Food: The Trouble With Truffles

Shave a few paper-thin slices of white truffle onto a plate of scrambled eggs. Now stand back and admire your handiwork. It may not look like much, but you've just created a dish some chefs list among the most sensual in the world. Few ingredients are as coveted as the Italian white truffle, which just began its brief annual appearance on menus. Disciples of the musky tubers talk about them in mystical terms. "The white truffle is almost indescribable, sublime," says Christophe Eme, chef at Los Angeles's L'Orangerie. "People taste it and then think about it for the rest of the year until they can taste it again."

Well, maybe some people do. At $900 per pound, white truffles are extravagant by any standard, though all you really need is a single ounce. Available from late October through early February, they traditionally grow in the woods of northern Italy's Piedmont region, where trained dogs ferret out the knobby bulbs. A wet summer has yielded a bumper crop, driving prices down about 20 percent from last year. While hardly a bargain, they're more accessible to home cooks than ever.

Prices and quality can vary wildly. www.trufflemarket.com, a golf-ball-size one-ounce truffle sells for $60, while at New York's Dean & DeLuca (www.deananddeluca.com), the same-size tuber runs $106. And a truffle that isn't perfectly fresh is about as sumptuous as a rutabaga. Truffles should be firm, like a potato, and never spongy, says Marcella Hazan, cookbook author and godmother of Italian cuisine. They should have a nice, strong aroma, she adds. And they should be eaten as soon as possible after purchase.

As a birthday present for her husband, Victor, Hazan sometimes makes a dish layering boiled potatoes, generous amounts of truffle shavings and Parmesan, baked until the cheese and a bit of butter on top melt. (She figures it costs about $100 per serving.) But truffles are typically eaten raw, shaved over a simple dish like a light risotto or fettuccine with butter and Parmesan. Specialty cooking stores like Williams-Sonoma (williamssonoma.com) and Sur La Table (surlatable.com) sell truffle slicers for less than $25, but a sharp potato peeler will work just fine. Novices, beware: fans say the worst thing about truffles isn't the price, it's the fact that they're habit-forming.

Food: The Trouble With Truffles | News