Happiness is a $14 Truffle
Truffles, I always assumed, were a luxury good reserved for the few and the lucky, gastrocrats and princes. These rare mushrooms fetch vast sums in the world’s top restaurants, and you are lucky to get a few small shavings if you pay top dollar at the best restaurant in town. They are fetishized and slavered over, like some kind of cross between black pearls, caviar, and cocaine. I like them – they are delicious and they smell great – but it never would have occurred to me to buy one.
But then I did. Today. And my dinner was easy, and cheap, and magnificent.
It rained today. I couldn’t grill. But! I had just gotten paid. One of those brief and unpredictable moments of bliss; you know how it is. And so I wandered out from the Rachael Ray.Com world headquarters, and over to Eataly, the Italian food superstore a few blocks away. Eataly has products you never even knew existed, thousands of them, and they are all expensive. But I thought I would get some stuff for dinner: some burrata. A good tomato. Some spaghetti. Little semi-dried tomatoes in a jar. A piece of cheese. Like that. But I also bought, on a whim, some little goat cheese ravioli. And I noticed, nearby, some black summer truffles, prices at something like 90 cents a gram. I don’t know how much a gram is, but I know how much 90 cents is. So I had them weigh the smallest one, and it cost 14 dollars. 14 dollars!
14 dollars won’t buy you a large Domino’s pizza. It won’t buy a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. You can’t go to the movies for $14, not in New York, anyway. And here I was in possession of this ultimate luxury good for that sum. And I realized, all at once, that it wasn’t an ultimate luxury good, but just a mushroom, and than it would taste really good grated on top of some goat cheese ravioli, or fresh fettucini, or, really, anything. So I took my truffle and came home, and I made dinner for Danit. It might have been the easiest dinner I’ve ever made; certainly it was one of the happiest and most relaxing. I threw the ravoli in boiling water for three minutes, then tossed them in a bowl with some butter, and grated half the truffle over them. That’s it. It was exactly the same bowl of ultimate luxury pasta you get in a three-star temple of gastronomy, but you could eat it with your wife at the kitchen table with chopsticks. The key was the grate, grate, grate that truffle up. Because, 1, truffles are something you have to use a lot of; otherwise they lose their punch. They have to be used in profusion. They are mushrooms, you know? And half of this truffle, which produced a LOT of flavor and looked wonderful and smelled even better, literally cost me $7. I can’t get over it.
If you want to get on board with this, here are a few tips.
1. There are several places that sell truffles online, and a lot of specialty markets carry it too. It’s better to buy it a market if you can. You need to smell it. The smell is everything.
2. If you do buy a truffle, it should be whole, relatively fresh, and should come wrapped up in some tissue. It shouldn’t be in a bottle, or come in oil form, or as some kind of truffle spread. There are a million ways to rip you off when it comes to truffles. That truffle butter is good, but it uses the shittiest truffles and as little of them as they can get away with. The oil is even worse; it’s not even made from truffles; it’s an artificial chemical solution meant to taste like truffles. It’s a test-tube hamburger, a fraud, and it tastes weird to me.
3. There are a lot of diffent kinds of truffles and only a few of them are really good. The ones that you read about people paying 25 thousand dollars for are white Alba truffles from the Italian piedmont. Or not – nobody knows where they really come from. I think a lot of them are Serbian. They show up for about ten weeks, from late October to about Christmas. Then there are black truffles – perigord ones from France in winter, and Umbrian ones from Italy in summer. These were the ones I got, which is why I could afford them. There are some great black truffles coming out of Australia now too. Don’t get truffles from China or the Punjab. Trust me on this.
4. Never cook truffles. They are purely for putting on top of things. They lose their mojo minutes after being cut or grated, so wait until you are just about to eat before grating them. (It’s also more dramatic.)
5. Truffles, white or black, are best used on things that are rich and soft and delicate, like soft-scrambled eggs or creamed corn or fettucini alfredo. You don’t want to put them on things that taste good without them, like tomato sauce or steak or pizza. They need to be the star of the show. I didn’t even grate any parmigiano reggiano on my ravioli! And the reason is, that it’s all about the truffles.
6. Don’t hang on to them too long. They don’t keep. You need to use them, profusely, with an open heart and a heavy hand. If you start thinking too much about their value, they will have no value at all.