On “schoolnights”, when everything happens at helter-skelter pace, it’s always a rush to get home from work, throw a meal together and do the day’s housekeeping before crashing into bed. If I’m lucky Waz has been on an early shift and we can share the evening duties.
So on the weekends we really like to give a lot more time and attention to creating lovely meals that we can enjoy eating at a slower pace.
I thoroughly respect the ideology of the Slow Food Movement – begun in 1986 to celebrate and enjoy local and regional cuisines. So when time permits I love to create meals that embody the Slow Food philosophy of creating the simplest of dishes, with the highest quality ingredients.
Chef Michelle and I recently treated ourselves with a whirlwind weekend trip to the centre of the white truffle universe – the Alba truffle festival in Piemonte near Turin, Italy. We ate a fantastic truffle meal at a Slow Food restaurant with some luscious local Barolo wine. We couldn’t believe our luck the following day when, while roaming the Alba hills, we ran into a local truffle hunter who sold us some white truffles that his little dog had just dug out of the ground.
The white truffle has a pungent, earthy aroma that softens and mellows when you apply heat. When raw it reminds me almost of onion skin and garlic, but slow-roasted garlic or onion fried for a long time over the lowest of heats. The sharp aromas mellow into rich flavours that linger in your mouth and nose long after you’ve swallowed the last mouthful.
So Michelle and I brought our truffles home and tried to recreate our Slow Food truffle meal. Yes, yes, you cynics out there: I admit we weren’t exactly in keeping with Slow Food philosophy by taking a short-haul flying weekend break to source our main ingredient. But we really wanted to take in the whole Alba festival experience.
The thing about Slow Food is you try to use the freshest, highest quality ingredients, sourced as locally as possible. But everyone wants to cook with truffle once in their life (don’t they?), so if you’re lucky enough to be able to get hold of a truffle my suggestion is to do the least you possibly can with it so your dish is “all about the truffle”.
For both these dishes, try to splash out and buy the best quality (yes, that usually means most expensive) ingredients. The creamiest butter, the freshest eggs from the happiest chickens, the right cheese. I’m not sure this meal would work if it were made with bog-standard ingredients. The pasta should be home-made with strong wheat flour and semolina flour and fresh, free-range eggs. If you don’t have a pasta maker (like me at the moment) you can buy fresh pasta. I got mine from Selfridge’s and it was OK (but not, I venture to say, as good as my own would have been).
200g fresh, long, thin pasta (like spaghetti or tagliarini)
75-100g soft, unsalted butter
5g white truffle (tartufi bianchi)
Get a large pot of salted water boiling and drop in the pasta. While it’s cooking, gently melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan – don’t let it sizzle or brown. The pasta will only take a couple of minutes. It should be al dente – with just a little bite to it. Scoop out a mugful of pasta water before very quickly draining the pasta and throwing it in the other pan with the melted butter. You don’t want the pasta to drain fully – you want it to be nice and wet. Give it a gentle stir around in the saucepan so the pasta water and butter emulsify. Add some more pasta water from your mug if the sauce seems at all oily or dry. Carefully lower the pasta onto a pasta plate, and shave half the truffle over each plate of pasta.
At the risk of labouring a point, please use the best, freshest eggs you can in this dish – it will make all the difference. I made a bit of a rookie mistake by using single cream. Double cream is much better because single cream can split. Try to get raschera cheese – which is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese regional to Piemonte, home of the white truffle, and is therefore perfectly matched. If you can’t get raschera, try fontina. Without practice, it’s difficult to know how long to cook this dish to get the perfect consistency, so you could do what we did and prepare four so you can discard the first two if they are undercooked when you test them. The recipe below is enough for 2, but double it if you want to make 4 so you have two test-dishes.
1/2 cup double cream
200g raschera cheese, grated
5g white truffle
Turn the grilll (broiler) on to medium. Butter 2 (about 200ml) medium-sized ramekins and put them on a tray so you can take them in and out of the oven easily. Carefully break the eggs into them, leaving the yolks whole. Carefully pour over the double cream – about the same volume as one egg (a bit less than 1/4 cup). Sprinkle over about the same volume of the grated cheese, so you have about one third egg, one third cream, one third cheese. Slide the ramekins under the grill and watch while they gently heat and turn brown on top. After about 5 minutes, check to see if the mixture is steaming hot and the eggs are on the brink of setting (it is easier to check if you have made extra and can discard them if they’re not done). Sit the ramekins on plates and shave truffle over the top; make sure to tell your guests to stir the truffle into the baked eggs to eat them.