The thing about truffles is that not that many Americans actually ever eat them, or honestly even know what they are, but we’re supposed to know that they are amazing.
Turn on any cooking show on the Food Network and you’ll eventually hear a chef waxing poetic about these knobby little darlings, but still not have any idea what they taste like.
Chef Todd Gray of Equinox, a restaurant now in its second decade just a stone’s throw from the White House, loves truffles and is happy to showcase them at his restaurant during truffle season, which lasts from October through January. A truffle is basically a type of fungus that grows at the base of trees, often unearthed by dogs or pigs that are specially trained to root them out. The white truffle is most commonly found in the Piedmont region of Italy, although there is an American variety found in Oregon.
The cost? “Around $1,500 to $1,700 a pound,” says Chef Gray. “We currently source our truffles from Alba, Italy but have procured domestically as well. They are definitely in short supply — it always depends on the harvest. We have a vendor that we have been working with for over 20 years so he always takes care of us — it’s definitely a relationship thing to get the best truffles and pricing.”
To put it into context, a pound of truffles is a lot of truffles. A somewhat standard truffle, about the size of a small potato, would cost more in the range of $150 to $200, and, used carefully, could be added to many dishes. Chef Gray calls the flavor “earthy and deeply woodsy with a slightly pungent raw garlic nasal sensation.” It’s a flavor that complements eggs really well, according to the chef, as well as fettuccine with butter: “Those ingredients allow the true flavor of the truffle to come through.”
While Gray uses truffles across his menu with everything from beef carpaccio to macaroni and cheese, he’s also showcasing this tasty fungus in a special way at Equinox during truffle season with the White Truffle Vegan Brunch, which may scare omnivores, but shouldn’t. The rich flavor of truffles is a perfect pairing with vegetable-based dishes and Equinox is going beyond the standard bacon-and-eggs brunch with a truffled pumpkin soup with spiced pecans, a lentil cassoulet with slow-cooked golden beets and caramelized Brussels sprouts and a spiced Bartlett pear stuffed French toast. The assorted sweets are served with a white truffle crème anglaise that is so creamy and decadent, you’ll never know it’s dairy free.
If you’re looking for a cost-effective way to add white truffles to your own cooking, you can try using white truffle oil to add that earthy undertone to soups and egg dishes; just be careful not to overdo it, as a few drops added just before serving is all it takes — there is such a thing as too much truffle. White truffle powder is another option: a small amount can be kneaded into pasta dough, incorporated into a compound butter or mixed into mashed potatoes or polenta. Avoid using truffles with citrus-based or acidic dishes, as the flavors will just fight against each other and the truffle will ultimately be the loser. Once you start playing with truffles, it’s hard not to get hooked on trying out new ways to highlight a new flavor profile.
If you want to impress your Thanksgiving guests, Gray suggests that the earthy flavor fits in well at the holiday table.
“Thanksgiving truffles would be amazing with chestnut stuffing or white bean soup, or apple pie with white truffle ice cream — just make sure they aren’t served with cranberries.”
Equinox is located at 818 Connecticut Ave., N.W.: equinoxrestaurant.com. Chef Todd Gray’s Market Vegan Brunch is served every Sunday, $30 per person, but add $20 if you’d like freshly shaved truffles on your dishes as well.
Kristen Hartke is managing editor of Edible DC, writes about cocktails at goodbooze.wordpress.com, and is saving up for her very own truffle.