Truffles For The Masses
Urbani Truffle Thrills
Reviewed by Brook Elliott
Posh: adj. Elegant, fashionable, high falutin; typical of, or intended for, the upper classes.
When it comes to posh foods, it doesn’t take much thought to make a list which fits that definition: Caviar, champagne, fois gras, lobster---and, perhaps the poshest of the posh, truffles---come immediately to mind.
At one time, any of these foods was the sure sign of grace and sophisticated dining. Now they are, alas, so over-used as to be pitiful. Expensive ingredients strewn, willy-nilly, over any dish they’ll fit on---whether the flavors compliment each other or not.
Just watch any celebrity chef, particularly if there’s a competition involved. Caviar is spooned over everything. Fois gras and lobster matched with things they don’t pair with. And some of the things being done with champagne shouldn’t happen to a jug wine.
When it comes to truffles, chefs and foodies, unfortunately, go particularly wild. Doesn’t seem to matter what’s on the plate, truffles are shaved over it, in a case of culinary conspicuous consumption unparalled in history. If they can’t find (or afford) the whole fungi, they’re pouring truffle oil like it was water.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the flavor and aroma of truffles. When properly matched they take great food and make it even better. But it’s just as true that a little goes a long way
Thus, I was a bit concerned when Urbani sent samples of their new Truffle Thrills sauces for me to try. My fear was that these premixed sauces (which, btw, are a great way for the company to market “breakings,” the small bits and pieces that result from handling truffles in mass) were just another way for cooks to smugly overpower their dishes with the earthiness of truffles.
As it turns out, my concerns were all but groundless. Whoever formulated these sauces knows his fungi. With one exception, the flavors of the sauces are perfectly balanced. The truffles are not an overwhelming presence, but add just enough of their taste to elevate the sauces to a new level. The one exception isn’t a case of overuse, as we’ll see, but a questioning of whether the truffles are really needed.
Each of the sauces---there currently are eight of them---comes in a 6.1 ounce can, with the truffles representing 3% of the whole. According to Urbani, a serving portion is two ounces, which means each can of sauce feeds two to four people. That can be a real stretch, however, particularly if you use the sauce straight, rather than as an ingredient in another product.
If you expect anything made with truffles to be expensive, you won’t be disappointed with the Truffle Thrills. But it pays to shop around, as the price variance is huge. At Urbani’s site (www.urbanitrufflesonline.com), and, presumably, in their recently opened retail outlet in New York, they sell for $9.95 each. But I’ve seen them, at other sites, for as much as fourteen bucks a throw. Typically, they come in two-packs from most suppliers, while Urbani puts them up in singles, twins, and four-packs.
Given the small amount of sauce in each can, I tested them on dishes that, by intent, lacked very strong flavors of their own. What I wanted was the sauce to star, for good or ill. Here’s a run-down of the four I tried:
According to Urbani, one can can serve four. But that’s really pushing things. I found a can to be an adequate serving for two portions. You could, of course, stretch that by adding the sauce to, say, a béchamel, in which case there’s enough truffle to perfume the sauce, but not heavily flavor it---not a bad approach of its own.
For this one, I mixed the sauce with pasta and plain grilled chicken. It had very good consistency and flavor, with specks of truffle uniformly mixed through the sauce. If anything, it was slightly on the salty side, which may have been the cheese. An ideal quantity for two when used as a pasta sauce. Truffle flavor comes through without being overpowering.
Ingredients: cherry tomatoes 73%, slivers of dry-slated ricotta, water, extra virgin olive oil, summer truffle breakings 3%, basil, maize starch (thickener), salt, sugar, aroma, citric acid #330 (acid corrector).
For this one, I expanded the volume with about ½ cup of tomato puree, and served it over chicken-filled ravioli. A great dish, with just enough truffle flavor to add a rich, earthy tone, especially as I used a light hand with the herbs and spices mixed with the chicken filling (poached chicken, sautéed shallot and chopped mushroom, salt, pepper, and just enough ricotta to bind). The sauce came as close to being perfect for this dish as possible. If necessary, even more puree could be used to dilute the Urbani product further, perhaps as much as another quarter cup. After that I think the truffle flavor would be diluted too much.
Ingredients: champignon mushrooms 66.2%, extra virgin olive oil, sunflower oil, summer truffle breakings 3%, salt, maize starch, grana pedano cheese, parsley, aroma, garlic, sepia ink, lemon juice, black pepper.
This is the one time I combined a Truffle Thrill with a dish that had plenty of flavor of its own. In this case, I used the Urbani product as an under sauce for a pizza whose toppings included browned ground turkey in tomato sauce, caramelized red onions, several cheeses, and a top sauce of spiced tomato puree. The truffle was strong enough to perfume the entire pie, adding earthy flavor notes but letting the other flavors come through.
Ingredients: basil 19%, extra virgin olive oil, grana padano cheese 10%, milk whey powder, vegetable fibers, trehalose (glucose), summer truffle breakings 3%, pecorino romano cheese, salt, pine nuts, milk proteins, citric acid, ,E330 acidity balancer, garlic powder.
Here is where we flirt with using truffles for their own sake, rather than as a contributing flavor. I used it directly out of the can, as a sauce on pan fried cod filets. Used that way, one can could have served four.
Flavor of the sauce was good and complimented the fish. I felt, however, that given the layers of strong flavors in the pesto, the use of truffles was unnecessary. Not bad, you understand, just not needed. Truffle flavor was evident, but would not have been missed if it were absent.
Overall, I’m pleased with the Truffle Thrills, and would recommend them highly, especially as a way of affordably experimenting with the essence of truffle. Most of us, sadly, cannot afford the actual fungi, and, unlike the celebrity chefs and their seemingly unlimited budgets, can’t slice and grate truffles with abandon. These sauces provide a way around that economic hardship. Plus they’re tasty in their own right.