg and black truffles at the end. :)
Asparagus on Asparagus
“Even though every chef in the world has spent a lot of his or her apprenticeship peeling asparagus, if you look at plates when they come back into the kitchen, you will find that usually the customers have eaten the green tops and left the peeled part. That will not happen here because I make a beautiful vinaigrette that gets its body as well as depth of flavor from the puree of asparagus, hence the name Asparagus on Asparagus.”
Serves 4 as a first course or 6 as an appetizer
24 large asparagus
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or to taste
Fine sea salt
Hint: For this presentation, the larger the spears, the better. This is an “interactive” dish – the spears should be picked up and dipped in the vinaigrette.
Set aside 4 asparagus spears for the vinaigrette. Cut off the tough bottom ends of the asparagus spears and set those aside for the vinaigrette as well. With a vegetable peeler, peel the remaining asparagus.
Set a steamer basket in a pot over simmering water. Place the peeled asparagus in the basket, cover, and steam for about 5 to 6 minutes, or until the spears are just tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife. Be careful not to overcook the asparagus.
Meanwhile, fill a bowl with ice water. When the asparagus is cooked, lift the spears with a pair of tongs and submerge them in the ice bath to cool, then remove and roll them in a clean kitchen towel to dry.
For the vinaigrette, cut the reserved 4 asparagus spears into 1-inch pieces. Place in a small saucepan and the trimmed aspagarus bottoms and add 1/4 cup water and the olive oil. Bring to a simmer, cover, and simmer gently for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the asparagus is completely softened. The water should have evaporated, and the asparagus should be steweing in the oil.
Pour the asparagus into a blender and puree until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl and whisk in the mustard, lemon juice and a pinch each of sugar and salt.
Serve the asparagus on a platter, with the vinaigrette in a small dish or ramekin on the side for dipping.