Friday, January 16, 2009

The Wonderful World of Truffles!


Looks a little like decrepit fruit, but cooking with these delicacies is oh so heavenly! Photo by Ulterior Epicure

It's prime fresh winter truffle season in the Pacific Northwest and the Oregon Truffle Festival is just around the corner, from Jan 30 through Feb 1st in Eugene and Portland, Oregon. And you can attend events for as cheap as $15 a ticket.

Do you remember that adorable talking badger in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe book called Trufflehunter?



For some reason, when I think about truffles, I imagine that cute badger from the Narnia series I first read about as a little girl. There's something magical and other-worldly about Narnian creatures, but there's something equally magical about the peculiar-looking underground mushrooms we call truffles. They reside deep among tree roots in the living soil and are a critical part of one of earth's most mysterious (least understood), but most important life forces: the tenacious web of mycorrhizae- that constant interaction between plants and fungi so critical to life as we know it.

I find the world under our feet -the presence of mycorrhizae in the soil food web- as fascinating as science fiction or fantasy. And truffles are bulbous, edible pieces of that mysterious realm that we can harvest, hold in our hands and incorporate into our daily meals. I only I wish it wasn't so expensive to buy truffle products. I also wish truffle hunting was more accessible and not such a guarded hobby/profession. Though the North American Truffling Society is based just 20 minutes away from where I live and I'm going to try and hook up with the group for a truffle hunt. Stay tuned!!



Truffles are the underground version of mushrooms created by a kind of fungal infection in the roots of some trees including poplar, oak, birch, pine Douglas-fir, oaks, hazel nuts, hickories, birches among others, says the North American Truffling Society newsletter. They have mutually beneficial relationships with the roots. "They are the reproductive bodies of certain species of mycorrhizal fungi which mature in the soil," writers the North American Truffling Society, headquartered in Corvallis, Oregon. Truffles look a little like irregular-shaped small potatoes and are distant relatives to mushrooms. Because they grow underground, they are more protected (from frost, etc.) than other mushrooms and the formation of truffles is dependent on animals to distribute their spores (critters like voles and flying squirrels eat the truffles and carry the spores in their stomachs and spread the spores when they poop.)

Exactly how they grow is still somewhat of a mystery, from what I've gathered (no pun intended), but I believe you can taste that mystery when you taste truffles. Truffle hunting has a storied past and reading about it is almost like reading fantasy!

Did I Hear Someone Say Free Truffles!


Here's a cool place to go to get 1/4 pounds of free black Italian winter truffles: the Truffle Giveaway from Marx Foods. All you have to do is leave a comment on their Website by January 26th at 12PM PST. Feel free to also write about what you would do with your winnings. They'll pick a winner at random and announce it on January 26th.

Here's a woman from the North American Truffling Society giving away a taste of truffle-infused spread on crackers during the Yachats Mushroom Festival this fall in Yachats, Oregon. I didn't just eat one sample!



My introduction to the underground delicacy

Maybe you haven't had a personal introduction to the truffle, like many foodies or others native to regions in Italy or France where truffle hunting has been a tradition for hundreds of years. I vividly recall my first truffle encounter. In my 20's, I worked as an intern for a lifestyle magazine in Salt Lake City, Utah and was invited to dine at a french eatery in Sugarhouse called L'Avenue Bistro. It was my first "media dinner" and a few siblings and I were introduced to a dishy young chef named Franck Piessel, who spent several years cooking in the Alps before he landed in Utah. Franck went on to have his own restaurant named for him, but recently the place folded and he's now a chef at Tuscany restaurant.

I recall ordering Franck's Filet Mignon cooked with mysterious, rich and earthy truffle sauce.... and I instantly fell in love with the taste of truffles.

How does a raw truffle taste?
"Aficionados liken it to a mix of methane gas, garlic, and soil with hints of honey, yeast, and mushrooms," Sean Marky, Alby, Italy, National Geographic News White truffles contain a compound called bismethylthiomethane, also found in wine. The smell is so pungent if you crawl around on all fours near prime truffle hunting ground, you can smell if with your nose. But since humans are more civilized than that, we train pigs and dogs to do the rooting for us (and make mortal enemies and enter into all kinds dangerous and criminal activities to carry on our affair with this lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous Truffle mistress- this mysterious, irresistible, "black or white gold" of the earth as it is called!)

Wanna buy some truffles? Click on this truffle seller to order fresh Oregon white and black truffles and Italian white and black winter truffles.

Truffle lovers give thanks to this little guy. Adopt a Vole Today!
Photo Source



If you love truffles, give thanks for the elusive vole, a little critter than lives in the ground whose job is to spread truffle spores. (I'm not sure the photoed vole looks anything like the Red-backed Vole mentioned below, but I image they are equally cute.) Daniel Wheeler writes here about Chris Maser's research on truffles and the elusive voles, which truffles are dependent on:
In the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the most common dispersal agents for truffles are small rodents called voles. Chris Maser in The Redefined Forest notes voles are the most common animals west of the Cascade Mountains, with potentially over 500 animals per acre of forest. Almost no one has actually seen voles, and in the 1970's, the California Red-backed voles was listed on the Endangered Species Act. By careful research, Chris Maser has shown that not only are these animals not endangered, but are an essential part of the forest health through their dispersal of truffle spores. Maser notes that each vole produces about 300 fecal pellets daily, each of which contains over 100,000 spores. Each spore is capable of inoculating a new tree with several species of MF. Another important dispersal animal for truffles in the Northern Flying squirrel. Studies have shown that during six months of the year, the flying squirrel eats almost nothing but truffles.


Ah, the irony! A story about how to get rid of voles that are getting into your truffles.

Minutiae about Truffles

**This 11-year old boy from Little Bedwyn, Wiltshire has a talent for discovering truffles with his feet.

"I can feel them with my feet through the soles of my trainers," explains Richard . . . But mainly it's just that I can see them better than everyone else, I think it's because I'm shorter so closer to the ground."


**Italian Truffle Hunters are called trifolau
.



**The earth giveth and the earth taketh away, in the case of this giant white truffle, it giveth. The hunter who found this beauty made $200,000at an auction last fall. New reports have been talking about how climate change is affecting the truffle industry in Europe. The last few years the dry hot summers in regions of truffle hunting, are keeping truffles from growing like they should.

**In Italy, a truffle dog is taught to retrieve a ball, then Gorgonzola cheese. Then the cheese is hidden and the dog has to sniff it out. It then get's rewarded for doing so. Finally, a small truffle is substituted for the cheese- you get the picture.

Friday, January 02, 2009

COOKING FROM SCRATCH

After Christmas Dishes in 3 Colors
(yellow) ACORN SQUASH & (purple) BEETS & (green) BRUSSEL SPROUTS


Here's my cure for the "sick-of-eating-lots-of-crap" holiday blues:
ACORN SQUASH ( My friend Dave says this squash looks GROSS, but it tasted good!)

NAKED BEETS


BRUSSEL SPROUTS


I LOVE SIMPLE FOODS LIKE BEETS AND ACORN SQUASH. They are so healthy and delicious. After eating lots of carbs and one too many slabs of sugar-laden treats this year for christmas... cookies, fudge, caramels, date rolls (marvelous creations my mother makes every year) it's great to get my hands on something simple and nutritious! They are also colorful foods, which I find crave, especially in the winter. Colorful foods are good for your bod!! Take the beet, that bleeds purple, it's such a wonderfully vibrant food. Even if you don't like the taste of beets, it's wonderful to cook with them, in the same way it's fun to paint with indigo oil paint....I had a great time soaking the beet skins in water and considering dying a piece of fabric the same color.... but I wasn't that ambitious!





A FEW days after christmas, I found myself famished for these nutrient-rich greens and garden foods, so started a new tradition... so when my family convened for our "after-christmas" dinner,



I served up a few dishes made with with beets and beet greens, brussel sprouts and pasta made from squash to try and tempt my family and to make myself feel better. It worked!


Yum!

The beet greens have lots of potassium, folic acid, and magnesium.

Roasted Beet Salad with Beet Greens and Oranges
Bon App├ętit

6 medium beets with beet greens attached
2 large oranges
1 small sweet onion, cut through root end into thin wedges
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel

Preheat oven to 400°F. Trim greens from beets. Cut off and discard stems. Coarsely chop leaves and reserve. Wrap each beet in foil. Place beets directly on oven rack and roast until tender when pierced with fork, about 1 hour 30 minutes. Cool. Peel beets, then cut each into 8 wedges. Place beets in medium bowl.

Cook beet greens in large saucepan of boiling water just until tender, about 2 minutes. Drain. Cool. Squeeze greens to remove excess moisture. Add greens to bowl with beets. Cut peel and white pith from oranges. Working over another bowl and using small sharp knife, cut between membranes to release segments. Add orange segments and onion to bowl with beet mixture. Whisk vinegar, oil, garlic, and orange peel in small bowl to blend; add to beet mixture and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour. Serve.


Unadulterated beets



Another orange and beet salad Beet Orange Salad
Gourmet June 1991

8 pounds beets ( I used 8 beets), trimmed, leaving 3 inches of the stems intact and reserving the leaves for another use
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup distilled vinegar
1 small bay leaf
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped fine

In a kettle combine the beets with enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches, bring the water to a boil, and simmer the beets removing the small ones as they are done, for 40 to 50 minutes, or until they are tender. Drain the beets and let them cool. The beets may be cooked 1 day in advance and kept covered and chilled. Peel the beets and cut them into 1-inch wedges.

In a small saucepan combine zest, the orange juice, the sugar, the vinegar, and the bay leaf and boil the mixture until it is reduced to about 1/4 cup. Discard the bay leaf and let the mixture cool. In a large bowl whisk together the orange mixture, the oil, and salt and pepper to taste until the dressing is emulsified, add the beets and the onion, and combine the salad well.


This Butternut Squash Gnocchi recipe from Sunset magazine became one of my favorite recipes of last year, because for some strange reason, I have become hopelessly addicted to squash (acorn, butternut, delicata) -all those orange colored sweet fleshed things that grow late in the season and keep in the pantry till Winter.






(simplified recipe!)


Squash Gnocchi


Acorn or Butternut Squash
Equal part flour
salt

Cook squash till soft (turn upside down in shallow pool of water in pan and cook till flesh is soft.) Spoon out and mix up till it squash is smooth. Add just enough flour, to make it easy to roll. Roll into a long rope. Cut into pieces and boil in salted water until the pasta floats on the top. Eat with butter and parmesean cheese!!
JOURNEYS: Hip Pit Stops through Central Oregon

My "How I Almost Died Getting Home for Christmas" Photo Essay

Other possible headlines:
Why my mother's date roll is so good I'd risk my life on Stinkingwater Summit after the worst storm since Oregon's statehood.

My Christmas Odyssey: Getting home to Utah- 760 miles, 30 miles per hour, 3 days, and a flight out of Boise(yeah, it took me THAT to get home for Christmas!!)


This barren snow scape should be admired in photos and not out the window of a totoya corolla while driving through the remote parts of central Oregon in the middle of a storm.

For those of you who were unaware, this year in the Northwest there was record-breaking snow, which means record-breaking storms right around the Christmas break.

FYI: Don't drive through central Oregon to Utah during the winter, especially after one of the worst snow storms in years!! This trip was one of the longest of my life, it took me twice as long to get half as far. The first day, I went from Lebanon to Bend. The second day from Bend to Crane and the third day I made it to Boise in the evening and caught a flight at 7 o'clock to Salt Lake because the freeway was closed to Utah. I'm actually glad it was closed because I was so exhausted from driving on crappy roads, I didn't want to drive anymore. I made it home just in time for Christmas. There were only 2 other passengers on the Delta flight that evening; I rode home with the mechanics and all the flight attendants.

But when you have a mom this cute to go home to... and all her Christmas treats, it's hard not to want to brave the journey.



And not to mention the cutest nieces and nephews in the WORLD:



I know this may sound a little dramatic, but I'm not a girl who grew up in temperate conditions, I grew up in snow-ville, Idaho, where the snow didn't melt until June and where we actually got snowed in (so we couldn't open the front door and had to dig the dog out of his house!) The roads on this trip crazy at times and I wouldn't have made it without those chains and a lot of prayer, regular calls to my friend John -who reassured me he'd call the local sheriff if I didn't call back- and some help by gas station attendants and random people along the way.

Here's a little recap of my journey:

Before driving to Utah, I had spent a day in panic mode in front of the Internet on the "trip check" road report site, looking at Web cams of snow packed roads and chain advisories and thinking I may not be able to see my fam for Christmas. The Portland airport even closed down for a few days. I planned to drive through the blue mountains, but the road CLOSED along the Columbia Gorge, but being the adventurer that I am (the impractical, risk-my-life on snowy, icy roads girl) I ventured out, after buying new tires and stopping by Les Schab to buy those expensive "do-it-yourself" chains. I plunked down $80 and the Les Schab guy gave me a little lesson on how to strap on the chains (only to discover while laying on the snowy ground with my hands hugging my freezing tire that the lesson the guy gave me included a tire that was suspended in mid-air... how was I to put chain on a tire that was planted on the ground??) Needless to say, I managed to get those things on twice and take them off twice. Something I think everyone should learn how to do!

1 p.m., I've got my chains and I'm headed over Santiam Pass, I plan to drive until I get tired and get a hotel.



The Santiam Pass was my first feat and I pulled over to put on chains with a caravan of about 4 strangers. we helped each other figure things out and I even helped a guy put his chains on! I made it up the pass driving 30 miles per hour the entire way, hanging onto the steering wheel with a death grip and my butt frozen from laying on the snow trying to put my chains on earlier.

What was most eerie about the trip was that at moments, there were so few cars on the road, I was convinced if I went off, they wouldn't find my body until spring.



(It's taken me 5 hours to drive what should have taken 2 1/2 hours!)First stop, almost seduced by the rugged men at the sports bar of Three Creeks cozy restaurant in Sisters, Oregon... after braving the Santiam Pass, I consider staying in Sisters for Christmas

I made it to Sisters by dark, it was freezing and I took the chains off my tires and went inside to warm my hands by the fire and sat at the bar and had "dollar tacos" here. FYI: on Monday night in Sisters, Oregon, men gather to watch football and eat dollar tacos. The men are rugged and cute, it was almost worth the trip over the Santiam Pass (not really.)

Post-traumatic stress about my trek over the Santiam pass... consider turning around, but I don't want to drive over that crazy pass again, so I continued on. (The worst part wasn't driving on snow-packed roads, but merging onto the freeway which felt treacherous



I stayed over night in Bend at a friend of a friend's house, woke up early and headed out again. I started a little later, the sun was out; snow melting off the highway, luckily, but still, not a lot of traffic on the roads.

I stopped to take a breather at little town called Brothers.


Roads are better along this stretch!







This is a super nice lady that helped me look for my wallet, that fell out of my purse while I was thawing at the cafe. If you click on the photo, you can see the advertisement for a COWPOKE BURGER.



Back on the road, next stop: Burns

I almost spent Christmas watching Twilight in Burns and wondering how in the H.E. double hockey sticks a Mormon BYU graduate became a multi-millionaire by writing a love story about a vegetarian vampire. But it wasn't dark yet, so I drove to a town called Buchannan, then diverged a bit to drive to a dinky town called Crane.( I say almost spent Christmas at these random places because I think I timed it just right between storms so I could make it up and down passes to get to Boise.)





Back on the road:


I made it just outside of Burns to a little town called Crane where I almost spent Christmas eating a burger at this place.



But instead, a lady at a little shop called Oards, told me about a hotsprings off the main road, with cabins where I could stay for the night. I wasn't too excited about driving another 3 hours at 30 miles per hour in the dark up to Stinking Water pass, no less.... a place that ran along the river and was very icy. I had a foreboding.... Knowing my flare, I surely was destined to leave this life going over a pass called Stinking Water....

The Crystal Crane hotsprings were amazing and the cabins were toasty warm and really clean. I floated for hours in a hotsprings pond and watched the stars overheard... I felt like I was paddling around in circles through the milky way, it was truly one of the most fantastic experiences.

6 a.m.- snowing, packed snow, enroute to Stinking Water Pass:

The next morning, I woke up early and headed out at 7 a.m. It was snowing and I put my chains on in the dark and headed out into the unknown on packed snow roads. The cows looked really cold, almost frozen and I had bizarre imaginings about running off the road and getting stuck by some remote pasture and having to kill a cow and climb inside the carcass to keep from freezing to death. :) I love my sense of melodrama, it kept me entertained while driving 30 miles per hour ALL DAY.



I was heading up two passes... Stinking Water and Drinkwater. I was a little freaked out actually. It's not that I'm unaccustomed to driving on snowy roads, but it was so early and I was alone with chains on my car. I passed one guy who came motoring down the road in a wimpy looking car. He said he's been driving since 4 that morning from Vail, Oregon and had only seen two other cars on the road, but he didn't have chains, so I figured if he could make it, so could I.





I stopped at a place called Juntura to get biscuits and gravy at the Oasis Cafe.







This is Scott, who's the cook, his fiance owns the place. He insisted I eat the biscuits and gravy while there and not try to eat as I drove (the roads were terrible.) He insisted I take my time driving too- though I was trying to catch a flight. It took me twice as long to get from Juntura to Ontario than it might have, but there roads were terrible, soo much built-up ice in places that I may not have made it had it not been for the chains.



Made it to Ontario, alive and exhausted! Here's a girl at a gas station who's getting into the Christmas spirit.



I made it to Boise and got on a flight, which barely made it up and out of the storm and landed in Salt Lake at 9 p.m. Christmas eve.

Here's the only other paying passengers (besides myself) a couple from Portland who's plane to Salt Lake was cancelled and they had to go later.



The airplane was empty... we had a really short take-off, the pilot had the plane climbing in 5 seconds.




And at last I made it home!!

Mom Sweet Mom!



Home Sweet Home!