Friday, December 31, 2010

Contemplative New Year's Eve Post... For Once, Not About Food

New Year’s Eve has long been one of my favorite days of the year.  I love the notion that we begin each year with a fresh start and energized hope to create a better future. 
The line dividing December 31st from the future rest of our lives is, admittedly, completely fabricated—but so is most of human happiness.  Manipulating our minds into states that let us welcome joy, closeness, and confidence has helped people get through life since human brains evolved enough to experience sadness.  As my younger, more cynical self learned in Social Psychology class, there’s nothing wrong with a little self-delusion to make you feel better about life.  Lasting happiness and positive change require a whole lot of directed thinking, in fact.
So the artificiality of New Year’s doesn’t bother me.  Its arbitrarily fixed date at the end of the calendar just operates as a periodic reminder for you to step back from your life and assess what you’d like to do with it.  The end of the year timing makes it easier for you to ditch the attitudes and habits you’d like to shed, symbolically leaving them in the now oh-so-distant past of “last year.”  Once you’re out of school, life is woefully lacking in that kind of forced chapter break.  
So I make the most of the holiday and write my resolutions every year.  Even if I don’t wind up fulfilling them, I still feel better thinking that I’m moving on to better things.  And that’s more than half the battle.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Miracle of (Truffle) Love

It was an early Christmas miracle... my awesome friend and PR woman extraordinaire Holly Krassner scored me a pass to the non-feast portions of the Napa Valley Truffle Festival! And it was tremendous.

I sat in on the Saturday sessions, following the Grower/Scientist curriculum.  The keynote speech by "Well-seasoned Traveler" Doug Duda kicked things off with fun tales of surly French farmers, overly friendly truffle dogs, and the people who squeal at every mention of the t-word.  Some high notes from the speech and ensuing discussion:
  • video footage of the annual truffle Mass in Richerenches, France, as the congregation deposits fresh Périgord truffles in the collection basket, and the priest blesses the Eucharist with the truffles sitting right up there on the altar next to the chalice;
  • it is legal to bring fresh truffles home to the US in your suitcase, so long as all the surface dirt has been removed;
  • two of the best ways to enjoy fresh Périgord truffles are the classic truffle omelet, and braised sliced celery root topped with truffles; 
  • are Scorpios truly more susceptible to the truffle's sensuous charms than other Zodiac signs? (A subsequent informal poll of the attendees proved inconclusive.)
Thanks to Todd Spanier, the Re dei Funghi (King of Mushrooms), Mr. Duda was able to brandish a real truffle as he delivered his concluding remarks.  Incredibly, no one charged the podium--though many rushed Todd afterwards to pose for a picture with his enormous truffles and silky golden cloths.

The first seminar session I sat in on addressed the science of truffle cultivation, and was led by the shy guy with the German accent who sat next to me at the keynote.  Dr. Alexander Urban, it turns out, is a full professor in the Department of Systematic Evolutionary Botany at the University of Vienna, and author of such sleeper hits as “Frontiers in Ectomycorrhizal Symbioses Explored with Molecular Phylogenetic Methods,” and more recently, “In vitro mycorrhization of clonally propagated woody plants.”  Fortunately, his passion for truffle studies is infectious, which greatly helped the audience digest the dense information on mycorrhizal organisms he presented.  I came away with what felt like a full college quarter under my belt, which I attempted to summarize here for 

Much remains to be deciphered about the truffle fungus' life cycle, particularly the mechanism or process that prompts the fungus to "fruit" and produce the truffle we all want to eat.  Dr. Urban ran through the long history of truffle cultivation attempts in Europe, and noted the key environmental factors essential for the survival of each of the three most desired species of truffles--Burgundy summer, Périgord black, and Italian white.  He showed us wildly varying sites in France, Austria and the Netherlands that all have successfully produced Burgundy and/or Périgord truffles, stoking our lust to break ground on our own orchards, stat.  Then he crushed us with the news that the Italian white, Tuber magnato, whose haunting fragrance and delectable peppery flavor command 4-5 thousand dollars per pound, has thus far resisted human cultivation of any kind.  Woe were we. 

Dr. Paul Thomas of the American Truffle Company stepped up to deliver a short overview of how his company helps would-be truffle farmers create, cultivate, and manage financially successful truffle orchards using lots of scientific monitoring and their accumulated research and experience from partnering with farmers all over the world.  But, since he couldn't very well give away the milk for free, he was pretty tight lipped about the results of his new research into the hormonal communication between truffle fungus and host trees that may prompt fruiting.

After hours of this torturous foreplay, it was finally time for our truffle lunch at La Toque

First course: a roasted chestnut and porcini mushroom soup, garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil, truffled crème fraîche, and generous shavings of Burgundy truffles.

This dish was, quite simply, orgasmic.  The chestnuts had a subtle caramel sweetness that complemented and punctuated the warm earthiness of the mushrooms and pumpkin seeds, as well as the sexy funk from the tender Burgundy truffle slices.

If only I could eat this every day.  And by day I mean hour.

I'm providing a bonus close-up food porn picture for those cold and lonely nights.

The second course of truffle lunch was a juicy chicken breast roulade with black truffle slices tucked discreetly under the skin, and a wonderfully aromatic parmesan broth bathing a medley of black trumpet and chanterelle mushrooms and fresh kale.  This too was delicious, but after that mind blowing soup, it was kinda hard to notice.            
Dessert was a mignardise-type plate of chocolate covered almonds, white chocolate pumpkin seed brittle, and biscotti--none of which contained truffles, disqualifying the plate from appearing in this blog.

After lunch we were off to the brand new, just-planted Périgord and Burgundy truffle orchard at Robert Sinskey Vineyards' Ramal Road property in Carneros, which had been created in partnership with the American Truffle Company. 

Sadly, even I must confess that a truffle orchard in its infancy isn't much to look at.  Anticipating this lack of visual excitement, perhaps, American Truffle Company CEO Robert Chang had accompanied us to help explain the work that had been done, what was being done now, and what was expected in the future.  Bill Collins had also brought his 6-month old Lagotto Romagnolo puppy Enrico  Caruso (Rico for short) to cavort around in the mud and otherwise charm the assemblage with his antics.  Lagotto Romagnolo dogs are the traditional breed used for truffle hunting in Italy, and based on the rooting and digging he demonstrated that day, Rico clearly has it in his blood. 

As we learned about expected yields of truffle orchards, we passed around some extra truffle-inoculated baby trees that hadn't made it into the ground.  Sinskey used two different types of trees for its orchard: live oak, which produces truffles more slowly at first but continues to produce for decades, and filbert (hazelnut) trees, which produce truffles faster than oaks, but also have a shorter productive life.  We got to fondle both.  The picture below is a baby filbert tree with truffle fungus in its roots, which costs about $20.

I was ready to buy one of those trees then and there, but wasn't sure I'd be able to raise my backyard's pH levels in time to get the tree in the ground before winter... and oh yeah, it takes 4-8 years for a tree to start producing truffles. So, not exactly the best impulse buy.  I put away my wallet.

Mr. Chang told us that Sinskey's was the first truffle orchard planted in Carneros, but noted mysteriously that there is another one in the works "near Kenwood," and that several other property owners "in the area" were also starting up some truffle farms.  He was optimistic about Carneros' prospects for truffles, but also very favorably inclined to the Calistoga area.  We shall see... in a decade or so.

The following day, I swung by the Festival's Epicurean Marketplace to check out the wares.  You may recall that this was the $15 portion of the event, but I have to say that this experience was worth far more than the price of admission.  The King of the Mushrooms was there with his queen, who live just a short drive away in San Mateo and who were full of advice on what to do with your real, fresh truffles.  They had set out an assortment of truffle samples they had made, from truffled white polenta squares to truffle infused San Francisco Vodka--a brilliant idea, by the way, that tasted as good as it sounds.  They also were selling fresh truffles right there on the spot... so I bought one.  It was my first, and it was beautiful.

You may be afraid to ask what I did with it, but I will tell you.  First I shaved off its tough outer "bark" with a paring knife to expose its tender, moist interior.  Did I toss these bark-like shavings? Yes, directly into a bottle of fresh vodka to steep for a few weeks.  I have big plans for those cocktails, and not a scrap of truffle went to waste.

So there it was, my denuded and fragrant little beauty.  I rubbed it in butter to protect it from the air until I was ready to chop it up and use it for my decadent dinner of buttery soft scrambled eggs, full on French baveuse style.  Once the eggs were almost set into their gooey custardy perfection, I julienned half the truffle and stirred the slivers in to heat through as the eggs hit their last minute of cooking.  I cook eggs this way a lot using truffle butter to finish them, but this was a totally different experience with the real thing.  Muskier.  Dirtier.  A sordid delight unlike any other.  When it was over, my girlfriend and I both needed a cleansing shower.

On the advice of the Mushroom King, I preserved the other half of my naughty little truffle beyond its natural two week freshness window by chopping it up and covering with cooled clarified butter, then storing in the freezer.  I will be breaking that badboy out at Christmas dinner.  Oh, yes I will.  Whether anyone else in my family gets some is another question entirely.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Snuffling Towards The Inaugural Napa Truffle Festival...

Anyone who has engaged me in social conversation for more than five minutes--or read this article I wrote about Truffle Camp last year--knows of my intense passion for truffles. I rave about them at the slightest opportunity, usually in highly charged and inappropriate language.  I insisted upon a full day, driving rain, middle-of-nowhere detour on my trip to New Zealand so that I could spend the night on an isolated truffle farm and meet the crazy English dude trying to farm these musky miracles--and even though I didn't get a single truffle out of the experience (not a single one had grown that year), I was cranked up like a fiend the whole time.

Not surprisingly, then, I freaked out when I heard that Napa was going to host its very own Truffle Festival December 10-12, 2010 at the Westin Verasa.  An entire weekend of rooting around in truffle farms, truffle cultivation seminars, truffle cooking demos, truffle & wine pairing experimentation, and truffle eating benders prepared by a bevy of Michelin-starred chefs within stumbling distance of my home was almost too much for my reptilian brain to process.  But reality struck with the publication of the ticket prices... which made it abundantly clear that I would not be attending any of the main rooting, fondling, or gorging events--or indeed, any part of the festival besides the Epicurean Marketplace

Oh, to have $595 for the "cheap seats" Grower-Scientist Festival pass! Or, since I'm dreaming, the full $925 for the could-it-be-more-perfectly-named-in-my-honor Truffle Gourmand pass, which entitles the bearer to play scientist and hedonist, with access to ALL of the festival events... including the seven-course truffle orgy at the hands of a team of celebrity chefs 13 Michelin stars strong.  If ever there were a time for me to find a patron willing to sponsor my art of unbridled truffle lust, this would be it! Alas, with only four days left to liftoff, I suspect I will have to continue "creating" on my own dime.

I want to hate the organizers for pricing the passes so high--and seconds later grovel at their feet to let me into their weekend of blissful delirium--but then they had to go and donate a portion of the ticket sale proceeds to Feeding America and The Hunger Project, and make me feel totally guilty for my selfish gluttony.  Doh!  But good on you, Lexus and The American Truffle Company.

If anyone reading this does get to attend the Festival proper, please take lots of pictures, share them here so I can live vicarious through them, and... please, please... smuggle out a pinch of real Perigord truffle dust for me to nuzzle.

(UPDATE: Divine intervention! I got to go... check out my later post for the story of how cool the festival actually was.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Napa's Food Truck Friday Shifts Into High Gear December 3

Downtown Napa is not the only part of town that's buzzing these days.  The tight-knit Oxbow District on the east side of Soscol is bringing a totally different type of block party to town this Friday.  Capitalizing off the success and excitement of the first Food Truck Friday last month (aka "Circle the Wagons"), these trailblazing entrepreneurs have conspired to take December 3rd's event to a whole new level.

As before, the event is BYO wine and beer, and fabulous reusable Go Vino cups are available to purchase for a nominal charge.  That fact alone should be enough to get you to the party, but in addition, all the guest trucks from November's event are returning to rabble rouser/visionary Dim Sum Charlie's parking lot home this month, which is located at 728 First Street just a half block from the Oxbow Public Market.  (See my previous post on these guys if you're not familiar with them.)  You'll have another opportunity to peek inside Crossroad Chicken's truck to check out its wood burning oven (yes!), in which they cook chickens, pizzas, and whatever other tasty items they feel like.  Also don't miss Mark's the Spot, sure to be rocking the crowds again with their fried chicken sliders, chili-spiked French toast kabobs, and other "fine foods, prepared slow, served fast."  And Napa's very first non-taco food truck, Phat Salad & Wraps, will be dishing out tasty chargrilled meats and salads in their signature phat style.

But as I mentioned, this Friday will have even more love to go around, because the Napa trucks will be joined by their cousins from the next wine valley over.  Santa Rosa-based Street-Eatz will be dishing out their globe-trotting menu of international favorites--think agedashi tofu, chile rellenos, pulled pork with jerk sauce, chicken pesto sandwiches, and more.  Their fellow Santa Rosan truck Chicago Style Hot Dogs is bringing their Vienna brand beef franks and poppyseed buns piled high with tomatoes, peppers, onions, yellow mustard, celery salt, pickle spear, and electrifying green relish--or other creative combinations for those not seeking the classic Chicago dog. 
And, Napa will also get a fix of some much-needed Karma.  After nine years of business as an old-school (permanent location) Indian restaurant in Cotati, Karma Bistro took to the streets of Sebastopol and Petaluma this year, peddling a delectable assortment of fragrant curries, samosas, and chaat out of their roving truck.  Before you ask, yes, the chicken they use in all their dishes is Sonoma County's own free range cluckers.

Last, but certainly not least, Gott's Roadside is joining the party at 9pm, with live music by Mad & Eddie Duran, $3 pulled pork sliders, $4 ahi sliders, and free seating to Food Truck Friday patrons with the purchase of a beverage from Gott's (note that before 9, it's business as usual).  Although Gott's doesn't have a truck, they do have a roadside--and that's where the eating gets done.

Rain or shine, the Oxbow will be rockin this Friday, starting at 5pm.  I think everyone knows where they'll be.