Truffles are one of the most delicious and intoxicating flavors in existence. (And I'm talking here about truffles, the relative of mushrooms, not chocolate truffles, which are also wonderful). There is something about trufles that goes beyond taste and smell and seems to cause a full-body sensation of bliss, a truffle high. If you are looking for a special dish to add to a holiday meal, fancying up your mashed potatoes with a little truffle flavor is an easy crowd pleaser. Truffles work well on anything like potatoes or pasta that does not have its own strong flavor, and mushrooms are also a natural companion to truffles, perhaps because of their close biological kinship.
The problem with truffles is, they're expensive and they're hard to preserve. The best way to impart truffle flavor to anything is to shave a fresh truffle onto a finished dish, but if you don't have access to fresh truffles, or don't want to spend the money, there are other alternatives. Italian specialty stores or fancy groceries often sell truffle oil, or truffle salt which has been infused with the flavor of truffles. Unfortunately, though many of these products contain some truffles, most are also infused with an artificially synthesized compound to boost the truffle flavor, and here's where the debate comes in... because to be honest, it's still really delicious!
When I was shopping for this dish, I decided to buy one of the truffle oils that only contained real truffle essence, not "truffle flavor", and I have to say, it just wasn't as good. The truffle flavor just wasn't very strong and it hardly seemed worth the money. I have also tried a few of the artificially enhanced oils and salts, and while these truffle "flavor" products will never quite capture the subtlety of tastes of a fresh truffle, they still create a very enjoyable and unique flavor and scent experience.
I'm not usually one for advocating artificial flavors, but once in a while, I'm happy to indulge in a blissful truffle experience, even a slightly inauthentic one. Of course, if you can get your hands on fresh truffle, by all means, use that instead.
Step 1: A Little About Truffles
Truffles, like mushrooms, are the fruiting body of a fungus. While most mushrooms fruit above ground, providing us with such delicacies as shiitake, portobello and oyster mushrooms, truffles stay just barely subterranean making them harder to find. Truffles also only grow in very specific environments, the locations of which are often highly guarded by truffle hunters. The fungus that creates truffles has a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain trees such as hazel, oak and beech, and it is partially this complex interdependency that makes truffles extremely difficult to cultivate.
In order to locate and harvest truffles, human truffle hunters need the help of an animal companion with a better sense of smell. Female pigs were the first animal to be used for truffle hunting, but they tend to eat the truffles as soon as they find them. As a result, dogs have replaced pigs as truffle hunters in many places. Dogs need to be trained to sniff out truffles, but they are easier to control and less ravenous when it comes to truffle eating.
One reason truffles are thought to be so intoxicating to humans (as well as truffle hunting pigs), is that they contain a compound with a similar chemical structure to a pheromone found in both pigs and humans.
There are many kinds of truffles, but the types most commonly used in cooking are:
- White Truffles: these are the most expensive and highly prized of the truffles for their strong yet delicate flavor. They are mostly found in Italy and nearby regions. They fruit in the autumn and often sell for several thousand dollars a pound.
- Black Truffles: also known as or Black Périgord Truffles, are the second-most expensive type after white truffles. Black truffles grow mostly in France and their harvest season is late autumn and winter.
- Summer Truffles: also called burgundy truffles, are slightly more common than black truffles and have a earthier and less pungent flavor. They are found in many places in Europe and can be harvested from summer through autumn.
Truffles are fascinating and elusive creatures. The facts surrounding them are bizarre and fantastical enough that they seem almost to have emerged from the realm of myth... and that is part of the allure of the truffle eating experience. If you are lucky enough to taste a truffle you feel that you have somehow had a moment of communion with a supernatural world of sensory experience that us usually closed to mere mortals.
Step 2: Ingredients
Makes 6-8 servings
For the Potatoes
- 3 lbs yukon gold or red bliss potatoes
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 1/2 cups grated parmesan
- 1 stick butter (if you are using truffle salt, use unsalted butter)
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- Approximately 3 Tablespoons truffle oil or 3 teaspoons truffle salt (this will depend on the strength of your truffling ingredient).
- Salt to taste (if using truffle oil)
- Fresh shaved black or Burgundy truffles - optional
For the Mushrooms
- 3 lbs mixed mushrooms - shiitake, crimini, oyster, etc
- 4 garlic cloves
- 3/4 cup chicken broth
- 3/4 cup cup dry white wine
- 1/4 cup half and half
- 6 Tablespoons butter
- pinch of nutmeg
- 1/2 cup Italian parsley
Step 3: Slice and Steam the Potatoes
When I'm making mashed potatoes, especially if I'm using red or gold potatoes, I like to keep the skins on. This is a personal preference, but I don't think the skins actually interfere with the texture of the mash, and they are the part of the potato with the most nutrients.
Wash the potatoes thoroughly, then slice them into 1/4 thick rounds and place them in a steamer over medium high heat. they should take about 10-15 minutes depending on how many potatoes you are using. Test them periodically with a fork to see if they are soft enough, moving them around a bit in the pan to get an even steam.
Step 4: Prep the Mushroom Ingredients
While the potatoes are cooking, prep the ingredients for the mushrooms. If my mushrooms are dirty, I like to clean them with a damp towel rather than washing them, as they tend to absorb a lot of moisture.
When they are clean, slice all your varieties of mushrooms into relatively equal pieces, and peel and mince the 4 garlic cloves.
Step 5: Cook the Mushrooms
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter, then add the garlic, and cook for about a minute.
Add the mushrooms and stir until they are coated with butter. Cover them and let them cook for about 5 minutes until they release their juices. Then add the wine, chicken stock and cream, stir and allow to lightly simmer down for about 10 more minutes, until the liquid around the mushrooms begins to thicken and all the wine has cooked off.
Step 6: Mash the Potatoes
When your potatoes fall apart when touched with a fork, spoon them into a mixing bowl, or if you prefer, you can also use a ricer to mash your potatoes before mixing in the other ingredients. Add the butter, cream and parmesan and mash with a masher of fork. I find that depending on the consistency of your potatoes, you may want to add more cream and butter. This is really something you have to judge for yourself as you are mashing.
Step 7: Truffle
When your mashed potatoes have a consistency you are pleased with, and your mushrooms are suitably saucy, it's time to add your truffling to both. You almost always want to add truffle flavor to a dish at the very end, while it is still hot, but not cooking. This will preserve the truffle flavor the best, while still allowing the heat to help release the flavor.
If you are using actual black truffles, at this point you should chop them up finely and stir them in.
Truffling really needs to be done to taste, depending on the truffle product you are using. But a few tablespoons of oil, or several teaspoons of salt will usually do the trick. Stir in the salt or oil combine it thoroughly with the mushrooms and potatoes. Be careful not to over-salt if you are using truffle salt.
You should really be able to taste the truffle flavor, if you find yourself sighing with pleasure or grinning with happiness after taking a bite, you'll know you've gotten it right.
Step 8: Plate and Serve
Now spoon the potatoes into the dish of your choice (I used a martini glass, for fanciness :) and top them with a spoonful of your mushrooms and sauce. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve.
Now prepare yourself for truffle bliss.