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Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 12:01 am

Luxury for little money

Truffles grow underground around certain trees. Dogs and pigs are used to sniff out their presence.


Sure, you can go out on Valentine’s Day – millions do. And if you have kids at home and can send them to their grandparents or to a movie with a babysitter, it’s probably the best way to have a romantic evening. But celebrating Valentine’s Day with a special meal at home – whether dinner or breakfast - can be just as romantic – and definitely more intimate.

It can be less costly, too, even if you want to splurge a little. Here are inexpensive ways to experience two of the most expensive foods in the world. The mousse/paté takes some effort, but can – actually must – be made ahead.

I’m talking fungus here. Originally the chocolates known as truffles were formed into lumpy balls and rolled in cocoa powder, making them look like the truffle mushrooms found primarily in France and Italy.

Fresh truffles fetch as much $2000 a pound or more. Why?

First is their intoxicating aroma and taste. Just a whiff is enough to give me a small shudder of pleasure. Truffles are loaded with umami, a Japanese word meaning “pleasant savory taste.” It’s considered a fifth taste (along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty). Until recently, umami’s “flavor” seemed ephemeral: People didn’t know what umami was, but they could taste it in foods ranging from tomatoes and potatoes, to seaweed and oysters, and Parmesan cheese and eggs. Scientists eventually discovered that what gave such different foods umami’s special something is the amino acid, glutamate (the G in MSG), along with ribonucleotides. According to the Umami Information Center, truffles contain high amounts of three different types of glutamates, making them one of the world’s top three umami-rich foods. Truffles’ unique flavor is impossible to describe.

Harvesting truffles isn’t easy. Found underground around certain oak trees, their presence is indiscernible above ground and must be sniffed out by pigs or dogs. These days, truffle-hunting dogs are favored, because pigs love truffles as much as humans; their handler must grab the precious fungi quickly or beat the pig off it; dogs are satisfied with a biscuit. A good truffle hound is valuable, and as costly as the truffles it finds.

Truffles are weather sensitive. Primarily found in fall; the exception is a less intensely-flavored summer variety. Dry summers can mean few truffles – and even higher prices. And so far no one has found a way to grow them.

Fresh truffles are extremely perishable. They can be canned or frozen, or made into a paste, but the taste is just a ghostly hint of the fresh.

But there is good news. Truffle-infused oils and salts have become easily available, as well as other things such as truffled cheeses and even truffle-infused honey. Their truffle flavor is intense enough to cause that shiver of pleasure. Though not exactly cheap, they cost a tiny fraction of the real thing. An excellent small bottle of truffle oil or jar of truffle salt can be had for around $20 online or at specialty food shops such as The Italian Food Mart at 416 W. Monroe. And a little goes a long way: a few drops of oil or sprinkle of salt is all that’s needed.

Because I’ve opened a couple bottles of truffle oil and found the oil rancid, I prefer the salt, unless I’m confident of the oil’s source. Both lose their flavor during long cooking: Use them to finish a dish, and keep them in the freezer.

Here are just a few things I drizzle with truffle oil or sprinkle with truffle salt to make something ordinary extraordinary:

• Omelets: The most classic French way to experience truffles’ flavor is in a plain omelet; cheese or mushroom omelets work well, too. Scrambled, poached or coddled eggs are also wonderful with truffles.
Baked potatoes: Truffle salt turns an everyday baked potato with butter and/or sour cream into something sublime.

• Cream-sauced pasta: Fettuccine Alfredo or other cream-sauced pasta, perhaps with seafood.
Buttered toast: The truffle flavor deserves unsalted butter and good bread.

• Popcorn: Popcorn becomes something extraordinary when tossed with real butter and sprinkled with truffle salt and freshly ground pepper.

• Steak: Sprinkle/drizzle on a grilled steak, or add to a sautéed mushroom topping. For the ultimate indulgence, dust over Tournedoes Rossini (see below).

OK, it’s not really foie gras, the livers of ducks or geese that have been specially fattened. Animal rights activists decry the force-feeding method that produces such über-rich livers which has been around since ancient Rome. I’ve seen it done, and have to say that, at least in America, those ducks have far better lives and are far less cruelly treated than are billions of chickens – and other animals – in industrial CAFOs – Confined Animal Feeding Operations.

That said, whether you’re concerned about the ducks or just don’t want to shell out upward of $80 a pound for the real thing, this mousse/paté is a fantastic alternative. It could fool even experts, with its decadent lashings of heavy cream, egg yolks, butter and duck or chicken fat; definitely a special occasion-only indulgence.

This recipe makes enough for a party. When I just want enough for two, I bake it in a 1/2 to 1 cup soufflé dish and freeze the rest, unbaked, in 1 cup portions for other special occasions.

It can also be used to make a version of one of French cuisine’s classics, Tournedos (filet mignon) Rossini, created and named after a famous Italian composer. Form some of the mousse into 1/2-inch thick discs the same size as the filet’s surface. Keep at room temperature while cooking the meat. Top each filet with a mousse disc. Serve immediately.

Chicken liver mousse
Mousse de foie de volaille
• 1 lb. chicken livers, preferably from free-range, organically raised chickens
• 1 c. medium dry sherry, such as amontillado
• 1/4 c. brandy or cognac
• 8 large egg yolks
• 12 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
• 2/3 c. chicken or duck fat, or additional butter, melted and cooled as above
• 1/3 c. finely minced shallots
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
• 1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
• 1 1/2 tsp. salt
• 2 c. chilled heavy cream

At least two days before you plan to serve the mousse, clean the livers under cold running water, removing any veins or sinews. Drain the livers well, then put them in a plastic resealable bag and add the sherry. Squeeze out any excess air, seal the bag and refrigerate overnight.

The next day drain the livers, discarding the sherry.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Generously butter a 4-cup terrine mold or loaf pan (or smaller high-sided baking dish, if freezing part of the mixture for another time).

While the livers are draining, sauté the shallot in 2 tablespoons of the butter or schmaltz in a heavy skillet over medium heat until the shallots are thoroughly softened but not browned. Cool to room temperature.

Transfer the livers and shallots to the container of a food processor or blender and add the remaining butter and schmaltz, cognac, egg yolks, pepper, nutmeg and salt. Blend until thoroughly puréed and velvety smooth. Add the chilled cream and blend just until combined.

Remove the pan from the refrigerator. Pour in the mousse mixture and rap on the counter a couple of times to remove any air bubbles. Cover with a double layer of foil and crimp the edges tightly to form a tight seal.

Put the terrine or pan in a deep roasting/baking pan and add simmering water to come 2/3 of the way up the sides of the terrine. Bake for 90 minutes to 2 hours, or until the mousse is barely set. Baking times for smaller amounts will differ. Test for doneness by giving the terrine a little shake. The center should be almost set, but still slightly soft. It will become firmer when chilled. Refrigerate overnight before serving. Keeps refrigerated for about a week. Makes about 4 cups.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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