In January, there isn't much to get excited about when it comes to produce - with the exception of the "diamond of the kitchen," the Périgord winter truffle. The best time to use them is mid-month, when the holiday demand is over (making them a little less cost-prohibitive) and they're at their peak of perfume. Not as pungent as the Alban white truffle's intense and penetrating aroma, the Périgord's has a refinement reminiscent of mushrooms and freshly disturbed forest earth.
True, truffles are considered an expensive rarity, so splurging on a couple of ounces can bring on pangs of guilt. I personally would much rather amortize the cost by gathering a few like-minded friends for dinner and pointing out that we would be spending considerably more at a subpar local NHL game.
The mystery and folklore surrounding truffles is incredibly rich, so I won't add to it here, but I will pass along a few things I have learned over the years. First, storing black truffles in rice is okay, I suppose, but expecting the rice to taste of truffle when cooked will be disappointing because, in my experience, it won't. At the restaurant, we simply keep truffles wrapped in very slightly moistened paper towels, store them in the fridge and use them shortly after they were purchased.
Second, the best way to maximize them is to crush them into a coarse paste in a mortar and add them toward the end of the cooking process to dishes such as risotto or soups.
And finally, it isn't necessary, after you have brushed them clean, to peel them before shaving them raw, but it's something I like to do. The peelings can be crushed as above and used in sauces, as with the oil in the salad recipe. Enjoy!
Keith Froggett is co-owner and executive chef of Scaramouche in Toronto.
Keith Froggett's Truffle, Fennel and Mushroom Salad
1 black truffle (about 25 grams)
4 tablespoons mild-tasting extra virgin olive oil
1 large fennel bulb, coarse outer layer removed
4 large, firm king oyster mushrooms, trimmed at root end
A few sprigs of flat leaf parsley, picked apart
1 lemon, quartered, ready for squeezing
A good chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano
Maldon sea salt
Except for the truffle and the truffle oil, ingredients must be lightly chilled. Brush the truffle clean and peel lightly, removing only enough to reveal the inside. Place the peelings in a mortar and crush. Mix into the oil. Lay out four large plates and use a sharp mandolin - essential - to shave the fennel thinly over the plates, scattering it in a loose layer. Repeat with the mushrooms. Scatter a little parsley over top. Drizzle each plate with the truffle olive oil, squeeze lemon over, shave on a few good slivers of cheese and season with the Maldon salt. Lastly, shave over the truffle and serve as an appetizer.
An Italian white is the best choice here. Think Gavi, Orvieto, Soave, pinot grigio or vernaccia di San Gimignano. But any crisp white, preferably from Europe, won't be far off the mark. Options include white Bordeaux, Rueda from Spain and gruner-veltliner from Austria.