White truffles, cuisine’s ‘white diamonds’

IN THE KITCHEN by Pat Tanner:  Simple to spectacular recipes for the exclusive fungi from master chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman.

   They are nicknamed "white diamonds." They grow exclusively in Italy and northern Croatia, and are harvested only from mid-October to mid-December, where they are rooted out from under trees by specially trained dogs. They are selling in our area for $135 an ounce — considerably less than in past years. Not bad for a fungus whose signature aroma has been likened to cabbage, onions, garlic, moldy cheese and worse.


Courtesy of Ruth Alegría
Princeton’s own Ruth Alegría with renowned restaurateur Sirio Macchioni of Le Cirque 2000. On the tray before them are a king’s ransom of white truffles.

   These are, of course, white truffles, or Tuber magnatum, which are rarer and hence even more expensive than the black variety. Connoisseurs agree that the best white truffles come from the area around the Piedmontese city of Alba, and swear their essence is sweeter than the black, which seems paradoxical when talking about an aroma that is earthy.
   As white truffles are a luxury, they are perfect for festive occasions like holidays. Because they are cherished for their aroma, they are usually served raw, sliced by mandoline or special truffle slicer into thinner-than-paper rounds which the Italians call angel’s wings. Traditionally they are sprinkled over salad, fettuccine with butter and Parmesan, risotto or egg dishes.
   Many of New York’s top Italian restaurants are featuring white truffles until the end of the year. For a list, as well as for sources for buying truffles online and by mail order, visit www.italianmade.com.
   White truffles from Alba are being imported currently by Bon Appétit Fine Foods in the Princeton Shopping Center. Because it was a good year (lots of rain in the Piedmont), owner Deann Lemmerling can sell the lumpy fungi, which range from the size of large marbles to tennis balls, at a mere $135 an ounce. But a little goes a long way: A typical serving size of truffle shavings is 5 grams (0.7 ounces). Ms. Lemmerling expects a reliable supply over the season, and reports that one week’s supply of eight beauties sold out early.
   Among a group of food professionals recently treated to a white truffles lunch at New York’s Le Cirque 2000 was Ruth Alegría, owner of the Princeton Cooking School.
   "When they brought the tray of truffles into the dining room, their scent permeated the air within seconds," Ms. Alegría noted, as she feasted on asparagus with poached eggs and shaved white truffles and risotto with shaved white truffles.
   In their innovative cookbook, master chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman take one ingredient through several iterations, from simple dishes to the spectacular — hence the cookbook’s name. About the truffled salad recipe below, the authors note, "This is a fairly easy dish — it just costs a lot of money." Amen.
Simple to Spectacular by Jean-Georges Vongerichten & Mark Bittman (Broadway Books 2000)
   4 tablespoons butter
   1 tablespoon minced white truffle
   1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
   1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
   Salt and freshly ground black pepper
   8 sea scallops, cut in half through their equator
   Cayenne pepper
   3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
   2 heads frisee or other lettuce, or a mixture (about 8 ounces total)
   8 to 12 thin slices white truffle (use a mandoline or vegetable peeler)
   8 to 12 thin slices Parmesan
   Coarse salt or fleur de sel
   1. Prepare a bowl of ice water and set aside. Place the butter in a small heavy saucepan and turn the heat to high. Cook, swirling the butter in the pan occasionally, until it turns nut-brown. Plunge the bottom of the pan into the bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and prevent the butter from burning. Combine the butter in a small dish with the minced truffle, vinegars, and salt and pepper to taste.
   2. Place a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the scallops with salt and a little cayenne. When the skillet is hot, add 2 tablespoons of the oil, followed by half the scallops; you don’t want to crowd these, so cook them in two batches, using the remaining tablespoon of olive oil for the second batch. Cook until nicely browned on one side, about 2 minutes, then turn and cook for about 1 minute on the other. (The scallops should not be cooked all the way through.)
   3. Trim, wash, and dry the lettuce. Place a portion of the lettuce in the center of each of four plates, then put 4 scallop slices around it. Top the lettuce with the truffle and Parmesan slices, then drizzle with the vinaigrette and sprinkle with coarse salt.
   Serves 4.
   White truffle oil is a less expensive way to enjoy white truffles, although by no means cheap. It is available at most specialty food stores and by mail order from www.dartagan.com, where it sells for $12.50 for 55 milliliters or $35 for 7.5 ounces. The recipe below from the D’Artagnan cookbook combines white truffle oil with poussin, which are baby chickens. Because each guest is served a whole, truffle-scented bird, it makes an exquisite special-occasion dish. Poussin are carried by upscale supermarkets and are available direct from D’Artagnan. Local all-natural, free-range, certified organic poussin are available at Griggstown Farm Market, (908) 359-5218.
D’Artagnan’s Glorious Game Cookbook by Ariane Daguin, George Faison and Joanna Pruess (Little, Brown 1999)
   4 poussin, about 1 pound each, patted dry
   Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
   1 large carrot, diced
   1 rib celery, diced
   1 medium leek, trimmed, split, washed well, white and pale green parts cut into 1-inch pieces
   3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus 4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into cubes
   1 teaspoon dried thyme
   1 cup dry white wine
   1 tablespoon white truffle oil
   1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
   2. Remove neck and giblets from poussin and reserve. Season birds inside and out with salt and pepper. Tuck wings behind neck, and truss with kitchen string.
   3. Make a nest of the carrot, celery, and leek, along with the necks and giblets, in a roasting pan. Arrange poussin on top. Combine melted butter and thyme in a small bowl, and brush it over the birds. Roast poussin in oven for 15 minutes then reduce temperature to 350 degrees.
   4. Pour wine over the poussin and roast until juices run clear when thickest part of thigh is pierced with a fork, 15 to 20 minutes more. (Note from author: in my home test, it took almost twice that amount for poussin to cook through. Begin testing after 15 minutes, but allow for it to take longer.)
   5. Remove birds from pan. Strain pan juices into a small saucepan, discarding vegetables and giblets. Spoon off any fat and discard. Reduce liquid over high heat to 1/3 cup. Remove pan from heat and slowly whisk in cold butter and white truffle oil, waiting to add each butter cube until previous one is incorporated. Season with salt and pepper. Top poussin with a little truffle jus.
   Serves 4.