Chez Patricia Wells: A Dinner with Friends and Truffles – Lots of Them
Truffles are fungi, like mushrooms, but much less reliable, since they’re picky about where they grow (they like to take cover under oak trees), can’t be cultivated and can’t be found without the aid of a trained truffle pig (actually, pigs are hardly used these days because they’re huge, strong, obstinate and more likely to eat the truffle than to point you to where it’s at) or a truffle dog to sniff out their underground hiding places. Of course, the aroma of truffles — the writer Peter Kaminsky once brilliantly described their fragrance as “barnyard brothel” — is so intense and, once smelled, so unforgettable, that we ordinary humans could probably sniff them out ourselves if we were willing to keep our noses to the ground.
In fact, it’s not so unfair to say that truffles, which are firm and, when raw, have a slight crunch, are almost all about their amazing fragrance, explaining why you shouldn’t soak them in water, why you want to warm them more than cook them and why you want to keep them in contact with whatever you’re flavoring for as long as you can. So when you store your truffles in a jar of eggs, as Patricia does, you’re ensuring that your morning omelet will be really, really tasty.
We were six for dinner — Patricia and her husband, Walter, Mark Bittman (a.k.a. The Minimalist) and his wife, Kelly Doe, both of whom are working in Paris for a couple of months, Michael, my husband, and moi — and, because this was a working dinner, we had truffles with every course!
Standing in Patricia’s kitchen on the rue Jacob — it’s where she gives her Paris cooking classes — we had spoonfuls of mozzarella topped with truffles, drizzled with a little olive oil and finished with a pinch of Patricia’s truffle salt: a 50/50 mix of fresh truffles and fleur de sel.
Our first course was boiled potatoes, olive oil, salt and, of course, truffles, raw, thickly sliced and mixed with the potatoes as soon as they were drained, so that their warmth would release the full power of the truffles’ fragrance. If you keep in the mind the adage that “what grows together goes together,” then you won’t be surprised to learn that pulled-from-the-earth truffles are particularly good with other underground vegetables, like potatoes, onions, celery root, leeks (oh, they’re so good with leeks) and even beets.
For the plat de resistance, or main course, we had truffle-studded scallops cooked in butter. Walter manned the stove for these and he let the scallops cook for just an instant on their truffled-sides. And while he sauteed the scallop nuggets, Patricia tended to the roe. Scallop roe is not something we see all that often in The States — in fact, for a long time it was banned (it spoils very quickly) and only chefs who had private sources could get them — but when you go to French fish markets, it’s not unusual to find scallops in their beautiful ridged shells, roe, or coral, included.
Roe is an acquired taste and, as near as I can tell, one that even many French people have trouble cottoning to. I’ve been to dinner parties where roe was served and, since it’s impolite not to finish everything that’s put before you, I watched my fellow diners struggle with the roe and glance longingly at their pockets — I could tell that they were trying to connive a way to teleport the little orange and white crescents directly into them. I’d rather leave than take roe, but this night I ate them all and ate them happily. Patricia had managed to do what might have seemed an impossibility — she made them delicious by smoking them! It was the piscine equivalent of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
And then there was the cheese course, a creamy, runny, perfectly ripe wedge of Camembert that Patricia had sliced in half crosswise, stuffed with trufles and wrapped, so that the fat in the cheese would take up the truffles’ perfume. You may have noticed that every dish we had had a little fat of some kind — fat is a great holder and transmitter of flavor and fragrance.
We finished with a pumpkin flan — the only dish served sans truffles.
I know we walked home, but had someone claimed to have seen me floating, I wouldn’t have argued.