Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen

How could 13 decadent courses, all made with black summer truffles from Italy, have my name on them? Good breeding? A huge inheritance? A get-rich-food quick scheme? Nope. Like Blanche Dubois, I have come to depend on the kindness of bloggers. And boy did I hit pay dirt. Because I was invited to the second annual Trufflepalooza, in which hostess extraordinaire Erika Kerekes of In Erika's Kitchen served dish after dish of truffle-inspired fare. And let me tell you, she really knows how to put the truffle in a palooza.

Each dish was either topped or infused with grated truffle, truffle butter, truffle oil, truffle salt, or truffle honey. Picture this: Radish Truffle Butter Tartines, Truffle-Infused Brie, Ricotta Truffle Honey Crostini, and Creamy Corn Soup with Truffles. Imagine Truffled Egg Salad, Porcini Truffle Dip with Chilled Green Beans, and "Emery's Salad" with Truffle Vinaigrette and Pancetta. Visualize Risotto with Truffles, Roasted Small Potatoes with Truffle Butter, Truffled Mac and Cheese, Grilled Cheese with Truffles, Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter, and Truffle-Flavored Chocolate Truffles. Now, breathe. Was it good for you?

Radish Truffle Butter Tartines
Ricotta Truffle Honey Crostini
I didn't know that much about truffles before the palooza, so post-palooza, I unearthed a few facts. The origin of the word truffle appears to be the Latin word tuber, meaning “lump.” Hence, these underground versions of mushrooms are actually tubers that grow beneath the roots of oak, elm, chestnut, pine and willow trees, mainly in Italy, France, Spain, Croatia and Slovenia. Lesser quality ones are found in Oregon and Washington.

Creamy Corn Soup with Truffles
Risotto with Truffles

The most celebrated types are the white truffle, which is the rarest and most valuable and native to Italy and Croatia; the black winter truffle, also called the black Perigord, named for the region in France, grows exclusively with oak and appears in late autumn and winter. This highly coveted specimen is more pungent and pricey than the black summer truffle from Italy that’s available from June to October. Milder with just the right amount of earthiness for a neophyte like myself, the black summer truffle will only put you in the poorhouse for a few years, provided you have connections.

Truffle-infused Brie
Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter
Since most truffles never break the surface of the soil, they must be detected by animals with a keen sense of smell. Female pigs have been used historically in Europe, as some truffles produce a scent that mimics a male pig sex hormone. More recently, dogs have become the preferred truffle-hunting companion since they can be trained to find the truffles, but aren't as inclined to eat them. Blogger David Lebovitz did a marvelous series on truffle hunting in France with some captivating photos of a truffle hunter and his boisterous pig in search of black winter truffles.

Truffle-Flavored Chocolate Truffles
This little piggy went to market.
This little piggy stayed home.
This little piggy had roast beef.
This little piggy had none.
But this little piggy went to Trufflepalooza and cried, “Woohoo!” all the way home.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Bubbie Brigade and the Circle of Life

A friend of mine was having an art opening at a Jewish center in the San Fernando Valley. It was a nice, modern campus, and the building had a security guard and metal detector that made me realize how times have changed. As I was ambling around the gallery looking at the impressive array of work, I saw my friend's seven-year-old daughter standing off to the side with her earbuds in, listening to music. “Camille, you know what would be really cool?” I said. “If you told your mom her paintings look really good.” Those seven-year-old eyes looked at me like I had just fallen off the turnip truck. “I know they look good,” she said. “I already told her.”

Uh oh. I was trapped in a duh moment and couldn't get out. I had turned into one of those irrelevant people I would have wanted nothing to do with when I was Camille's age. That was when I was shy and grownups were the enemy. Kids today are living in another era with their iPods, iPhones, Wii and Wiki. As I waxed nostalgic for turntables and the Dewey Decimal system, I came to the daunting realization that my finger would never be on the pulse like it once was. My finger was now an anachronism. It was an old-school finger from the olden-finger days. "That was thoughtful of you," I said to her and headed off to seek solace from a nosh.

With my tail between my old legs, I walked over to the long refreshment table in the foyer outside the gallery that no one had discovered yet. I immediately homed in on some platters full of sweets near a klatch of older Jewish women. My eyes bulged. My heart pounded. My taste buds gushed. Were these pastries homemade from the very hands of those old Jewish ladies? All of a sudden, I felt flush, like I had just seen rock stars up close. I had never felt such adulation for old Jewish-lady strangers before. “Did you make these pastries?” I interrupted the group from across the long table. They all nodded yes, and one of them said, “Except for a few things from Trader Joe’s.”

I’d spot those bad boys in a nanosecond, I told myself smugly. I wouldn’t be wasting my calories on anything by a trader named Joe. All my bad cholesterol would be coming from the bubbie brigade. From my right eye’s peripheral vision, I detected almond mandelbrot. I turned to it, lifted one to my mouth and purred, “Mmm.” As it slid down my throat I blurted out, “Anise!” in Tourette’s-like fashion. “Who made the almond mandelbrot with anise seeds?” I asked with a cheerleader's zeal. A short, round, gray-haired lady said they were hers. “These are delicious!” I said, as she proudly accepted my praise. And one by one, I tasted each variety of cookie, macaroon, brownie and babka, not caring that I was making a complete chazer of myself. I knew that those ladies would much rather witness a P.I.A. (Pig In Action) than a U.P. (Unappreciated Pastry).

As I stood there alone at the table, cavorting with cookies and patronizing with pastries, I realized how much history was in each sweet I was scarfing down. Every one of these women had their own recipes from their secret vaults. Perhaps one had endured the holocaust. Maybe another had lived in a Russian shtetl. And another in a New York tenement. All I really knew about them was expressed through copious amounts of butter and sugar. I’m sure there would have been a lot of fascinating tidbits to discover if I had taken the time to ask. But I didn’t get their names. I got to know their cookies instead.

I remember rolling my eyes at adults like it was yesterday. But today I could see the circle of life with clarity. Grownups weren't the enemy after all. In other cultures, with age comes wisdom. Why is it that in America, this is looked down upon? The bubbie brigade not only deserved praise for making it this far, but for having a few sweets left in them to help celebrate the journey. And I was happy to join the celebration.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Apricot-Almond Clafouti

This French clafouti lets you swing both ways. Ooh la la!

A cross between a flan and a fruit-filled pancake,

this refined dessert is both f

ull-bodied and low-fat. So not only can you be rich and thin, you'll have carte blanche to partake in a ménage a trois with apricots and Amaretto.

This fruity romp from Eating Well is amazingly easy to pull off (though I suggest leaving your apron on when using the oven). The secret of its deep, luxurious flavor is fresh apricots lounging in a fragrant bath of almond liqueur for an hour before baking. You might be tempted to join them for a good frolic, but try to control yourself. Let the two lovebirds enjoy some 350-degree alone-time. When they're done and have rested for 20 minutes, you'll be welcomed with open arms. When you need a clafouti call, this one's easy and eager to please.

12 servings

Active Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 1/2 hours

1 pound fresh apricots, (about 8 medium), pitted and cut into wedges

1/4 cup almond liqueur, such as amaretto, or orange juice

1 lemon

1 tablespoon plus 1/3 cup sugar, divided

2 large eggs

1 large egg white

1 cup low-fat milk (1% is fine)

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon sliced almonds

Confectioners' sugar , for dusting

Combine apricots and almond liqueur (or orange juice) in a large bowl. Grate 2 teaspoons zest from the lemon and set aside. Juice the lemon and stir 2 teaspoons of the juice into the apricots. Let stand for at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat a 10-inch round baking dish or oval casserole with cooking spray. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon sugar evenly over the bottom. Drain the apricots (reserving the syrup) and arrange in the baking dish.

Combine whole eggs, egg white and the remaining 1/3 cup sugar in a medium bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until pale yellow. Add milk, flour, almond extract, salt, the reserved lemon zest and the reserved syrup; beat well to blend. Pour the batter over the apricots; sprinkle with almonds.

Bake the clafouti until puffed and golden, 45 to 55 minutes. Let cool about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar; serve warm.

Per serving: 116 calories; 2 g fat; 37 mg cholesterol

Monday, July 12, 2010

Let the Games Begin

Lately I’ve acquired a reputation for having ESP. Not like that kid in The Sixth Sense who sees dead people. I taste things. Where others might detect curry, I perceive its nuanced subtext of coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, turmeric, ginger and cinnamon. My Extra Sensory Palate not only gives me the power to identify spices and ingredients, it also endows me with a compulsion to mouth off about it. For instance, while dining with friends, I might unconsciously blurt out, "Coriander," in Tourettes-like fashion. And sometimes I'll get so carried away that I’ll offer a blow-by-blow account of my whole meal in real time.

Someone seemed to think that I am what’s called a supertaster—a person with an unusually high number of taste buds. So I did a little research. Apparently supertasters experience bitter and salty foods more intensely than other people. Supposedly they crave salt because it cancels out the bitterness. Some of the foods that supertasters can't stomach are Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, kale, spinach, green tea, coffee, alcohol, soy products and dark chocolate. Huh? No dark, leafy greens, bittersweet chocolate or caffeine? But those are my BFFs (Bitter Food Friends). Without them, how would I get my folic acid fix, satiate my sweet tooth and jumpstart my cerebrum so it can create this scintillating prose?

Though I haven't taken it, there is a supertaster test that can determine whether or not you are of that ilk. You put a filter paper on your tongue, and supertasters will find the test unbearably bitter. But since I have come to the probable conclusion that I'm not a supertaster, I haven't bothered. What would I do with that knowledge anyway? Put it on my résumé under Super Powers? Thanks, but I'll stick to channeling my ESP in public and alienating those around me.

Yes, my behavior drives people crazy, but some are actually impressed by it, as if I am gifted. And the more they expect me to excel at it, the more competitive I get. When I play tennis, I cavalierly hit the ball and hope it lands within the lines. But I’ll be damned if anyone’s gonna beat me at falafel ball or meatball. I got game! So I got to thinking. Could I parlay my ESP into a lucrative career on ESPN? Could I make the big time as a professional athleater? Until a sports agent discovers me, I guess I’ll still be playing in the minors. But just you wait. One day I’m going to be the next Kobe Beef Bryant.

*I took this photo at a cafeteria in Istanbul

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Ode to a Virgin

Hang in there, sweetie, what’s the rush?
Don’t let the farmhand steal your blush
First a fondle, then a pluck
Next you're in his pickup truck

Friday, July 2, 2010

Base-Camp Ginger Slaw

Think of it as the slaw road to China, Japan and Thailand.
With this basic Asian-inspired slaw, you can embark on your own journey from a base camp of red cabbage, carrot, ginger and cilantro. Like my Apple-Raisin Slaw, it’s light, crisp, refreshing and makes a slaw-some presentation. While this recipe is very satisfying as is, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can add any number of ingredients.

Whether you make a protein-packed foray into the land of soy, nuts, or meat or you’re off on an exciting veg or noodle expedition, the road is yours for the taking. Here are some places to explore from base camp:

Baked tofu • Edamame • Peanuts • Sesame seeds • Chicken • Potstickers • Noodles • Jicama • Bean sprouts • Sugar snap peas

But you don’t need me as your sherpa—you’ll know where to go. Besides, I don’t do any heavy lifting. However, I am proficient with a fork lift.


4 cups red red cabbage, shredded

1 large carrot, grated

2 – 3 TBSP cilantro, chopped

2 tsp ginger, minced

1 TBSP sesame oil

1 TBSP rice wine vinegar

Optional: pinch of salt and sugar

Place shredded cabbage, carrots, ginger and cilantro in a large bowl. Whisk oil and vinegar together. Toss the slaw with the dressing and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Makes 4 servings